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My New Party Hat

Lucy by John Vorhaus [1]
Lucy by John Vorhaus

Friends, I have a question for you: If I told you that I wasn’t a practicing writer anymore, would you kick me out of this community? If I told you that my entire creative axis has shifted from verbal to visual, would you assume that I no longer had anything relevant to say to writers? Or would you read my claim for the lie it is, given the fact of my having written these words here?

Maybe you’ll do the smart thing and recognize that distinctions among all forms of creative expression are just that – distinctions – and that the thing that links us all is our creative practice, no matter what form of execution that practice happens to take. With that in mind, I’d like to share a bit of what I’ve learned about art lately, and how it reflects on writing, too.

One thing I’ve learned is that a drawing starts with an idea, just as a novel does, or a poem, or a play, or a piece of music. The journey from idea to finished business traverses a landscape of versions – iterations – including sketches, studies, false starts, dead ends, botched details, blind alleys, bent perspectives, and images that just… plain… break… As with writing, music, performance, or any other creative aim, versions – iterations – are the key. With my sketches, I realize that if I’m not doing a lot of versions, I’m probably not doing it right. Those versions amount to my exploration of the idea, and just as with a novel or with anything, in the end I’ll have to know much more about the idea than it’s ever appropriate to show. Therefore, for better or worse (at this stage of the game mostly much worse), I set out to explore.

I start by setting a modest goal. Maybe I only want to draw a face with an interesting smile. Modest goals serve me because I’m not at all afraid of them. Here again my longstanding practice of writing and my emerging practice of drawing overlap. I know from way back that setting modest goals for a writing project keeps my expectations low, and with lower expectations comes better performance. That’s a handy awareness to have as I set out to do something I’ve never done before – make art – and am probably not very good at. Whether in pictures or in words, most every creative practitioner is kind of crap at the outset. The smart ones set the goal to “just be less crap,” as that’s an expectation than can easily be met, without pressure and without fear.

So I do a drawing. It doesn’t work. I do it again. Still doesn’t work. I ball up the paper and throw it away. Try a different pencil. Still doesn’t work. But… it’s working less badly now, and the more I apply lines and shapes and colors, the less badly it seems to work. Eventually the drawing will succeed… or it won’t. Those are the only two outcomes there are: Either I make something that pleases me and I move on, or I make a mess I can learn from and I move on. That doesn’t sound so bad. That sounds like healthy, good practice.

Do I fear failure? No, I don’t. At this point in my practice there are no failures, only happy accidents. Every time I pick up a pencil I anticipate happy accidents, and they happen. How can they not? There’s so much I don’t know about drawing that I’m always in uncharted territory. I’m quite at home in uncharted territory. Always have been. Maybe that’s why my road has led me here.

And it’s such an interesting place to be. After all these years of self-defining as a writer, I’m self-defining as a drawer. (Does “drawer” look funny to you? It surely does look funny to me, but I can’t quite bear to call myself an artist yet, so “drawer” it is.) One thing I have going for me is all those years. I have a ton of writing tools that work just as well in art. I know how to put in my hours. I know how to break things down. I know how to look at process. I know how to problem-solve. I know how to handle rejection. I imagine that this would all be much harder for me if I were much younger in my art.

If you’re young in your art, or young in your words, you’re bound to have insecurities, heaps and piles of them. Sometimes it will seem like you’ve got nothing but insecurities. I know that feeling well. I remember it from my past. But I don’t experience it now, and that’s just thanks to the passage of time. So here I would say that if you’re young, don’t worry, you’ll outgrow it. And if that doesn’t help, you can always remember the twenty-year rule: If it won’t matter in twenty years it doesn’t matter now.

I’ve always defined my business model as, “Walk down the beach, pick up everything you find, and turn it into a party hat.” I’ve got a new party hat now. It’s a comfortable fit, but it’s not my only interest so, if it’s okay with you, as long as my art keeps having something to say about my writing, I’ll keep on sharing with you what I learn.

What new party hats are you dying to try on? What would happen if you tried one today? Or let’s make it more simple: What was the last genuinely new thing you learned?

About John Vorhaus [2]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!

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