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.