Margaret River has an awesome annual event, the Readers and Writers Festival. Each year they manage to secure great presenters from a variety of genres - some big names and other lesser known authors. For the last few years I have managed to attend parts of the festival and hear some inspiring people share their stories. This year, Michael Leunig was on the program. Well, I wasn't going to pass up that opportunity.
He was just like I imagined he would be - quiet, humble, calm and funny. His talk seemed unplanned and spontaneous as he sat with a white board in front of him demonstrating how his characters came to life for him. But amongst the simplistic cartoons there were some real pearls of wisdom. The one that has stuck with me concerned deadlines and failure, perhaps because I was about to face a deadline myself.
Leunig shared his dislike of deadlines. He walked us through his lead up to a deadline, surprisingly starting only two hours before (that was enough to make me anxious). There was something on the page, but it lacked a sparkle, something to make it something. The harder he tried to make it good, the worse it seemed to get until he decided he was a failure. His mind went into a space where the inner voice called him a fraud, an idiot for ever believing he could do this. He had failed.
But, he described, this is where the magic happened. When the ego was stripped away and was out of the way, all that was left was his humble, creative self. This is when the raw, real work of the soul begins that we know in Leunig's work. In short, Leunig's philosophy is that failure is necessary for truly creative work to begin and we must embrace it in our lives.
I guess his sentiments rang true for me as I prepared to send my PhD writing to my confirmation panel readers. I had been working on this for many months and it was time to put the chapter together. It ended up 6000 words too long and seemed like a jumbled mess of thoughts. Only a few weeks out from my deadline (not a few hours - thank goodness!!) I sent it to my supervisor feeling a little like a fraud. I can't even pull one chapter together and I have a whole thesis in front of me.
After a minor panic, a moment of failure, and some good advice to revisit my research question I sat down to begin again. Not from scratch, but from a different perspective. It was less about getting the words right and the referencing correct, and more about sticking with my passion and initial intent. I'm not sure it has the sparkle that Leunig looks for - it is still an academic piece of writing. The looming deadline and the moment of failure, however, did change how I approached the task.
I did feel a little like a groupie the day I met Leunig. I had carefully selected a book for him to sign and raced from the main marquee to get close to the front of the signing line. Fortunately, the line was not too long as he took his time with each person. He was attentive to each one and I will never forget the slow and deliberate way he wrote my name. A true contemplative it seemed, who although in his own dreamy world, has a calm and whimsical way of interacting with the world.