So said my friend Karen, when my sister Betsy asked her to provide some background prelude music for Betsy’s wedding.
I’ve known Karen since I was a child (she and her husband, then newlyweds, took care of Betsy and me occasionally), and I’ve always been wowed by her musical ability. She would sit down at her keyboard or the piano at our house, and play a hymn or a Christmas carol or another song by request. Or she’d improvise a progression of chords, which rolled and tumbled and spilled over into one another without (as far as I could tell) any effort, or any discord. Karen later learned to read music so she could write down the songs she was composing, but at that time, it was all by ear – or, I thought, by magic.
But when Betsy asked her to play before the wedding – a bit of piano improv while the guests filed in and found their seats – Karen protested. “I don’t really play!” she insisted. “I just make up crap!”
We laughed about her answer then – such a typically blunt, self-deprecating Karen remark – and we continue to laugh about it now. But it makes me wonder: how much of what we do and create, what we work hard to bring into being, do we discount as “just making up crap”?
I saw this over and over at the Glen Workshop: nearly every writer or artist, whether a published, distinguished faculty member or a brand-new memoirist or poet, felt the need to apologize for his or her work. Lauren Winner tried her best to ban apologies in our workshop, but it was tough: to a person, we demurred or discounted or shrugged off our hard work. This is a first draft. This is just a collection of vignettes. I don’t know where this is going yet. It needs some polish.
All those statements might have been true. But at the same time, as Lauren pointed out, this was hard and holy work, this process of reflecting and mining and writing about our own lives. We had all sweated over these manuscripts, even if they were first drafts. It takes focus and craft and dedication to build a worthwhile structure out of words (or anything else). Our pieces might still be rough, but they were valuable.
It can be scary to shrug off the cloak of false modesty, to stand up straight and admit that you are not just making up crap (or, as my English friends call it, “faffing around”). We are more vulnerable when we are sincere, and we leave ourselves open to criticism when we claim, however timidly, that our work has value.
But this is the truth: it does.
Karen, for example, doesn’t simply improvise piano chords (though that has value in itself). She’s a singer-songwriter with three albums (not to mention a husband and three children), and she has a powerful voice and some mad keyboard skills. By the same token, I don’t simply type out a torrent of words here and hit “publish”: I ruminate, I trim and edit, I polish and tighten and proofread. I do all those things any time I write a piece, and while I am always working to improve my craft, I do not just make up crap.
Let’s stop discounting our own effort, our own gifts, our own valuable work. Let’s stop hiding behind the false modesty that is really a shield against criticism, and let’s take up our pens and brushes and instruments and keep on creating. And then let’s share that work (when it’s ready to share), and let’s be brave enough to say: I made this. It may not be perfect, but it is valuable.