Never Finished, Only Abandoned

Teresa Wong, fellow Gotham teacher, did me the huge favor of dropping in on my memoir class recently to talk about her graphic memoir, Dear Scarlet, and the graphic memoir she’s working on now, All Our Ordinary Stories, which will come out next year.
And she said something about Dear Scarlet that really surprised me: “I am a little bit embarrassed at some of my drawings in my book.”
Why should this surprise me? Authors talk constantly about how they open their published books and find sentences, paragraphs, chapters they want to take another run at. Every writer I know can quote Leonardo Da Vinci: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
To me, a reader, Teresa’s book seemed as though it must be exactly what she intended: A heartfelt and moving story about her experience with post-partum depression.
But no story is ever what the writer first envisioned.
“The pictures in my head are much more beautiful and well rendered than the ones I can actually draw,” Teresa said. “That’s a creative phenomenon that everyone has. It’s always going to be better in your head.
“But then you have to realize that if it’s beautiful in your head, it doesn’t really mean anything. Because no one else can see it.”
And that’s the salient point. It’s wonderful, really, to love a story in your mind. To love the idea, or how it might move people, how it might sound, or look, or feel.
As long as you don’t get too hung up on that perfect story that doesn’t actually exist. Yet.
That’s a kind of perfectionism that’s especially self-defeating. Unchecked, it can feed a writer’s imposter syndrome, and paralyze you even further.
Author Athena Dixon, whose memoir The Loneliness Files is forthcoming this fall, has written and spoken extensively about imposter syndrome, and says that kind of perfectionism can warp your own perceptions of your work.

“Any small mistake makes [perfectionists] question their competence,” Dixon wrote in the anthology Getting to the Truth. But, if “you can give yourself credit for what you are doing well, it will make what you have to ‘fix’ less overwhelming.”
If you’re asking whether the version of the story you write (or the picture you draw) is as good as the one you envisioned, you’re asking the wrong questions.
“It’s better to ask, does it communicate? Does it reach people?” Teresa said. “As long as you communicate, you’re golden.”
If you do get that sinking feeling when you’re writing, that this story will never be what you’d hoped, remember that most likely, what you were picturing was a story that would move people. Other people. Who don’t live in your head. And for it to do that, you have to let go, let it out, and let it be what it’s going to be.
“To exist, it has to be a little bit flawed,” Teresa said. “But then at least it can be shared, right?”

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty

Digging Deeper (Clichés Part 2)

My grandmother Eleanor (who you might remember from my letter awhile back about her broccoli-cheese casserole) was the person who taught me the expression, “It takes all kinds.”

It’s an abbreviation of the longer saying, “It takes all kinds to make up the world.” And Grandma loved it, because to her the world was a vibrant place full of interesting people she couldn’t wait to chat up at Jewel. When I was a bratty 13-year-old saying, “Look at that hair!” or “What is that weirdo doing?”, Grandma would tell me to be less judge-y and more open by saying, “It takes all kinds.”

“Just imagine how boring this world would be,” she’d say, “if everyone were exactly like you, or me!”

This is really good advice for judge-y 13-year-olds, and writers, too. It reminds us to be open to the strangeness of the world, and the people who make it interesting.

But also, it doesn’t go far enough. Because “it takes all kinds” is what psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton called a “thought-terminating cliché.”

A thought-terminating cliché is one that immediately wraps things up, a little too neatly, so that no one probes any deeper. Think of phrases like “It’s always darkest before the dawn” or “It is what it is.”

They can be dangerous, Lifton wrote, because they “compress the most far-reaching and complex of human problems into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”

Already you can imagine all kinds of scenarios where this would be disastrous for a writer. A character says, “All things must pass,” and brings a funeral scene to an abrupt, unsatisfying end. An essayist takes 2,000 words to explore their family’s experiences with immigration, starting fresh, and loneliness, but ends with, “A stranger in strange land.”

Last month, I wrote that it’s OK to let clichés flow into our early drafts, as long as we go back and weed them out. We need to keep an especially watchful eye out for thought-terminating clichés. Because when they show up, we should ask ourselves, “What are you avoiding?”

Probably something uncomfortable. But important.

Once, Grandma and I together watched a story on the evening news about men who observed Good Friday by re-enacting Christ’s crucifixion, complete with having themselves actually nailed to crosses. I must’ve said something like, “That’s nuts,” because Grandma put her hand on mine and said with such tenderness, “It takes all kinds, honey. Remember that.”

She died five years ago, so I cannot ask her what she really thought of the penitents and their devotion. Did Gram, a lifelong Catholic, imagine those men getting closer to their faith? Or did she think perhaps they only brought themselves closer to the cruelty of the world?

Clichés happen. Next time you see one, though, don’t let it shut you down. Do what I wish I’d done with Grandma—ask for more.

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty

Being a Cliché Czar

Baltimore and San Francisco have Food Czars. London has a Night Czar. In New York City, recently, we’ve got a Czar too: a Rat Czar, whose sole mission is to eradicate unwanted vermin.
I, too, have been similarly single-minded in advocating for eradication. And I’m not alone. Writing teachers, the authors of craft books, and apparently the editor in chief of The Atlantic—we’ve all vowed to rid the world of the scourge of clichés.
And look, we’re not wrong. Clichés —sayings so overused they’re flatter than the wonton wrappers on the spring rolls I over-ate Friday night — suck the fresh air out of your writing. They make it stale.
So we shouldn’t be surprised when our fellow writers read their own stories and are dismayed to discover phrases like “time heals all wounds,” “dumb as a box of hair,” or “bright as a shooting star.” In class, students beat themselves up if just one slips into their work after a 10-minute writing exercise.
Here’s the thing: When we’re telling you to exterminate clichés, we mean in the final draft.
Sometimes, early on, it’s OK to let the rats into your kitchen, so to speak.
Because clichés can be our friends.
I don’t have research to back this up, so this might end up being the most crack-potty of my many crackpot hypotheses, but I believe that clichés are signals from our subconscious. They’re surveyors’ stakes, saving your place so that when you’ve finished pouring out your story, you find your way back to where rich deposits of meaning lay buried, and dig.
Let’s say you write in an early draft “slippery as a fish.” Perhaps your subconscious wants you to stop and smell the slime. Maybe it wants you to consider why a character can’t hold what’s slippery. Perhaps it’s figurative, and the reason something is hard, or elusive, is critical to your story.
A cliché like that is doing you a favor, as long as you don’t let it linger.
The late comedian and author Bob Smith once gave me a page from a draft of his novel Remembrance of Things I ForgotBob was trying to work out one sentence, describing a character’s smile. And instead of deleting each attempt that he rejected, he kept them, filling a single-spaced page of all of his misfires. Several of those early tries are straight up clichés. Real clunkers, too. We’re talking banana peels and ice skates.
But as you read, you can see Bob zeroing in on the clichés, pulling them apart, writing fresh takes in the same vicinity, until, finally, he arrives at the just-right one. Take a look here, and you’ll see what I mean.
It’s how we should all approach clichés. It’s not about keeping the rats out of the kitchen. It’s about being vigilant, and not letting them get too comfortable.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty