Are you a genius, or are you a Gob?

Last week, my writing coach asked me to identify the worst possible outcome of finishing the novel I’ve been working on for the past eighteen months. That it would be bad? That people would be bored? That I would feel vulnerable?

I felt TERRIFIED of something but I couldn’t explain what.

So I sat with it.

And sat with it.

Finally, I emailed her: “have you ever seen Arrested Development?”

It’s that I would be Gob, taking myself so seriously, thinking I had written something really cool and everybody else would be laughing at me.

It’s that I would look like a fool.

The foolish artist is a cultural icon. He (and it’s usually a he) is sure he’s doing something radical, barrier-breaking. But we all know that he is delusional and creating crap, not art. Even if you haven’t seen Arrested Development, there are so many foolish artists in pop culture.

Where does he come, this ridiculous fool? Is he the long-lost descendant of the court jester? Or is it just our disdain of art in general that makes us so enjoy laughing at those who put themselves out there? I have to imagine what Brene Brown would say to Gob…she would probably point him to that Roosevelt quote she loves so much:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.

Has there ever been a better description of Gob Bluth? I mean, what’s Michael doing? How is Michael putting himself out there? And Lucille? At least Gob and Lindsey and Tobias are willing to look foolish to pursue something bigger than their own lives and their own cynicism.

(if you’re beginning to suspect that I wrote this piece just to have a reason to spend hours looking at Arrested Development gifs, you would be correct…)

For a long time, I tried to make art without ever allowing for the possibility of looking foolish. I wrote short stories that were close replicas of Raymond Carver or Hemingway. I used literary devices that were widely accepted and wouldn’t raise eyebrows. I carefully picked topics that seemed SERIOUS and worthy of ART, like war and death and poverty. At one point, I even had a list of boxes I would check off when finishing a story:

✓ vivid imagery

✓ a mix of summarized and in line dialogue

✓ plot tension

✓ emotionally satisfying ending

It’s a crazy way to be a writer, trying to check all the boxes, making art as if painting by number, but the numbers are invisible. I could have written, could write, ANYTHING, and I wrote tight small little staid stories because I was so terrified of being laughed at.

One time, I was talking to another writer friend and she was telling me about her book and she said that it was written from the POV of snow. I mean, that’s fucking cool! I remember feeling almost angry that she somehow “got” to do that and I didn’t. That I had to write serious self-important bullshit but she was allowed to play, to take risks, to have fun with it.

One of the hardest parts of making art is that you have to take a leap of faith with your talent, without being able to accurately know the level of your own talent. Are you a genius? Or are you Gob?

If you spend too long questioning or waiting for somebody to tell you — as I arguably have — you curdle your creativity and feel resentful towards those who are taking risks and able to achieve creative feats that you’re too scared to try.

I told a class with the writer Sheila Heti and she described a year-long project organizing the sentences of her diaries. She organized them alphabetically so any sentence that started with A was in a list, then B, then C, etc. How much faith do you think it takes to spend a year working on something like that, having no idea where it would end up, if it would ever turn into anything meaningful? I can’t even spend an hour working on a new piece of writing without spending the whole time asking myself: what is this what is this what is this???

The other day I sent something to my writing group. “Is this something or is it trash?” I wrote. It was a list. Two pages long. Just a random list. Even sending it, I felt ashamed, and worse — crazy. Delusional. What if they replied and said, “this is just a list…” But I had the feeling it was something more, and I knew that sometimes really powerful art looks absurd, or like nothing, at first.

When I started using tarot frequently, I kept pulling the Fool card.

It terrified me. I did a reading on quitting my job…and pulled The Fool. I did a reading on staying in my marriage…The Fool. A big financial decision…The Fool. Reminding me over and over of my worst nightmare — to be laughed at, to be looked down on, to be seen as foolish.

Then I read this description of The Fool:

So maybe I‘ll start taking my cues from Gob Bluth, an artist, and a fool.

Writer from Portland, Ore. Words in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Cut, Glamour, Marie Claire, Elle, and others. emmapattee.com

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