Fly your own bird

Posted on February 12, 2014
Filed under Columns & essays, Just for writers, My artwork | 6 Comments | Email This Post

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” — Oscar Wilde

DSCN0126One of my favorite episodes on the hilarious Portlandia series is the one that popularized the phrase: “Put a bird on it.” Now listed in urban dictionaries, the expression refers to any creative trend that’s become so common that it’s a cliche. If you haven’t seen the episode, think of the times you’ve visited a boutique or gallery and noticed how many items are embellished with a bird. You get the idea.

On the topic of originality, freelance writer Pam Houghton recently posted several excellent tips on building a satisfying career. For me, the tip that resonated most was the one emphasizing the importance of listening to your own voice — instead of following trends.

“Some people make success look easy,” Pam wrote. “The times I tried to imitate them never worked even after repeated attempts….I had no choice then but to step back and ask, what is it that I do well?”

Pam’s post got me thinking about my early years as a journalist in the 1980s. I was a huge fan of New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen, whose “Life in the Thirties” pieces were so fresh that I wished I’d written them. I wanted to draw “aha!” moments from my readers, like Quindlen did every week. I wanted to be a family columnist, but how could I hold a candle to Anna Quindlen?

Then there was Anne Lamott, who wrote the exquisite memoir, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, and lots of juicy essays for Salon. Add to the fact that I also admired essayist Annie Dillard, and you’ll get why I considered adopting my middle name, Anne, as a pen name. The Annes and Annas were rocking the writing world.

On one hand, I learned something about my own taste — and writing goals — when I examined the nuts and bolts of their work. Quindlen spun the personal into the political; Dillard brought both depth and poetry to her nonfiction; Lamott broke rules and made me laugh out loud.

Luckily, I stopped short of stealing their pet adjectives or mimicking their styles. But it took a while to feel confident in my own voice.

It’s tempting to reach for something quick and easy — a bird? someone else’s idea? — when we’re timid or lazy. (As a mixed-media artist, I’ve been guilty of pasting too many birds on my collages.) Of course, it’s natural to follow trends when we’re starting out, whether we’re designing furniture or writing poetry. And while it’s true that we learn by observation, the trick is to avoid getting stuck in copycat mode. (Plagiarism is illegal, period.)

Being an original is twice as hard in the digital age. Everyone is chirping for attention, building a platform, following trends. The biggest challenge is to keep stretching your wingspan, then landing on something that’s truly your own.

– Artwork by Cindy La Ferle; copyright 2012 —  

Comments

6 Responses to “Fly your own bird”

  1. Debbie on February 12th, 2014 2:57 pm

    Your name comment is ironic, Cindy, as I recently attended a DWW conference and there were at least three Cindys or Cynthias:) Nice piece–I think your sentiment may explain why writers feel the need to get away, although I suspect even that is cliché by now!

  2. Cindy La Ferle on February 12th, 2014 4:01 pm

    Debbie,
    Thank you…and my mother almost named me Debbie!!

  3. Lisa @ Grandma's Briefs on February 13th, 2014 10:16 am

    Excellent reminder. I’ve always loved Anna, Anne and Annie, too (and my middle name truly is Anne). I also appreciate and wish I could be more like Connie Schultz. Love her… but will simply do my best to be me.

    Thank you for this, Cindy. ♥

  4. Cindy La Ferle on February 13th, 2014 11:16 am

    Lisa Anne, that middle name explains why you’re a fantastic writer! Thanks for your comment and for sharing the post!

  5. Ronni Ann Hall on February 16th, 2014 5:50 pm

    Hi Cindy. Wanted to thank you for taking the time to say HI and stopping by my website.

    I love Portlandia’s “put a bird on it” and yes, I probably went through my stage of drawing too many birds myself while trying to find my own style. I love the message you just gave us. A good reminder to dive in and be authentic with your beautiful closing words “stretching your wingspan.” Indeed! I am trying.

  6. joanna jenkins on February 17th, 2014 11:34 pm

    “Portlandia is on show on my “to view” list but I love “put a bird on it”. I hadn’t heard that before.
    Thanks for the solid advice and reminder about listening to you own voice.
    Hope you are staying warm!
    xo jj

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