Cultivating a Calling

“What if you think you have a calling in life, but you’re just not good at it?”

Dr Molloy bent her knees and flung her arms out at this question, assuming her “great question” stance, and immediately shouted “Yes!” to the twenty-one students staring back at her. “That is a great question!” she continued. “The answer is — work hard. Cultivate it. Get good at it. Why do you think you should already be an expert at the age of twenty-two?”

This idea of cultivation was — it seems silly now — shocking to me. I’m not sure if I remember who asked the question in our Communication & Calling class this past semester, but I do remember that everyone found Dr Molloy’s surprisingly straightforward answer to be, oddly enough, groundbreaking. Cultivate your calling. Is there such a thing?

I sat down yesterday to write the next chapter of a project I’m working on, and I found myself constantly stopping and stalling when I examined the quality of my work. The writing felt forced, and poorly paced, and unaccessible, and I didn’t like it. I tried rereading and rewriting a few passages, extending it here and shortening it there, but in the end, a slump of writer’s block and self-consciousness made my creativity peter out. I realized only afterwards that for the few hours that I was writing, I was constantly — obsessively — thinking about my intended audience, asking questions that distracted me from the project in front of me. I would write a sentence and immediately think — Would people like this? Two sentences later — Can people relate to this? A paragraph down the page — What if someone walked up right now and asked to read this, would they want to read more? Time and time again, I told myself that the answer was no, no, no, no. My writing isn’t publish worthy. My subject matter is uninteresting. I think I’m called to this, but I’m not good enough to actually do it.

I found an article the other day called “15 Ways to Defeat Writers Block, As Told By Published Authors.” Well, I thought, they’re published, which is one step ahead of me, so they must have something worthwhile to say. What surprised me in reading the article was what at least two of the authors pinpointed as the cause of their writer’s block: not, in fact, a lack of creativity; but in fact “a fear of writing badly.”

The connection was instantaneous in my mind — as if a lightbulb went on, as if someone managed to explain perfectly something I could never quite get right. Writer’s block is the fear of writing badly. That’s it — that’s the golden nugget. I don’t lack words to say, I lack the confidence to say them. I expect my writing to be perfect and publish worthy in its first draft and I leave absolutely no margin for error. If it’s not great, it’s not anything, and it’s not worth continuing. I came to this mindset, I think, for two reasons:

One. In our time, we have come to worship something we call “the gift.” The gift is that indescribable something that artists possess—the something that you’re “born with,” that you can’t “manufacture,” that you “just have,” etc., etc. Truly gifted musicians and poets and painters don’t need training, they just need to be. We’ve even begun to treat training like cheating. After all, a trained singer isn’t a good singer, she’s just a trained one. There’s a difference, right? Aren’t the only good singers the ones who are good without any help?

Look at it this way. Which one would you prefer: an accountant who has been to business school and knows how to be an accountant — or a budding adolescent who really “has a gift for accounting”? It sounds ridiculous when you put it that way, but that’s how everyone approaches the arts—and only the arts specifically. If you don’t have the gift from the get-go, you’ll never truly be gifted.

Truth be told, the best accountants probably start out with a simple knack for math; the best architects, with a knack for space and angles; the best authors, with a knack for reading. I’m a budding writer, but I’ve only ever taken one course on writing throughout my sixteen years of schooling. This is probably due to my implicit belief that formal training feels like “cheating”, that if I was really meant to be an author, wouldn’t I already be one? And also, because my parents paid for me to college to get a real degree, didn’t they? Which brings me around to my second reason.

Two. In our diminishing respect for the legitimacy of the arts as worthwhile work comes an equally diminishing regard to cultivate the arts in a legitimate manner. At some point in recent history, the arts became peripheral to other, more “tangible” careers, such as business pursuits or the sciences. After all, how many would respond to the statement, “I want to be an author” with, “But when are you going to get a real job?” Y’know, one that pays?

Thus the combination of, on the one hand, the effortlessness required to possess true talent, and, on the other hand, a dwindling esteem for that talent in the first place — and I find myself staring at my (still) unfinished manuscript, with writer’s block.

Every calling requires cultivation. Every calling. I am not an accomplished writer yet because I haven’t taken the time to become an accomplished writer. I may have the spark — the knack — for it, but I’m not yet there. Not everyone gets math problems right on their first go; why should a first novel be held to any different standard?

Ellie Malott lives in Orange County and blogs at Words etc.

Photo: Beating writer’s block by outlining my next project on color-coated 3×5 cards, spread out all over my bedroom floor. Time consuming, but necessary, prep work, and it looks pretty cool, too! 

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