Fly your own bird

“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 —  

Anna gets her cake

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”– Anna Quindlen

I was in awe of Anna Quindlen’s writing when I started reading her syndicated New York Times column, “Life in the Thirties.” Her highly personal yet carefully crafted reflections on being a woman in the 1980s struck a resonant chord. As Publishers Weekly put it, Quindlen shared our “chronology of adulthood,” from college to marriage to children. Even readers who didn’t subscribe to her political views were charmed by her writings on parenthood.

“The Lightning Bugs Are Back,” included in her Living Out Loud collection (1988), is possibly one of the loveliest tributes to childhood ever written. “The lightning bugs are my madeleine, my cue for a wave of selective recollection,” Quindlen wrote. “My God, the sensation the other night when the first lightning bug turned on his tail too soon, competing with daylight during the magic hour between dusk and dark.”

I’ve been hooked ever since.

Several novels and column collections later, Quindlen is back with Plenty of Candles, Lots of Cake, her memoir crafted on the cusp of age 60. Quindlen has acquired a house in the country and Botox treatments for a wrinkled brow. She’s less attached to the “stuff” she’s accumulated. Her three kids are grown. And she stopped going to Mass.

While Plenty of Candles includes a couple of sweet-but-predictable pieces about friendship and parenting, Quindlen goes deeper in this collection. In “The Little Stories We Tell Ourselves,” she considers the damage inflicted on American women: “We have a culture that elevates women in advertisements who are contoured like thirteen-year-old boys, a culture that showcases actresses on television so undernourished that they look like bobblehead dolls…. In other words, we have a culture that reflects contempt and antipathy toward a realistic female body.”

Her essay on faith and why she left the Catholic church is brave and complex (and ambivalent in places). It must have been difficult for Quindlen to go public with it. “At some level I may have lost my religion, despite the deep talons of its traditions and forms within me,” she writes. “But I’ve never lost, and will never lose, my faith.”

Married more than three decades to Gerry Krovatin, Quindlen also tackles the thorny subject of marriage. “I tell my children that the single most important decision they will make is not where to live, or what to do for a living, it’s who they will marry,” she writes. Still in love with Krovatin, Quindlen praises his loyalty: “He may not remember our social schedule or the names of some of our kids’ friends, but he never forgets who wrote the bad review of my last book. And woe betide that individual if they ever meet him at a cocktail party.”

No longer “muddling through the middle,” as she described her life in Living Out Loud, Quindlen embraces maturity without fear or regret: “That’s the hallmark of aging, too, that we learn to go deeper, in our friendships, in our family life, in our reflections on how we live and how we face the future.”  — CL

Note: Anna Quindlen’s son recently interviewed her for The Christian Science Monitor. Click here to read the interview.