Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Children are wonderful. They’re born knowing more than we’ll ever teach them. In some ways, I think we spend their young lives squeezing all the truest things out of their little hearts and replacing them with the tools we’ve collected for survival. My children, for example, will gladly sit down with a beautiful, clean sheet of quality drawing paper, pick up a marker, make three miniscule squiggles in various quadrants of the page, then present me with their finished work of art. The younger they are, the greater their sense of triumph when they hand me their masterpiece. As a typical adult, I often cringe. I bought the good paper. Why did I buy the good paper? Next time it’s copy paper and that’s it.
I don’t believe it has ever occurred to either of my children that there is any waste in the process of creation or that there is anything lacking in their finished products. They carry within them an intense conviction of the value of their work. Why? Because they understand that they, themselves, are immeasurably valuable. It only follows that whatever they create has value, too.
I think I know when I lost that particular conviction. Ninth grade. My mother had taught me at home for kindergarten and first grade, and I’d gone from there to two different private schools. I always did well. I loved the challenge of learning, and I pushed myself, and I succeeded. When I transferred to Burns Junior High, everything changed. I discovered, to my horror, that many ninth graders had gotten a jumpstart on ninth grade. They’d finished Algebra I and Physical Science. They’d taken an extra history course, and they were fully equipped to handle the style of critical writing that Freshman English demanded. I wasn’t. I hadn’t. Out of nowhere, teachers were pulling me out of class and talking to me about my grades. I was struck with the awful realization that I had been a big fish in a tiny pond. Now I was being judged by higher standards, and I wasn’t measuring up.
In time, I caught up with my classmates. I worked harder, longer. By my sophomore year, it wasn’t so difficult anymore. In fact, I tacked more activities onto my schedule, taking part in several choirs and ensembles. My time in Concert Choir and Ladies’ Ensemble and Ambassadors and Chamber Choir was so enjoyable, so fulfilling, that I decided to major in music at Florida Southern College.
Enter the voice teacher, and a slew of real, classically trained vocalists. I was nobody from nowhere with no training at all. I wasn’t even familiar with “Caro Mio Ben,” that simplest of entry-level vocal performance pieces. “Caro Mio Ben,” the voice students all said, rolling their eyes. Ugh. They’d all sung that wretched number when they were ten or eleven. It was old news. It was embarrassing. And the old lie reared its head. It doesn’t matter if I sang solos in high school. This is real music, and these are real vocalists, and I do not measure up.
Time passed. I got married, taught school, had a baby. Staying home with my son made me frantic for some kind of creative project I could tackle to occupy my mind while I stacked blocks and changed diapers. I picked up a few pages of writing, a little scrap of a story idea I’d hatched during college and promptly abandoned. I thought, “I’m going to write a book. Yes! I’m really doing this. Here goes.” The boldness (or stupidity) of that decision still amazes me.
I sat down with an idea and a few characters and slogged my way through a first draft. Forty thousand words, mostly rubbish, but it had a title (Shiloh), and there was a beginning, and “The End” was clearly marked on the last page. My main problem at this point was that I knew the manuscript needed work and I didn’t know how to go about it. I firmly believed that, no matter how many times I reworked the book, no matter how much I honed my skills, I could never measure up as a writer. “I didn’t go to school for English,” I thought. “I have no experience, no expertise. If anyone has a positive response to the book, it will either be because he loves me and wants to encourage me or because his standards are pitifully low.”
I tormented myself with the question, “What is good writing?” I read gifted authors, Newberry Award winners. I knew that the bar had already been set impossibly high. But I was doing a great disservice to art. I had forgotten the thing I was born knowing, the thing my children have yet to forget: that I have value, and because of that, the things I create have value.
I can feel hackles rising. “Bad writing is bad writing,” you say. “It doesn’t matter how sincere the intentions.” Or, “It’s one thing to make a joyful noise, but if you can’t carry a tune, you shouldn’t be standing in front of an audience.” I understand these sentiments, but the thing you’re judging is the quality of the art, not its value. I don’t believe that a urinal is a piece of quality art any more than I want to fight my way through a terrible novel. But we’ve got it all backwards. We believe we can find our worth by creating quality art. “I’ll be happy with myself when I write a great novel, when the Nobel Prize committee calls or I win the Pulitzer.” If you’ve ever tried to write (or embark upon any creative endeavor), you know that that belief is paralyzing. My children don’t chew their nails worrying about criticisms and comparisons and critiques. As they progress, they’ll pay more attention to the quality of their work. They’ll take time to consider their color choices, and the balance and beauty of their drawings.
But they know where to begin.
There is value in a poorly crafted song, in a clumsy sketch, in a dry, chewy roast. Each of these creations has value because it owes its very existence to a stunning act of faith. Someone said, “I am made in the image of a Creator God. Because of Him, I have great worth. Because of Him, I can take the risk of creating.” Here is the first great gift of art. To enter in, we must believe, in some tiny, faltering way, that we are worthy, that all of us are worthy. We move toward quality, toward excellence, when we begin in this place of acceptance. Everyone is welcome, no matter his level of mastery.
There’s something else I’ve learned about art, something that has made me feel more at home in my work than I could ever have imagined. And of course my children were born knowing it. The act of creation allows me to enter fully, to bring all of myself, all of my story to the table. When I finally published Shiloh and set up a website, I didn’t want to include any “spiritual” posts. It had nothing to do with denying my faith. I just thought that the book ought to stand on its own, that the site should be devoted to my writing life. Some time later, I was asked to write for a website that caters to children and families. For that, I focused only on parenting. There were certain things I’d share on Twitter, others I’d share on Facebook, still others I’d share with close friends. It makes sense that I would interact with the world in varying degrees of intimacy, but the underlying belief was that people in each of these categories of my life only wanted one side of me. Readers only wanted to know about my writing process. Parents wanted to know about my parenting. And so on.
I have been slow to learn that I am one complete package. I am single. I’m not a writer and a mother and a wife and a friend, etc. I am Helena. All that I am bleeds into all that I do. And I impact the world much more profoundly when I bring the full weight of myself to all my work, all my relationships.
More than that, I have felt that the average person could not handle my whole story. I have walked through counseling for sexual abuse in the last several years, and it has been a slow, painful process of healing. During the writing of Shiloh, I was confused, angry, eager for change and redemption. By the time I got to Seeker, I was in a place of grieving the innocence I had lost, the freedom I had lost, the countless beautiful experiences into which I could not enter because of fear and shame and despair. My stories allowed me space to work through those feelings. Through my characters, I could rage against the darkness. Through them, I could grieve the lovely things burned and broken and forgotten. I could carry every ragged piece of myself into that world, into my work, and there was room to breathe. In Songbird, I even found a place to rejoice.
I know of few other experiences that allow such freedom, few other vocations that offer such a welcome. Every time I write something and share it with the world, I am extending an invitation: to try, to fail, to stumble along the road that leads you to your calling, to take another step toward finding your voice, to flash me a shy smile that says, “Me, too?”
“Yes!” I reply. Anyone can come. One mustard seed’s worth of faith in your innate worth, and you, too, can enter in. You can think about quality later. For now, just let your feet sink down into the truth. You have so much to offer. Every act of creation is an act of faith, and all of it matters. Don’t leave anything behind. There is room for all of your story, and all that you are. Welcome to the table.