The Lesson of the Paper Tooth

I’ve recently come across this quote a few times around the internet and it’s become a sort of pep talk for myself. It’s by Ira Glass, host and producer of radio’s syndicated This American Life.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” 
 Ira Glass

So I’ve BEEN fighting my way through this. Every day I go through the litany of self doubt: Am I any good at this at all? Should I be doing something else? Can I AFFORD to keep doing this?

But for whatever reason, I DON’T create every day. I stall. I waver. I second guess EVERYTHING. And I’m not satisfied. I’m not filled. I’m not . . . myself.

But I know someone who creates every day. He creates paintings, sculptures, drawings, stories, contraptions, comic strips, cards and 3D paper objects (to name a few). He creates because he’s compelled. He creates because it occurs to him. He creates because creativity is at the very heart of his wiring. He’s 8 and he’s my son.

Now some of you cynical types may be tempted to stop reading. “Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . another mommy bragging about their kid.” (Confession — I MAY be one of these cynical types . . . ) BUT I think I’m at that stage of parenting where my kids are teaching me as much as I’m teaching them. And thank God for that! My personal development didn’t end at 18. In fact it’s only recently that I’ve begun to embrace my gifting and wiring. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to believe that MAYBE I’m creative after all. But my creativity didn’t look or feel or have the intended effect that I thought it should.

I’ve taken the past 3 months off — intentionally. Financially it seemed irresponsible. But I think my soul needed the break. I don’t know that I’m any closer to an absolute decision of any kind, but I do know I feel refreshed. I know that I am discovering creativity in things I once considered mundane. I know now that I’m not really being truly creative when I alter my vision for a piece of furniture to fit within what I THINK the potential customer would want.

Last night, my husband handed me a little piece of folded and taped white paper. I asked him what it was. “It’s a tooth,” he said. Of course it was a tooth. Owen, my 8 year old, has a habit of letting his teeth fall out when they’re ready. He hates wiggling them. So yesterday, his seventh tooth fell out. And as a very natural expression and reflection on the day’s events, he created a paper tooth. It was a very Owen thing to do and one that made my heart leap from whatever that thing is in a mom’s heart that is connected to their child’s heart.

I think I will tuck this paper tooth away. I think I will take out this little paper tooth whenever I need to remind myself of who I am. I’ll take it out whenever I need to remember that my creativity has nothing to do with whether I can sell the product or how many people say nice things about it. It will remind me that the act of creating is what’s important.


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