By Professor Danielle Berg
I’ve heard of those people who come out of the womb playing a bass or holding a charcoal pencil. (I had to look up what that was called; I can’t draw.) I was no prodigy, and I didn’t think of myself as an artist or a creative person at all for a long time. My family is practical: my sisters are doctors, my mother a nurse, and my dad an accountant.
I was also the youngest of three girls, which made me a copycat. My sisters made a fashion magazine, drawing models and giving them names like “Octavia McFarter” – they were beautiful and sarcastic, my sisters – and since I was the youngest, I would imitate their art, but somehow I never quite made it into the magazine. I was not original. Even when I sang, I did impressions: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Cher. I really was good at copying. I had no idea what my own voice sounded like.
There was a brief time, in 6th grade, when I kind of peaked. I was accepted into the Creative Arts Program for drama, and got the female lead in our class’s production of Thomas Sawyer. People laughed at my improv lines. Maybe I was good at this drama stuff.
Then I entered junior high and realized other people were a lot better than me. I quit drama.
In high school, I joined cheerleading. The whole point in cheerleading is to copy perfectly. This really satisfied the perfectionist side of me, and I made captain. I created dances and routines. I was legitimately happy here, even though I sometimes wore my green Nikes instead of the team leather whites to silently say, “I’m not a conformist.” When I wasn’t made captain varsity year, I quit.
My final class of college was Intro to Creative Writing. This was somehow the first time I’d ever had a chance to take this class – we didn’t have it in high school, and I was too busy satisfying my Psych major credits to take electives. I loved it. I asked my professor to meet for coffee to discuss my possibly going to graduate school for writing. He said that of his students so far, I wasn’t the best, and I wasn’t the worst. Another teacher told me something similar later. I loved writing, but I wasn’t great at it (and I wasn’t the worst).
Somehow, maybe for the first time in my life, I kept going, even though I wasn’t that good. The Poet Laureate of Brooklyn told me she didn’t think I was ready for a graduate program in Creative Writing. She was right, because my poetry was – not surprisingly – not in my own voice. I thought the less I said, the more mysterious, and therefore, the better. My poems were empty pools. Dry, useless.
Luck brought me to my first job out of college, which was a soul-sucking desk job at a magazine that plagiarized articles off the internet. To save myself from truly losing my soul, I started a blog. I told stories about my life. I made them funny so I wouldn’t be sad. Then my relationship of several years ended, and I wrote about that. My readership went up. People love to read about breakups. Raw and scared and starting from scratch, my voice was finally honest. I didn’t leave things out to sound poetic. Instead, I probably left in too much. I took that writing, edited it into a portfolio, and got into graduate school.
My graduate thesis was nonfiction, the place where I (sort of) found my voice. I wrote about my family and how my relationships with them informed my relationships in life. (Psychology is still a big interest of mine.) And I made it funny so it wouldn’t be sad. I finished a book, and as a person who had quit whenever I was not the best, I was proud to complete and turn in an imperfect book – not the best, not the worst.
Now I’m a professor. I encourage students to write in their own voice, and not that trying-to-sound smart academic voice. I encourage them to talk about what matters to them, because I know that I am only happy when I am talking about what matters.
While I found my voice for my thesis, one book, I haven’t found it forever. I’m still finding my voice as a teacher. Every semester I get closer to being authentic and honest. I believe I can only encourage my students to do the same if I can do it myself. And sometimes it’s challenging, because we play roles in society – professor, student. The same way I got caught up in roles before – as a “poet,” I wrote mysterious garbage; as a little sister, I copied whatever my sisters did – I can sometimes get caught up now, too.
And that brings me to my relationship with art and creativity now. I think it’s about finding my voice every day. If I’m not careful, I’ll sound like Whitney Houston (I wish, and may she RIP), or write like Aimee Bender (again, I wish, and please read her if you haven’t), or I’ll teach like some professor I saw on television. My voice is, of course, informed by all the voices I’ve ever heard or read, but I believe there’s a voice that’s formed from that conglomeration that is all mine. I remind myself all the time that that’s the one I should use. I can’t be judged as “not the worst,” or “not the best,” when I’m just who I am and there’s no one to compare me to.
If I can strive for that all the time – occupying my own voice – then maybe I’ll pass that onto whomever I’m lucky to teach.
As for what I create today, it’s often lesson plans and games. But I write, play ukulele, and sing. I do yoga, which sometimes feels like dancing, and I’m signing up for an adult tap class. Being in a group, working toward a similar goal, and expressing ourselves is what makes my heart light up. It happens in the classroom and it happens when I sing in the car with friends. It happens when I write, too – though it’s done alone, it’s an attempt at reaching other people, and closing the gap. That’s art, to me.