If you’re a creative of any stripe, you may recognize the twinge of embarrassment that comes from looking at the art you made when you were young. I know I do! In the wake of finishing my YA fantasy novel The Place Where Magic Begins, I dove back into the archives to read the 300,000 or so words that adolescent Tom logged toward an epic fantasy quintet called The Three Kingdoms.
It was, how do you say, cringe.
To wit: the clunky, repetitive prose is a bad pastiche of J.R.R. Tolkien’s deft archaism in Lord of the Rings. The plot beats are lifted almost wholesale from Tolkien, Star Wars, and/or Harry Potter, with a couple elements pilfered from Richard III and Robert Louis Stevenson’s swashbucklers as well. The characters are flat, thinly veiled versions of myself and my closest friends in middle and high school. The moral universe of the books is simplistic, a black-and-white battle between clearly defined Good and clearly defined Evil. As I said in the last blog in this series, I knew that I wanted to write, but I didn’t know what I wanted to say.
Of course, I didn’t recognize that as a kid – I was just excited to be writing a novel! That’s how we learn, after all: by imitating the people we admire. Without those first, derivative attempts, none of us would ever go on to become writers at all. In fairness, too, there was something charmingly nostalgic about seeing some of the characters, locations, and story-threads from The Place Where Magic Begins here in embryotic, nigh-unrecognizable form. It was easy, too, to see how twelve-year-old Tom was trying to process his parents’ divorce, his mom’s house burning down in a forest fire, and his first adolescent crush through the medium of fiction.
Though I’ve changed a lot since my pubescent days, when it comes to making sense of my life—messy breakups and mental breakdowns, personal tragedies and social injustices—I still turn to art first. To be clear, art is not replacement for therapy. I found that out the hard way when my unmedicated bipolar disorder (and an abusive partner) landed me in a psych ward for a week in 2017. I got some great work out of that period of my life – but I might have been better served by a counselor and meds.
That said, art can absolutely be therapeutic. The first paragraphs of The Place Where Magic Begins were written from my hospital bed, and my main character Ana’s struggles with severe anxiety and self-acceptance are rooted in my own. There’s no one recipe for great art, but I’ve often found that the work that moves me most deeply is that which is most deeply grounded in the author’s personal experience. That might be the self-revelatory poetry of Allen Ginsburg, the childlike wonder of Brian Wilson’s pocket symphonies, or the way that Professor Tolkien wove his philological obsessions, traumatic service in WWI, and Catholic faith into the sagas of Middle-earth.
To quote the psychologist Carl Rogers, “What is most personal is most universal.” In witnessing others’ truth, refracted through the prism of fiction or painting or music or poetry or what have you, I’m able to connect more deeply with my own truth and become open to the joy and pain, the triumphs and tragedies, of others. This is the soil in which empathy and compassion can germinate, and it is one of the most important functions of art.
When St. Francis of Assisi was on his deathbed, he told his friends and fellow-brothers, “I have done what was mine to do; may Christ teach you what you are to do.” Not what people in general are to do, but what YOU are to do. Each of us has a story—or rather stories—that only we can tell, that pull together the threads of our lives and loves and losses and bind them into works of beauty and power.
However, there’s a great temptation, in art as in everything else, to reproduce what’s already popular or “saleable,” to scissor away the unique contours of our vision to suit the gaze of agents or the public. There’s also a kind of inverse temptation to focus so intently on being original that we forget to be honest. But to quote C.S. Lewis, “no man [sic] who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
There’s no such thing as a completely unique idea. What there is, though, is a unique experience, a unique person, whose story (or poem, or song, or…!) cannot but be unique, too, when wrought with authenticity and heart. The art cannot help but reflect back the image of the artist who created it. My hope and prayer, then, is that we all might discern what is True for us, and then find the courage to tell it as only we can.
Happy writing, friends.