Wednesday, August 21, 2013

7 WOW Wednesday: Stepping into the Void by Sarah Jamila Stevenson

We're so excited to have Sarah Jamila Stevenson on the blog today. Sarah is the award-winning author of The Latte Rebellion and Underneath. She is represented by Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency


WOW Wednesday: Stepping Into the Void
by Sarah Jamila Stevenson

The best piece of creative advice I've ever received was not, strictly speaking, writing advice.

In fact, the advice wasn't even given specifically to me. But that didn't make the advice any less pertinent or helpful.

The year was nineteen-ninety-mumble-mumble. I hadn't even decided to become a writer at this point. That's how early this was. I was a college undergraduate at UC Berkeley, studying art and psychology, and planning to be the person drawing covers for the books, not the person actually writing the books.

Life takes you in unexpected directions sometimes.

Anyway, there I was, just another student in a figure drawing class with Professor Dewey Crumpler, who, incidentally, earned his MFA at Mills College, where I would, some years later, earn my MFA in Creative Writing. Go figure. Again: Life. Directions. Something profound.

One day in class, we were having a group critique. The entire class had placed our drawings of the figure model onto the platform in the center of the room. As is usual in an art class critique, the professor was meandering around, pointing at things in people's drawings and making comments. Then, at one point, he stopped and said to all of us in his rumbling bass voice:

"Do not be afraid to step into the void."

At the time, we all kind of laughed, not sure what he was getting at. At least, that's what I did. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. Not too many years after that, I read the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, which would become one of my personal go-to guides for creative stuck-ness. And I was able to put into words what it was about Dewey's advice that really resonated with me. There are two key ideas that are important here.

Number One: Fear.

Fear is huge. As the book Art & Fear articulates so well, there are countless sources of fear for any creative person, from the fears that well up from deep inside our innermost selves to those that bombard us from outside, but what they all have in common is they keep us from creating, keep us from producing. What it comes down to is, we are generally our own worst enemies; we are the ones standing in our own way, telling ourselves we are no good, we are impostors, we are never going to hack it, we should have just listened to our parents and done something practical with our lives, like, um, ANYTHING else.

I'm not here to offer a simple solution to the fear. If there is one, somebody should bottle it and become the next gazillionaire. But, as reading that book helped me realize, we aren't alone in our fears. Far from it. Art is scary. It's scary in part because it ventures beyond the known and into the unknown, creating something from nothing, cobbling together familiar pieces into something wholly new and unfamiliar and strange and amazing. And that brings me to the second key idea in Dewey's advice.

Number Two: Void.

If you've got any knowledge of Taoism, you might be familiar with the idea that the Void, the primal, the ineffable and unknown, is not necessarily something to fear. In fact, it is natural and there and it just IS. Period. And, at some point, creating art, writing a new story or painting a new picture, at some level requires the risk of stepping into that void. You don't know exactly what's going to come out of it. You have to trust your creativity, trust your brain (whose skills you have, presumably, been honing through practice) to be able to mold the abstract stuff of ether into something meaningful, something that hasn't ever been said before in quite that same way.

Yes, it IS scary. It might not work. Not every void foray is going to result in success, in which case you go back to the drawing board, perhaps literally. But one thing I can tell you for sure: if you don't step into that void, you are guaranteed to limit yourself. My personal belief is that any creative act requires that leap of faith, closing your eyes and stepping off the edge, and seeing what catches you. Letting go: another idea that Taoism (and Zen Buddhism) emphasizes.

That's what Dewey's advice does for me. It helps me let go.

I keep coming back to this advice again and again, in every area of my creative life—to the point where I've written it on a post-it and stuck it on my computer. When I get stuck, when I doubt myself or can't get going, I find that little piece of paper.

Then I close my eyes and step forward.

About the Author

Sarah Jamila Stevenson is a writer, artist, graphic designer, introvert, closet geek, good eater, struggling blogger, lapsed piano player, ukulele noodler, household-chore-ignorer and occasional world traveler. Her previous lives include spelling bee nerd, suburban Southern California teenager, Berkeley art student, underappreciated temp, and humor columnist for a video game website. Throughout said lives, she has acquired numerous skills of questionable usefulness, like intaglio printmaking, Welsh language, and an uncanny knack for Mario Tennis. She lives in Northern California with her husband and two cats.

Website | Blog | Twitter | Facebook

About the Book

With a supportive family, great friends, and a spot on her high school's swim team, Sunshine "Sunny" Pryce-Shah's life seems perfect. Until the day her popular older cousin Shiri commits suicide. The shocking tragedy triggers heart-wrenching grief, unanswered questions, and a new, disturbing ability in Sunny—hearing people's thoughts.

When Sunny "underhears" awful things about what her so-called friends really think of her, she starts avoiding them and instead seeks refuge with the emo crowd. But when she discovers her new friends' true motives, Sunny doesn't know who she can trust anymore. Feeling like she'll drown in the flood of unwanted voices inside her head, she turns to her cousin's journal for answers. Sunny must figure out how to keep everything from falling apart, or she may end up just like Shiri.

Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads


  1. Hi Sarah,

    Love your post! It's so true. Writing and writing for publication is indeed a very scary venture. It's not for the faint of heart. But those of us who do it do it because the passion to create is a stronger driving force than fear. Thank goodness! Hope to see you at the Green Gulch retreat in the fall.

  2. Terrific post and great advice. Hard to take, but great. The book looks like it will be great as well. Thanks.

  3. Thanks, Natasha & Rosi! And huge thanks to Adventures in YA Publishing for inviting me to post.

    Natasha, sadly I won't be able to make it to Green Gulch this fall--it's on my husband's birthday weekend and we have plans. :( Spring, though, for sure!

  4. Going into the void is quite the scary concept. The idea makes me gulp and notice my heart thump-thump just a little considering it. But it is sage advice give there is more to experience, learn and be inspired by when we choose to release our fear and step into the void.

  5. I have thought of writing fiction as jumping off a diving board and not knowing exactly where the water is. Stepping into the void fits this picture!

  6. Thanks, Sarah. Reading your post just gave me an amazing first line. The void awaits for the rest of the story.

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