In a corner of southwest France, surrounded by foie gras and fields of sunflowers, the city of Albi was waiting for its piece of big news. After years of preparation, research and no doubt a ridiculous amount of paperwork, the place stood poised to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It had waited some time, as I realised when I arrived, all wide-eyed and breathless, excited at my own career landmark. Albi has bridges that are more than 1000 years old, where you can still see the impressions from people’s fingers as they pressed the clay into place. It has a cathedral that looks more like a giant fortress, a half-timbered medieval centre, idyllic French gardens and plenty of rich food.
It also has the world’s largest collection of work from Toulouse-Lautrec, the caricature tiny guy with a black hat and monocle you see in films about the Moulin Rouge. Here was an artist who suffered with a range of disabilities throughout his life, who broke boundaries to create work that people still buy on posters to this day. In fact, he was the man who introduced the idea of posters, with his series of prints about life around Montmartre and the Moulin rouge.
But his early work – is rubbish.
I think it’s easy to forget how much practice goes in to creating something amazing. When we think about legends in any genre (Al Pacino in the Godfather, Martin Luther King and “I have a dream,” Roger Bannister and the four minute mile,) we remember them at their best.
By forgetting the reality (that Al Pacino will have forgotten his lines, that Martin Luther King will have had audiences fall asleep and that Roger Bannister will have sprained his ankle,) we separate them from us and we dismiss the size of their achievement.
As I’ve been sorting through my earlier work, I’ve flinched at some of it. I’ve found stuff that I’d never publish today and that I almost can’t believe I wrote. I have no doubt that at some point in the future I’ll be reading this again and thinking the same thing.
Yet everyone has to start somewhere – and then keep on going.
I’ve read a lot of articles lately that complain about the huge rise in self-publishing on the internet: be it in the form of books, blogs or facebook entries.
“Everyone thinks they’re a writer.” I keep hearing over and over again, with an implied weary or whiny tone. Well, so what?
Will everyone reach the level of Shakespeare and Dickens? No, of course not, but why should that stop people from trying?
Neither of those men simply sat down one day and wrote a masterpiece straight out of thin air. They wrote to pay the bills, they wrote some iffy stuff, they said to themselves “be true to thyself, this is a loade of crappe.” (Alright, I made that last one up but you get the idea.)
As well as Toulouse-Lautrec’s cabaret singers and show-girls, Albi also has that cathedral I mentioned earlier.
Built as a warning to the people, following the Albigensian crusade that resulted in genocide, this cathedral symbolised the power of the Inquisition. To let everyone know from miles around that non-conformity equalled death.
That’s not a price most of us have to pay any more if we want to follow our dreams. So, whether it’s writing, photography, music, art, excellence in sport or starting your own business, give it a try!
It seems that the path to success is simple, even if it’s not easy and even if you never reach the final destination:
2) Keep improving
3) Keep going
And if you turn out to be rubbish? So what! Does the world really need another writer/artist/entrepreneur? Well, does the world really need another song?
“Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sang best.” Henry Van Dyke.
And as for Albi? Well, I’d long since gone by then but in August 2010 they were granted their dream. More than 1000 years after people pushed those bricks into place, their work became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Go for it.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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