Two months ago, I left my job running public programs for a museum. I’d been there for six years, and by the time I left I’d long had a handle on the role.
It wasn’t until I left that I remembered just how unsure and uncertain of myself I'd been at the beginning. Though listed as a requirement of the job, it turned out that a degree in art history didn't quite prepare me to organize all the myriad events a museum puts on: lectures, talks in the galleries, symposiums, fashion shows, interactive theater performances, weaving demonstrations, yoga classes. Even though I had the right credentials, I still had to start from scratch and do a lot of learning.
It’s part of being new at anything, this uncertainty, but it’s easy to forget about once you’re experienced. And it’s also easy to underestimate how terrified it makes you feel. I’ve been thinking back on that first year at the museum a lot lately. Turns out new museum professionals and new writers have a lot in common! Here's a couple of lessons I learned back then that I'm trying to keep in mind now.
1) Be patient.
Interviewing, I heard a lot about how the museum needed to introduce new experiences and bring in new audiences. I went in full of enthusiasm and ideas, ready to change things up and charge ahead, but quickly found out that not everyone was excited about new ideas. It took far longer than I’d expected to bring about any change. Similarly, in my first weeks of being a full-time writer and illustrator, I was excited to think how much time I had. I’d be writing a story a week! I’d have a giant portfolio ready by the end of the month!
But sitting down and writing or drawing for hours and hours each day is a lot harder than I expected. I’ve had to refine my expectations for what I can get done, just as I had to do with trying to implement new programs. I have limitations on what I can do, and just like I had to get people used to changing ideas at the museum, I’ve now got to build my endurance through practice and perseverance.
2) Figure out what works for YOU.
In that first year at the museum, I was terrified of someone saying, “You’re doing that wrong!” There were policies and procedures to follow, sure, but in reality, no one cared exactly how I scheduled my days as long as the work got done. I eventually learned that I could approach my work with systems that worked for me: checklists, calendar reminders, etc. I didn’t have to follow what “everyone else” was doing—because there wasn’t any such thing!
In writing, too, I’m trying to learn what works best for me. For some people it’s writing every single day; for others, it’s aiming for a certain word count; for still others, it’s getting up at six and writing first thing in the morning. I’ve found I write best on my little tablet rather than my desktop, and that if I really want to get good work done I need to get out of the house and go to the library or coffee shop where there’s the noise of other people (NOT music). Trying to hit a particular word count is frustrating to me, but trying to write for a certain amount of time isn’t. I’m (slowly) establishing a system that works for me, and with it, discipline to write better for longer.
3) It's okay if you're not as good as people who've been doing this for years.
A former boss once gave me a completed grant application to learn from. I did learn from it (though maybe not the way she intended) because that application included several resumes from a number of my colleagues at the time. Seeing those resumes and where my much-more-experienced colleagues started from helped me realize that I still had a long way to go—and that I didn’t have to get there right away.
It’s the same with writing. It’s pretty cliche advice, actually, but it’s one of those things that bears repeating. We rarely, if ever, see the rough draft or the hours of practice put into learning the craft. I might sometimes read a short story or look at the editorial illustrations for an NPR piece and think, “I’m never going to be that good!” But I will, someday. It took my colleagues time to become the professionals I looked up to, and it took the writers whose work I read in awe time to get where they are too. I'll get there.
Six years ago, I never would have guessed I’d be trying to do what I am right now: writing and illustrating for myself. Nor would I have guessed I’d be thankful for all that time spent battling back uncertainty and unease! But I am, now. Some days it feels like I’ll never figure it all out, but I felt like that at the beginning of my last job, too. I figured that job out. I'll figure this new path out too.
In the spirit of beginnings, I’m starting this blog to keep you updated with what I’m working on, thinking about, and doing as I go forward. Check back here for weekly updates and news about stories, new illustrations, and where to find my work.