Earlier this month, I found myself again as substitute teacher in the art room, but this time with middle school students. They were in the process of painting an impressionist landscape. What I encountered, though, was hesitancy. They were so afraid that they were going to mess up their pictures by experimenting with this new style, that even after explaining and demonstrating multiple times, most students still opted to mix solid colors on their palettes and apply flat, texture-less paint to their canvasses.
I recognized that anxiety of “messing up a picture.” I felt that many times as an art student myself and have vivid memories of an art teacher dipping my brush in the bright red and yellow paint of my neighbor’s palette and brushing thick globs of primary colors on my super-careful shades-of-blue painting. I was crushed, and furious, and traumatized by the experience for years. But now, I can see that she tried to push me, in the true spirit of the Impressionists, towards experimenting. To stop resisting change. To be brave. To play.
This year I’m learning to experiment. A picture book manuscript I had been working on since 2013 got rejected after an R&R. This is a manuscript that had already been through multiple revisions in two languages, and had changed tense and point of view more than once. It had been seen by multiple critique partners multiple times. It was a well-worked manuscript.
And yet, it got rejected.
The response from the editor, along with her feedback, prompted me to consider all the comments of all my other readers over all the years – those deeper questions and concerns I had been too afraid to address, even as I had spent years fidgeting with the surface: Almost like my sixteen-year old self faced with a ruined all-blue painting.
So, I opened a new document on my computer and typed the “what-if” sentence that had been lingering in the back of my mind for years. I shook up the entire structure, lost the main character, broadened my scope, and threw all caution to the wind. And it was much better. In fact, I thought I was there.
Ha! Enter critique partners. But, this time around I was much quicker to kill the darlings and embrace the change. Now, six years after I’d first started this story, I can say I have a manuscript in which I truly believe. Yet, I am not so precious about it that I am not willing to shake it up again, should it be required.
Sometimes I get mad at myself for wasting all that time. But, upon reflection, I realize I learned a myriad of things about my story, about the industry, and about myself through this process. The biggest lesson was to stop resisting change. To be brave. To play.
Fast forward to later this year. I was working on a rhyming picture book manuscript, focusing on perfecting the rhythm, putting story first, and finding smart rhymes without forcing them.
Except, every critique partner ever commented with “It’s good, but does it have to be in rhyme?” My initial response was, “You have got to be kidding me? I have sheets and sheets with column upon column of hard and soft syllables. I have clapped rhythms ad infinitum. I have rhymed four-syllable words.”
But wait. What if?
In March my family and I visited the Worcester Art Museum which hosted an exhibit of Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge. The exhibit featured nine of the Waterloo Bridge paintings. Monet painted the bridge forty-one times during the winters of 1899 - 1901. He’d line up fifteen canvasses and move between them, literally seeing the bridge in different light, and capturing what he saw. Then he went back to his studio and kept working on those paintings. The painting that now belongs to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, was still in his studio, likely unfinished, when he passed away in 1926. Forty-one times, about this particular subject, Monet asked “What if?” and decided to be brave and see where it would take him.