Recently, I taught haiku to a group of elementary students. I started the lesson on the defensive, expecting groans, complaints, poetry bashing, and a general unwillingness to participate. I tried to counter some of that up front by telling the students I loved haiku and that I expected them to be respectful of that.
I gave a brief history of the form. We read three poems by Matsuo Basho and discussed the basic rules for classic haiku. I gave them some concrete steps to begin (choosing a season of the year, then an image in nature particular to that season, as well as some kind of simile/metaphor or observation they could make about that image).
And then? They started writing.
Never written a poem before? No problem.
Never heard of haiku before? No problem.
They just went for it. Pencils scribbling, erasers squeaking. The most common question I got was, “Is this good?”
Not only did they jump in without second thoughts, they offered their newborn poems up to me for assessment. They were not afraid of being critiqued.
There’s an amazing 2006 TEDTalk by Sir Ken Robinson (watch it here if you haven’t seen it) about how we lose this ability to create with abandon as we grow up. He points to the format of our educational systems, the vulnerabilities we inherit as we struggle to find identity, and the social constructs in place around us. The end result: we lose that part of us that’s willing to take creative risks that might not pay off or will open us up to criticism.
We outgrow some fears, monsters in the closet, for example, only to grow into new ones. Fears of rejection, inadequacy, worthlessness, or inconsequentiality.
I used to stare at my closet doors, at the cracks that showed the deep inner darkness where, I could imagine vividly, monsters and murderers hid. The more I pictured this, the more afraid I’d become. I eventually found a fix. I’d hook a hanger across the handles. It might stop whatever was inside from getting out, and if nothing else, the sound of it jangling around would alert me and give me enough time to get away.
The more we think about the things that scare us, the more power they gain over us. The best way to get the monsters out of the closet is to ignore the thoughts of monsters.
It’s not that we should stop caring what other people think of our work. It’s that we shouldn’t fear feedback, or attach our self-worth to others’ opinions. We need that outside critique to guide us to successful completion.
We can’t endlessly fear that we don’t know what we’re doing. We need to start. We need to work. We have to take notes, draw pictures, meditate, problem solve, and write. We will learn by doing.
The fears I’m talking about are all very real. It’s not just our imaginations playing games with us. It’s not that they aren’t worth being afraid of, or that if you do fear them you’re a coward. It’s that we shouldn’t allow our fear to take over, limit us, dictate what we can and cannot do.
By the way, the haiku my students wrote? 100% inspired awesomeness. I was totally blown away.
At one time, we all knew how to create fearlessly. We can do it again.
How to Write Fearlessly, Like a Child:
Consider what you would write if you weren’t afraid.
Stop thinking about your fear.