“Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start there.” – Cheryl Strayed
Until my brother was born, I was the only child and grandchild in my family, which came with an abundance of attention and adoration. I was three when he came along, and immediately found myself needing to compete for the spotlight. One day as I was pondering my increasingly impossible mission, I was bouncing around near our brick fireplace. I took a misstep, stubbed my right pinky toe, and started bleeding. I was suddenly surrounded by parents and grandparents offering me treats and ointments and band-aids. And in that moment, I found an answer.
Going forward, I started covering my arms and legs with loud, colorful band-aids—even though there was never a colorful injury under them. “Oh no! What happened?” I remember my grandpa asking as he scooped me up after spotting a band-aid under my elbow.
I am not proud of it, but it did the deed.
Several weeks ago, after a minor knee surgery, I went in for a check-up with my surgeon. Though most people didn’t notice anything wrong before the surgery (or any change afterwards), I—obviously—did. There were no colorful band-aids, but my knee wasn’t yet fully healed. I still had to work on my ability to fully extend and bend it. “This is your new project,” my surgeon told me as I left his office. Every day since, I’ve put endless amounts of time and effort into my recovery, sometimes with the most nuanced of isolation exercises. The definition of a personal project, my endeavor is one from which only I find a thrill, one from which only I feel a benefit. And there’s something really special about that.
At some point in my pursuit of becoming a writer, I started to pressure myself into producing work for the sole enjoyment of others, be it in the form of my personal book and blog, or in the form of my professional and freelance work. I carved out time not because I wanted to write, but because I needed to write. In some ways, there was nothing wrong with this. It’s nice for your writing to be read. But in other ways, everything was wrong with this.
Sometimes I would spend an entire day or days constructing meandering strings of words and paragraphs. Ones that made me feel something, but could never stand to entertain. Ones that made me reflect, that made me grow, that made my heart sing—and sometimes sob. But at the end of these long days, I would feel nothing but fury and embarrassment. With nothing to “show” for my time, I considered my day a wasted one. “I should have done something else today,” I would think to myself as I pulled open the covers and slid into bed. And so, I stopped writing for writing’s sake. I stopped writing for myself.
For the past week, artist Patrick Vale has been painting a mural at the entrance of my office. On Wednesday, he spent some time talking to my studio about his work. In addition to all his public work, he gave us a glimpse of his personal sketchbooks. His most recent sketchbook includes sketches of people he sees on the train. “I’m trying to get better at drawing people,” he explained, “and seeing them for only two minutes on the train gives you no time to mess up.”
His sketchbooks struck me. The quality of work was certainly notable, but that wasn’t what got me. I was more struck by the fact that these works were ones that he simply created—and kept—for himself. (“No one has really seen this stuff.”) They were not for anyone else. They were meant to allow him to self-reflect. To grow. To learn. To fail. They were not meant for him to demonstrate his “artist-ness” to the world.
His talk inspired me to bring back to my craft what I accidentally achieved through rehabilitating my knee: a sense of personal exploration, growth, and strengthening. For me. One that is almost more beautiful in its lack of universal applicability and shareability.
Thanks to overwhelming avenues for oversharing (avenues whose traps I’m often lured into both online and in person), self-expression can become increasingly frustrating and worse, inauthentic. Our personal projects become projections unto other people.
The real deal gets covered up by a band-aid screaming for attention.
These past few weeks, and this past week in particular have reminded me about the importance of what lies hidden underneath. The ugly scar. The struck-out sentence. That is art.