I’ve always wanted a hobby—a creative effort that doesn’t involve writing.
I’ve always envied people who scrapbook, shoot photographs, knit, bake, make model airplanes or collect stamps. Laura cooks, writes, draws, plays violin, learns French on her app, plays word games, tends an herb garden, and crochets.
I only write.
But about a year ago, I got an idea to make Laura a wall hanging which read, “Have Courage and Be Kind” to accompany a Cinderella picture in her bedroom. After thinking through my options of people who could draw or carve or paint it for me, I decided do it myself by learning how to hand letter.
After some deliberation over this new venture, I found myself in Hobby Lobby, perusing the art supplies. As we walked out of the store with a sketch pad and pens, Laura looked over at me and said, “Congratulations, Pal. You have a hobby.”
I’ve sketched a few letterings and thoroughly enjoyed it. In high school, I drew a bit for contests and have been doodling for as long as I can remember. Still, I’m no Rembrandt. So every time I try to devise a new setting for a lettering, I run up against the boundaries of my creative abilities. Eventually, after scrawling one failed thumbnail after another, I’ll ask Laura for help. She’ll sketch something right away that blows a hole in my artistic barriers, allowing me to crawl through and take my project in a new direction.
But I don’t like asking for her help.
It’s not that I’m ungrateful for her skill or willingness. It’s just that it wasn’t my idea. I feel like a cheater, a lesser artist for accepting help. Someone else’s idea touching my work disqualifies my own creativity. Like the old myth that a human’s touch turns the mother bird against her chick, I recoil at my own product after it’s been in someone else’s hands.
Ironically, this flaw goes back to my writing. When I read an insightful essay that someone else wrote or see a metaphor that I wish I had thought of or hear a different perspective that had escaped me, I feel guilty, resentful even, that I hadn’t thought of it, as if I had let myself down—as if the world is tsk tsk-ing me for my incompetency.
In short, I feel bad for not having written everything. Likewise, I resent having to ask for creative assistance in my lettering projects because I should have thought of everything myself. You might call it pride.
It’s the Fourth of July, a day all about some of the most important writing in history.
Back in 1776, the Second Continental Congress assigned a committee of five men to write a document declaring America’s independence from Britain. The committee consisted of Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson.
Though the committee wanted Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson thought that John Adams should write it. Adams, however, insisted that Jefferson be the chief writer, since, he said, “I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. . . . [And] you can write ten times better than I can.'”
When I read this account a few days ago, I was struck with this detail—the humility of John Adams to forego the honor of drafting one of the world’s most important documents all because he knew Jefferson would do a better job. Sure, John Adams came along with the rest of the committee later and gave his input, but I’m glad that he let Jefferson pen the first draft, otherwise we might not have some of the finest lines in the English language:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Artists are collages of experiences and relationships. A good work of art doesn’t merely incubate in the artist but rather flourishes from the encouragement, interaction, input, critiques, or evaluations of others.
Art is lonely work—but it’s certainly not something we do alone. I think of the fellow writers from my master of fine arts residencies who read my work and encouraged or challenged me to grow. I think of how dear those writers are to me still—now years after we earned our degrees. Their insight and opinions informed my writing and, I hope, mine informed theirs. But it did not happen easily. It took a great deal of humility to delete a paragraph and try someone else’s idea—and even more humility to admit that her idea was better. Art takes a sort of submission to community, the act of minimizing ourselves in order to accept more from the world.
Every time I ask Laura for help on my lettering projects, I chafe as she adds a swirl here or shading there or a color change or (as in the lettering to the left) reflection spots. But my work always turns out better with her touch.
Her contribution doesn’t make me a weaker artist—it just makes me a more humble one. And I’d like to think I can only get better from there.
Author’s Note: Take some time today to read the Declaration of Independence. It’s best read slowly.