“To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.”
- Albert Einstein
Back in June, I travelled to Denver, Colorado to give two talks at the Denver Botanic Gardens, one of which was titled as you see above: Finding Your Voice as a Garden Writer. While my in-person presentation was an audio-visual extravaganza that included personal stories, rapidly flailing arms (I am a hand-talker), group hugs, a Kumbaya sing-along, AND unicorns (I am not kidding about the unicorns), I thought it might be helpful to share some of the points that I made (minus the unicorns) over here.
I’ve decided to break this up into a series of posts. This was one of my very favourite presentations to give (despite the fact that it caused wretched anxiety for weeks beforehand) and I have a lot to say on the topic. A short post just wasn’t cutting it. Over the coming weeks I will roll out more points.
Find, Finding, Found
Before I begin with the first point, I need to address the meaning of the title. You see, I could have entitled this talk, “How to Find Your Voice as a Garden Writer“, but I was very careful to use the word “finding” instead. I have enough experience now to know that voice is an evolution that comes with you as you live your life and grow as a person. There is no definitive voice to be found, no destination to arrive at full of self-satisfaction and arrogance.
….Aaaaannnndddd. Done. Found it!
Whether we like it or not, we all change. It only stands to reason that if all is going well, we will also change and evolve how we write and what we write about. I have found this to be true for me. I am a work in progress. I too am always in the process of becoming, growing, developing, changing… As I go through the process of living and working my issues out:
- My priorities change.
- I develop new interests
- My goals as a human and as a writer change.
- I let go of fears.
- I sometimes develop new fears (god help me).
- I have new experiences that alter my perspective and world view.
- I learn new things.
- I discover that I am not always right.
- I discover that sometimes, miraculously, I was right all along.
My writing is strongly affected by all of this. It comes along for the ride.
I didn’t really say it like that in the original presentation, and I probably (maybe) don’t mean it how I’ve said it here, but, well… perhaps I do. I started off the presentation with a personal story about my university Japanese Cinema teacher, Robin Wood. On the first day of class, he talked about his background, experiences, and studies of the genre, but what surprised and even fascinated me was that he didn’t list his credentials or try to pass himself off as an authority that we should all look up to. Many university professors did. In fact, he specifically stated that his classroom was a conversation that we were all invited to take part in and that many would say that he was not qualified to teach the class. He felt that was alright — he wasn’t an authority, but he did know a thing or two.
It wasn’t until many years later that I learned just how celebrated and accomplished he was as a film critic and teacher. If anyone had a right to claim authority it was him, and yet he remained humble and open. That class was a very difficult one for me. It was a forth year film studies course and I went into it with absolutely no film background; I just really loved film. I never spoke up in class and I was always scared to hand in my papers. The intimidation was all mine. Mr. Wood always graded me fairly (well even) and showed a sincere interest in what I had to say. Few university professors seemed to take as much delight in teaching.
Years later when my career as a garden writer began to take off and I felt lost in a whirlwind of people billing me as a “guru” and an authority to be placed up on a pedestal all-the-while telling me how I should be, how I should write, how I should _______, I turned to his example as a grounding and a way to find and stay my course. What might have been just another, unrelated class in a line of many turned out to be a pivotal experience in shaping how I work to function as a garden writer and as a teacher. I have always regretted that I was never able to tell him how how much I needed and appreciate his example.
It came to mind as I was preparing the original presentation that there are two distinctly different meanings of authority: One is the kind where you are confident in your skills and knowledge. The other is about power, control, and being in an elevated position above subordinates. The trouble is that in using the same word for two different concepts, we tend to meld them together and that confidence in your knowledge becomes ego and arrogance.
I know what I know. I am confident in what I know, but there is always room for me to be wrong. I am not an authority. I don’t want to be one.
- It does not serve you; it hinders you. It’s appealing to place ourselves in the role of the all-knowing expert because it makes us look good. Keep in mind that it is marketing, and while there are reasons that this device is used, it tends to serve magazines, publishers, other media, and sometimes our careers even, but it doesn’t serve you, the person behind the work.
- It is dehumanizing. It keeps you at a distance from your readership. It prevents you from making real connection, which just happens to be one of the best rewards, bar none, I have reaped from this career.
- Placing yourself on an invisible pedestal puts you in a position to be knocked down later. Make no mistake, there is always someone that will try to knock you down, hoping to “show you” that you’re not all that and not worthy of whatever it is that you’ve achieved. They can’t do that if you’re grounded.
- It places you in the impossible role of having all of the answers and always being right. That kind of pressure is torture. It keeps you captured in a constant state of fear: the fear of being wrong.
- It hinders growth. If you are always right and know it all then there is nothing left to learn. If this is the case then you can expect a lifetime of boring sameness. However, if you are open to being wrong, and humble enough to know that what is left to learn is limitless then you invite wonder, discovery, new ideas, and connection into your life. That leaves an awful lot to look forward to.
Again, when I say authority and authoritative voice I’m talking about an, “I’m an expert and everything I say is right” style of writing. I’m not talking about writing with confidence and personal knowledge. That is the other kind of authority.
It’s freeing to be able to say, “Hey, I’m learning, too. I don’t know it all.” You are only one person; you can’t even have all of the questions, let alone all of the answers. You will develop new questions. Once I realized I didn’t have to know it all, it liberated me from the lingering fear that I wasn’t enough. That kind of freedom is golden.
[Insert unicorns, group hugs, and a fireside sing-along here].