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 —  

Creative name calling

Every artist was first an amateur.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Shopping at Michael’s last summer, I was paying for an armload of craft supplies when a chatty customer behind me asked what I was planning to make.

“€œYou must be an artist,”€ she said, after I told her I was starting a new collage.

Me, an artist?

I’d been fooling around with altered books and other paper arts for several months, but never used the word artist€ to describe myself. Art was just a diversion — something I did for fun when I wasn’t writing magazine articles or cleaning house. “Artist”€ was a title I reserved for the seriously gifted creator. It evoked poetic images of men and women laboring in light-filled studios, producing museum-quality masterpieces. Most artists I knew had fine arts degrees and exhibited their work in galleries. Like Benedictine monks, artists occupied sacred space in another world.

So I blushed when I told the other customer that, no, I’m not really an artist. Just a person who dabbles. A crafter.

Labels of any kind, social or political, make me nervous. Driving home with my new art supplies that afternoon, I remembered how long it had taken me to call myself a writer.  I’d worked five years for a reference book publisher before I sold my first review to a local newspaper. Several freelance assignments followed; then I published the first of several essays in a national magazine. Even then, I felt like a fraud whenever I used the word writer to describe myself in social situations. Real writers and authors wrote critically acclaimed bestsellers. They had agents in New York and regaled Terry Gross with clever anecdotes on NPR.  Journalists like me wrote pieces that ended up as birdcage liner (or scraps in a collage).

At some point, every writer struggles with the same identity crisis. As Anne Lamott notes in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Pantheon Books), there is “€œsomething noble and mysterious about writing, about the people who could do it well, who could create a world as if they were little gods or sorcerers.”€ But whether we write or paint, sew or sketch, what we call ourselves is far less important than honoring — and believing in — our own creativity.

In his landmark bestseller, Care of the Soul (HarperCollins Publishers), Thomas Moore insists that art is our birthright. He urges all of us to pull €œ”The Arts”€ down from the pedestal that renders them too precious. He reminds us that everyone is an artist when his or her work is crafted with soul and passion.

“€œArt is not found only in the painter’s studio or in the halls of a museum,” Moore writes. “€œIn fact, when art is reserved as the province of professional artists, a dangerous gulf develops between the fine arts and the everyday arts.”€

I often remind students in my writing workshops that every art or craft is as much about process as it is about product. It’s not about marketing or publishing or making a name for yourself. When you’re totally engaged in the act of creating something you love –€“ whether you’re searching for the perfect word for a sentence or a luminous shade of blue for a watercolor background — you know you’re on the right path. Meanwhile, removing the pressure to produce a masterpiece€ makes the process even more fun.

These days I head for my art studio whenever I’m blocked or need a creative nudge. And when my life feels like a series of disparate parts that don’t make sense, the paper arts are wonderfully therapeutic. Crafting a collage, like writing an essay, requires that I look at my world in new ways. I hunt for beauty in places I’ve overlooked before: tool boxes; hardware stores; recycle bins. I delve for possibilities in thrift shops and my own junk drawers. Every object is sacred, and even my junk mail is worthy of a second look. Everything has a story waiting to be told –“ not necessarily in words, but in shape, form, texture, and color.

Am I an artist? Maybe that’s not for me to say. Today, when people ask what I do, I tell them I love making art — and encourage them to do the same. — CL

How about you? Do you enjoy an art, a craft, or other creative activities on a regular basis? Which “art” would you practice if you had more time?

— Both photos with this essay were taken (by me) in the art studio I share with my husband, Doug La Ferle, who is rightfully proud to call himself an artist. A slightly different version of this essay was published in Strut, which is now out of print. —