yes is the only living thing.

I lied, a while back when I said (or asserted) there was nothing I want to do. When I was twelve or thirteen, I fell in love with writing and decided I wanted to be a writer. I wrote a lot of terrible short stories for a while, frequently in middle school and then sporadically in high school (supplanted for a time by what I can only deem E.E. Cummings-inspired surrealist poetry — oddly, probably one of my better ventures).

When I was 16 or 17, I applied for a creative writing camp associated with the Iowa writer’s workshop, sending in a couple stories and feeling fairly confident about my chances. I received a rejection letter a month or two later, and remember pretty clearly getting into my car and driving to this corn field on a dirt road I liked to go to in order to be alone, and just sitting there. I must have given up on my own creative writing then, if not in practice then at least in principle. It was the first time someone had discouraged me, and I reacted the way I often do to discouragement — by trusting the wisdom of others.

The flip side to allowing yourself to feel so gratified by the praise of others is that you must feel shattered by their discouragement.

Over the past several years, I’ve written anything creatively only rarely. I’ve had a few ideas, started a few short stories and left them without an end. Sometimes I try to write a poem but end up so embarrassed by it that my primary concern becomes no one ever seeing it instead of what I’m writing.

I participated in the first half of Nanowrimo last year, before a few weeks of slightly unprecedented crappy times. Having just reread my roughly 20 pages five months after writing it, I can ascertain that it is not at all good. It was neither particularly creative, nor well-articulated. It emotionally overreaches. It lacks research, development, uniqueness of voice.

I’m not sure if I’m a poor writer by nature, or if I’ve allowed whatever writing muscle I had to atrophy, or if it’s a mixture of the two. But I read it and felt a little at odds with myself. Felt a little betrayed by myself for turning my back on writing. No one ever just wants to be a writer — you want to be a good writer. Isn’t it selfish, though, this demand to be liked? I would rather be enthusiastic and reach something like a qualitative limit than write well but never write at all. Right now I have neither, just a sense of ingrained intimidation when I approach a blank page. All the students in the hundreds of creative writing programs, all the people with novels under their belts, the letter of rejection, the fatigue at being one in the hundreds trying to enroll in the one tiny creative writing class in college — always three minutes too late.

The catch is in the wisdom I ascribe to others, of course. To scale back my response to discouragement would mean drawing less fulfillment from approval. But I hovered near the top of my class all through school, went to a prestigious college, got internships, etc. I’ve always depended on approval. That would predictably lead to the sorts of crises of self that bring us right back to that Joan Didion piece. Clearly what I need to do is read it and read it and read it and then read it again.

I suppose this — the need to derive a greater sense of self-approval, the need to mute the external approval/discouragement — is really one of my bigger issues to face. There are greater and more pressing issues for a person to face, but this is not a bad one to try to slay. The way I keep circling back to it, perhaps now is the time to do so?

To save myself, I should just run headlong into the potential for failure. I’ve broken loose slightly since the beginning of the month. The less I pay attention, the freer I feel.

I worship at the alter of Joan Didion.

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3 Responses to yes is the only living thing.

  1. Ty says:

    Wow. Totally different issues at hand, but, I find myself in the same place of trying to satisfy, “the need to derive a greater sense of self-approval, the need to mute the external approval/discouragement”. I’ve been reading and re-reading that Joan Didion piece as well.

  2. Connie says:

    Em, I’m sorry for never having said this in case I’ve really never brought this up.

    I have always been struck, reading your blog, by the clarity of your voice. I love reading what you write because it is beautifully written. You retell stories, retrace your musings and wanderings, and say heartwarming, concise things that I wish I could say. Maybe you remembered once that I asked if you wanted to write something together, not the way that you and Gina wrote something, chapter by chapter, but really as a co-writing process. And I thought that may have been a good idea because I would be adding on to what I already thought was incredibly readable and thoughtful and insightful.

    Insightful is a good way to describe how you write. You always seemed to see right through things – terrible college parties, the ephemeral quality of romances, and countless little things and big things. Three-day projects on taking a walk at dawn, praying. I loved those looks into a strange land. I still kind of want to write something with you – really co-write something about four years of college by a girl with a bit of my humor and your clarity and really whimsical, directionless stuff. Maybe. But this is how your writing makes me feel – it makes me want to create.

    And it is not simply how you are – it is special and specific to how you write. We have talked a lot over the years, and I still like talking to you. But reflection seems to give your thoughts something extra that comes through in the text that I read. I get the sense that you leave some things unsaid when we discuss boys, classes, jobs and the aim of human existence. But I see those words here, and I see your thoughts and your arguments as though through a different lens.

    I want you to remember and know that somewhere in the world, there is a huge fan of your writing. Though you may be essentially correct that we have to put aside criticism when it paralyzes our ability to move forward, I can’t imagine that a tiny fan on the sidelines of life, cheering you on valiantly, is going to do you a disservice.

    I am that fan.

  3. Lori says:

    For what it’s worth, I feel that your critique of your own writing abilities was very well-written. I am by no means a writer and can’t offer any real advice, but I hate to hear you doubting your creativity and ability to write. I have only read this one entry, so I can’t speak on behalf of your content, but the sincerity behind Connie’s praise and encouragement convinces me that you already possess the qualities for which you are striving.

    Not all great artists are appreciated by everyone, and I’ve found that a person’s biggest critic is usually the one looking back at them in the mirror. It sounds like you strive for perfection, which can be a good thing if you don’t let your shortfalls discourage you too much.

    If writing is your dream, don’t give up on it. I wish I had followed through with my childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian, but in college I became discouraged and gave up. Regardless, you have your entire life to master your writing.

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