How to Be the Best
I admit it, I have a competitive streak. When I check out my friends at iStockphoto, I get a bit perturbed if their downloads outpace mine. When I read a particularly banal Disney princess adaptation to Mud Pie, I think, "Good lord, a monkey could do better!" More often than not, however, I am my own prime competitor. Which is a lose-lose situation; I can never measure up to my own ideals.
As a writer, I once believed to be Real I had to face unflinchingly the dark, shadowy things on the edge of existence. There was no backing down, no escape. Happy sunshine and cute little bunnies, well, that's what those other writers did. The sentimental ones, the ones stuck on believing their childhood was happy. I saw it as my mission to stare down the darkness and make it retreat.
There's a certain similarity between winter and summer in Michigan. In winter we have a landscape of white and white and white and gray and black. Summer, it's all green. Green is lovely. Warm and shady. But it's still green.
Autumn is creeping through the forest now. For the first time all year I can see the maple trees springing out from the landscape, their sprawling arms reaching as far as they can to spread orange and yellow. The stately oak, rich brown, towers now over the goldenrod fields. An aspen, each leaf twinkling like a golden coin, glitters against the backdrop of color.
The sweetness of life is not tripe, not childishness or sentimentality. It provides contrast. Without contrast all detail is lost; sameness and boredom drift in. Four or so years ago much of my thinking had a sameness to it. Brooding, dark, cynical. Not that I wasn't "happy," but joy came in a more self-satisfied way, a feeling that I was more Real because I faced the ugly truths of the world without those abhorrent rose-colored glasses. Yet I didn't experience a joy or celebration of life and the world. On the contrary, if I happened to notice the quaking aspen, offering me its golden gift, I felt squeamish, unworthy. I didn't trust it, this fleeting beauty. With so much darkness, I should work to face it, to fight it, extinguish it! Shouldn't I?
A righteous calling, but impossible. Like trying to distinguish the maple in a forest from the oak - from two miles away. In summer, as in winter, it's hard to do. Darkness won't retreat unless I bring a little light in with me.
Dewitt Jones said in a video I watched Sunday, "if you celebrate what's right with the world, you will find the energy to fix what is wrong."
Slowly, over years, I've changed my emphasis. I no longer want to be the Best In The World, competing and losing against my scathing inner critic, judge, hangman. I now want to be the best for the world. This new way of thinking is liberating, healing.
During the MFA we talked a lot about the aboutness of a story. The central thrust, the take-home, the gravitas. The story I began in my mind several years ago, the one that became my creative thesis for the MFA, was once about abuse of authority, cruelty, intergenerational evil. But through re-envisioning and revision, I found a different aboutness: hope, innocence, and the triumphant power of the human spirit. The darkness is balanced by light, and the contrast makes both more meaningful.