When I was a senior in high school, I took a creative writing course. All semester, I crafted stories on paper and turned them in and then waited with trepidation for my grade. As each one came back with comments and suggestions and quite a bit of the infamous “red marks,” I was repeatedly heartbroken to realize that I did not hit it out of the park on the first shot. Writing was something I felt passionate about, and like many things in my life at the time, I really wanted to be a natural at it. I saw others around me who just excelled at things. They appeared not to have to try at all to open their mouths and hit a beautiful note or kick a ball on the soccer field and see it go straight into the goal. As a teenager, I was intimidated by the naturally-gifted. Intimidated enough to stop trying, time and again, because I would never be just like them.
I took fifteen years of piano lessons over my life, and today I can hardly sit down and read a piece all the way through. Why? Because I walked past the practice room one day early in high school, and I saw a fellow student sitting at the piano playing the most beautiful music I have ever heard come from the keys. There was no sheet music in front of her, and her eyes were closed. She was fully engrossed in the rhythm and movement of the song she was playing. When she finished, I complimented her and asked her how long it took her to memorize that particular piece. She paused and hesitantly said, “I didn’t. I can’t read sheet music. I play from what I hear.” Instead of being in awe of her gift that was uniquely hers, I left the room dejected. I was so sure that I was not called by God to play the piano because when I sat down and tried to make my fingers play what I had heard… only discordant notes came out. I was not a natural at the piano, and to my adolescent brain, that meant no amount of practice would make me so.
And then there was writing, and there was this class where I received paper after paper full of “red marks” and suggestions. This time, however, as the feelings of “I am obviously not a natural at this…” came welling up inside of me, I found it difficult to listen. Instead, I sat down with each story, and read it again. I realized that I didn’t feel right about them yet either. Reading them did not cause feelings of joy in my heart or make me want to jump up and share the story with anyone who would listen. So, I sat at my computer with each story, and I revised it until a feeling that was hard to put into words at the time, but now I liken to Ignatian consolation, stirred deep in my heart. I read and revised each one of them until I felt the joy well up inside and I had a tangible desire to grab the paper and run out and share it with anyone who would want to read it. I reflected on each piece until the vision of what I was trying to create became clear as day before my eyes. Then, I turned them all back in to the teacher in our final portfolio of the semester. I waited anxiously to get that portfolio back, even though I knew when I turned it in, what my teacher was receiving was something quite different than what she had read all year. When I finally got it back, written in red at the top right corner of the first page was “Wow. You are the queen of revision. Well done.”
Perhaps, I reasoned, this was the something I was natural at – change. Now, whenever I encounter something I struggle with (college physics, teaching proofs in Geometry, singing a solo in mass, designing a website), I work hard to figure it out. I am constantly growing, changing, revising, and rerouting, and moving always towards the greater. A greater relationship with God and with others. A greater understanding of myself and my true passions and desires. And writing helps me reflect on all of those experiences, examine them from every angle, see the lights and the shadows, and understand where God is leading me in those moments. I write to understand where God is moving my heart, and I write to share that growth and change with anyone who is looking for growth towards the greater in their own lives.
Well done, Gretchen! Important message. The story of “revise and struggle” is a much more urgent and important human story than “natural talent.” You told it well.
Thank you Jim!