I have had a fantasy for years of creating a small, outdoor sanctuary—a simple, lovingly tended garden—that would be a place to break down.
I love the idea of a refuge filled with living, quiet things that won’t judge, won’t interfere, and won’t try to make it better … but will just absorb the melancholy and consume the despondency without changing it. Soil and roots, branches and leaves all scrambled together to form a kind of emotional shock absorber, an honorable place to go and be sad.
This living shelter would have a split rail fence lining its perimeter, covered in crawling vines so lush you could barely see the demarcation. There would be paths thick with wood chips underfoot, and just wide enough for two to walk side-by-side. Weathered teak benches would be tucked inside stands of swaying grasses … or Weeping Cherry trees. Adirondack chairs, placed here and there, would lie low and solo, so sitting in them would put you eye-level with violet snapdragons and calming lavender plants.
I would call this place The Wailing Garden.
And as you entered it, there would be a neat, hand-painted sign hanging at its entrance. It would read:
The Wailing Garden is a place to drop to your knees. You can shed tears here and grieve your losses. No one will ask questions. No one will interrupt. Stay as long as you like, leave when it feels right. Return again. The garden will pass through its seasons, as you will pass through this.
I have an observation: virtually no one wants to sit in the front row.
Doesn’t matter whether it’s a class, a meeting, a presentation, or a workshop, people will pack the back but avoid the first three rows as if the seat cushions were soaked in bio-toxins.
Until a decade ago, I was one of those following the crowd to the rear—to the seats with the tight legroom, lousy acoustics, and distant views of the stage.
And I know why I stayed in back. Because it’s risky up there.
What if I need to get up to use the bathroom? I’d have to pass the entire audience—no doubt a bunch of busybodies thinking, “What’s with this guy’s bladder?”
Or if the event is dull or drags on, I’d feel boorish getting up to leave. The back of my head might even get heckled from the stage.
And … terror of terrors … the front row is where people always get called on. What if the speaker asks me a question, the presenter wants me to volunteer, or the demonstrator chooses me to be the assistant? I might make a fool of myself, say something stupid, or trip and fall flat on my forehead. Better to remain safely hidden in the back, out of the spotlight.
But ducking life is a lousy plan. And I finally figured out that the front row is where all the action takes place, where possibilities happen, where the best opportunities leave the stage and land in people’s laps.
Sure, it’s scary. I’m jittery every time I pull myself to the prow seats. But that’s where I need to go if I want to engage unreservedly in my own happiness and success, rather than numbing out in the rear.
It’s simple: life is just more fun in the front row.
I’ve been rereading (for about the twentieth time) one of my favorite books on the pitfalls of writing, IF YOU WANT TO WRITE, by Brenda Ueland.
This gem of a book was published in 1938, but every word is as relevant and inspiring today as they were then, and they’ll be just as powerful in 2038. That’s because Brenda tells the truth in every sentence, and the truth never loses its freshness.
Writing is difficult—as every writer likes to tell you—and frightening. It has been both of those things for me. That’s because, like so many people who have tried to write, or do anything creative, I have had my share of creativity squashers around me trying to snuff out my desire to express myself.
As Brenda says, “The English teacher who wrote fiercely on the margin of your theme in blue pencil: ‘Trite, rewrite,” helped to kill it. Critics kill it, your family. Families are great murderers of the creative impulse.”
The result is that writers, virtually all writers, at least some of the time, become anxious and tight and terribly afraid. When you expect to get figuratively slapped every time you reach for a pen, you become hesitant, maybe you even go into hiding, taking your writing talent with you. I have done this many times, abandoned my writing and, as a result, disappeared from myself.
According to Brenda, the best way to duck the murderous hand of criticism is to surround yourself with people who protect you from it, who love you and appreciate you, who think you are very interesting or funny, and who truly take you in. These are the ones who say in words or through facial expressions, “Tell me more. Tell me all you can… Let more come out.”
If you have a few of those people in your life, you are very lucky. But if you don’t, I have another suggestion: find a community of writers, or painters, or pottery makers, or artists of some other kind, and hang out with them. These will be people with both imagination and understanding, who probably also got slapped by the hot hand of criticism.
About 15 years ago, I discovered such a place at The Writers Room in Greenwich Village. Not a day goes by that I don’t thank the kindhearted urban muses who pointed me there.
In The Writers Room, I feel that I am among friends, at home with my “found family.” I am a writer, and these are other writers—with the same insecurities, neuroses, fears of looking foolish, doubts and demons. These are my people.
Find yourself a place like this—where sensitive and sympathetic artists have gathered—and marinate there. You just might burst into tears at the freedom you feel and the urge you have to let your creative impulses speak honestly, with unchecked mischief.