Building a Better Student: The Shy Artist

girl drawing picture on chalkboard

One of the most frequently asked questions of an author during school assemblies is “When did you start writing?” Many times the question is rooted in self-doubt; essentially the student is asking, “At what age will I be good enough to try this?”

I get it. I was a shy artist, too.

That’s why I dedicate a portion of my school presentations to encouraging the next generation of creativity. It’s not just a matter of teaching a young artist the nuances of their chosen craft; we also must coach them in overcoming their insecurities.

I share with students my own journey, a cautionary tale about waiting. Because I was relatively shy as a kid, I found escape within books. That soon sparked an interest in writing, perhaps in an attempt to emulate the great authors I admired. Or maybe it was merely an outlet for an active imagination. Who knows?

But I dove in, and began writing at a young age with eager – yet awkward – first steps. By the time I was in my early 20’s I’d crafted a collection of essays and short fiction that, although not spectacular, showed promise.

Today I describe the process to students: I would slave over a short story, searching for the perfect words, then edit and re-edit, investing weeks on getting it just right. Then I’d print it, place a paper clip over the top left corner, open up a manilla folder, place the pages inside, slip the folder into a desk drawer, close the drawer . . . and never see the story again.

I’m sure insecurity played a large part in the reluctance to share my work. Was it good enough for others to read? Or was it – as I kept telling myself – just a hobby, an exercise to scratch my own creative itch?

Because of those doubts, I never submitted so much as an article, let alone my fiction, until I was in my early 40’s. After swallowing hard and venturing out there, I was pleasantly surprised to watch my work garner multiple awards and a six-book contract from a major New York publisher. I couldn’t help but smile with chagrin, wondering where I’d be today if I’d had the confidence to share my imagination sooner.

Artists are, by nature, often shy. They spend their quiet time dreaming up ideas for stories, for paintings, for songs . . . but too often refuse to expose those creations. My message to students is simple: If you write, let someone read your work. If you paint or draw, we need to see your canvas. If you love to sing or dance, perform for an audience.

Sure, there are some naturally gregarious people who wouldn’t think twice of showing off their talents. But many of us don’t share that gene, and we’re hesitant to make ourselves vulnerable to the masses, especially in an age where posted comments can be anonymous and often vicious.

I sometimes spot the budding artists in a school assembly; they’re the ones who pay particular attention as I share the process of writing, detailing the steps I’ve taken from struggling middle school writer to published author. I can almost feel their hunger to experience that same feeling. All they need is a small push.

You probably know a student just like that, one who secretly longs to write, or to paint, or to sing. Encourage these young people to express themselves, publicly; help them over the first hurdle of vulnerability with gentle, positive pressure.

It hurts to imagine how many masterpieces will go unwitnessed, left solely for the eye of their creator, languishing somewhere in a manila folder.

Dom Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty one years. He’s also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit foundation that helps young people recognize that Smart Is Cool. More info at www.DomTesta.com.

Image courtesy of Simply Sharon via Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.

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