“What’s wrong with me? Why are all the other seedlings bigger than me? Am I ever going to grow that big? What if everyone else grows but me?”
Conferences are strange moments outside of everyday space and time. In artificially lit, air-conditioned hotel ballrooms you sit and take in more information than you can possibly absorb. You swing wildly between bored, exhilarated, overwhelmed, inspired, eager to get to work, and intimidated by those around you.
I just returned from my third New England Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (NESCBWI) conference. I felt (and still feel) all of the above, and more. Last year my poster won the prestigious R. Michaelson Gallery Emerging Artist Award. The poster actually sold a few weeks ago, my first gallery sale since 1995. This year I didn’t manage to get my poster done in time, and my portfolio looked like I had slapped it together at midnight (which I had.) I’ve had a year of getting more and more frustrated with the work I am producing – when I manage to produce anything. I have many incomplete projects on my desk and desktop.
So I was in exactly the right place-outside-of-time to hear Sara Zarr’s talk on living the creative life, interspersed with readings from Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel. She read “The Garden”, a story in which Toad plants seeds and then yells “Now seeds, start growing!” at them. I had a flash of insight into my creative troubles.
Of course nothing I make will be as good as that poster, as long as what I am trying to make “something as good as that poster.” How dull is that as a goal? My work needs to change and grow organically and trying to force it to live up to something else is as damaging creatively as comparing my rate of progress to that of classmates, colleagues, or other conference-goers.
I’m not the same person I was when I made that poster – I’ve had all sorts of life experiences since then, including having a baby. I would never yell “Grow faster!” at my baby, so why am I doing it to myself?
So my big take-home message from this year’s conference is not how to produce an ebook or the best way to approach a book packager (which I learned.) It is to take a step back, trust that the seeds are there, and stop trying so hard. Have fun. Play with paint. And pencils, and old newspapers, and sticks. And whatever else inspires me at the moment. And just don’t worry about how professional my portfolio looks or how marketable something is. Play.
The seeds will grow. When? “Soon Toad, soon.”