There was a moment when I was watching the twitter stream about The Real Life: Poems for Wise Living, and the tears started rolling.
I was reading tweets about the poems, and it was clear they were making an impact.
Why the tears? Because that was a moment of homecoming, a milestone moment of coming back to my creative, writer-self.
You know me as a writer, and maybe even think of me as a “good” writer.
But there were years of avoiding, ignoring my creative self. I want to tell you the story of them, in the hope that it may serve you in coming home to whatever love you’ve lost.
I got a *lot* of praise from parents and teachers about my writing when I was growing up. Except when I didn’t. Sometimes I had a teacher who didn’t like or “get” my writing style. Sometimes my work just went unnoticed.
What happened to me is what happens, I think, to a million of us when we are growing up. The work (dance, music, writing, sports, math, gymnastics, you name it) stops being about the work, and it becomes about the praise or criticism. The winning or losing. How we are received by the world.
Paradoxically, the more praise I received about my writing talent, the less confident I felt. (There is now fascinating research by Carol Dweck on how and why this is the case). The more I was applauded, the more pressure I felt to produce brilliant work. The more afraid I became of my writing not measuring up. When I didn’t get major praise, it felt like a dramatic failure. That my not being a “good writer” was finally being found out.
Combine that with prestigious academic environments (like one that starts with Y and rhymes with kale) that have a very specific definition of what good writing is, where left-brain thinking is on overdrive, and where 99% of the writers you study are white men. Combine all that with the general litany of self-doubting stuff I (like most young women) was telling myself all day long, and you know what you get?
Seven years without writing. Seven years without a poem, an essay, an article, a thing.
It actually was seven years, like Joseph — seven years of famine.
Seven years when the inner critic and the fear of failure won out.
What was missing from my life during those seven years was not just writing but everything writing practice gives me: daily bliss, meaning, a sense of self-expression and of accomplishment, but most importantly, let me say it again, daily bliss. Daily contact with something bigger than me. Daily grace.
I was willing to open up that locked box of writing only out of pain, which is why, I think, we make all the biggest hardest changes in our lives. I didn’t know I was missing writing, I only knew I felt dried out and like life was rather gray, not vivid, not alive. When I became willing ask myself how I could move out of that pain, a simple whisper said, “Write, write.”
At the time, that sounded like the oddest thing. I had decided writing wasn’t my path, that it wasn’t a good fit. I thought I wasn’t a good writer.
The whisper was persistent and I decided to follow it. And something graced me with an insight then: I understood that to write, I had to let go of attachment to other people’s estimation of my work. I had to let go of the whole “love me, praise me” thing. I had to be willing to do it for the love of it.
I did. Honestly, I never left behind the little lift I get when someone appreciates my work, but something shifted. I became the authority on my work. The point of it all became the process of writing — not the reception I receive.
I find it fascinating that in wholly giving up attachment to being good, I got to learn this year, without a doubt, that I am a good writer. Finally I could hear people say it, because the sane part of me, not my ever-dissatisfied ego, was listening.
That is the history, part I. There is more to say, but let’s leave this piece at this.
photo credit: Debby Hudson
Join the discussion 35 Comments
Thanks for such an honest, heartfelt post. Something similar happened to me, and I gave up writing for much longer than 7 years. It was closer to 15, which is truly sad. Even though I wrote for a living it wasn’t *my* writing, if that makes sense. Launching my blog has allowed me to find my voice again, and it feels great. I’m glad you found yours. I love reading your work.
This certainly piques my interest – I’m currently developing a class in “Finding your Voice as a Writer.” I got my BA magna cum laude with a creative writing thesis, and then struggled for years with what to write next. I’ve written, both for a living and for the adventure of getting published, but very little has felt like my “voice.” Lately, like you, I’ve realized that just writing is important to me, and not knowing the next step is ok.
Writing was never something that I took seriously until recently, but I had a similar thing with music. Went back and forth between high praise and deep criticism and ended up stuffing music away for a long time. This resonates so powerfully with me after that experience.
Sounds so familiar to me, as well. Five years ago a really big opportunity came my way to showcase my cooking skills to a national audience. I was convinced this was “it”. After it didn’t go as well as I hoped, I fell into a major rut that lasted a couple years. I even came close to giving up cooking all together for fear of another major “failure”.
Now that time has passed, I’ve realized this “failure” was one of the best things that has happened to me. It completely transformed the way I look at my talent and defined how I’d like to share it with the world.
In the end, some people appreciate it, some people don’t. And, that’s okay.
Tara, thank you for writing such a beautiful and honest account of your breakthrough. This REALLY resontated with me. Lately, I’ve come across a lot of information about how we get caught in the trap of defining our selves through the praise and criticism of others. After a while, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Ironically, only when we create for the sheer joy of creating itself do we produce our greatest work.
Oh, and I thought you’d be interested in this post where Cal Newport talks about some of the nuances of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.
I love this idea of “coming home to whatever love you’ve lost.” I bet we all have at least one, and in most cases it’s some form of fear that has created a wedge between us and that love.
And your particular story would SO resonate with my daughter right now. She’s only 10, but she has the same kind of talent and fear you describe—she has just been talking to me about the pressure she feels when it comes to writing. She has set the bar too high and is in danger of putting distance between herself and this love. I think I’m going to have her read your post so we can talk about it. Thank you.
Wow, what a beautiful, honest post. This struggle is so familiar to me – and like others, I find that when I create for the sheer joy of it, I produce my best work and feel the best about it.
Keep creating, Tara. You have a beautiful voice and so much to say.
I so appreciated this post as I could so relate. Thanks for writing.
Tara–I could camp on your web site! I have to pace myself on the computer because I love reading about all these lovely journeys of the soul…especially the ones that are the journeys back to self. Wonderful stuff!! Loved many thoughts here and the one that caught my attention the most is that you became the authority of your work. So key, isn’t it? I too have been hesitant for years to get out there and write….and now I do it when I want to and not because I have to. I GET to!!! It’s slow and sporadic and for now it is SOOOO much better than talking about it. Thanks for the continued inspiration! Jennifer
[…] the process of working at something to get better at it. I’ve written about this before here, because when I read Dweck’s research it so strongly resonated with my own experience. In my […]
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This post had a huge impact on me when you first posted it back in January and even more so now because I can totally relate to everything you are saying. After 3 very overwhelming months of being in the spotlight for academic and writing honors and not feeling worthy of any of them, I have come to realize that I suffer from the very-real and often paralyzing affliction called the “Imposter Syndrome.” The personal struggles you describe above fit the symptoms perfectly. I am also a writer and feel in my gut that the way to make sense of all of these gut-wrenching feelings is to give them voice on the paper. Thank you for being brave enough to share your own story with the rest of us–it gives me a lot of strength to know that others suffer from the pressure of praise.
As an artist, I completely understand trying to produce work that will give you more accolades. I have fallen into that trap, and have spent too much time at some points making work to please someone else or a particular market. Some successes and failures later, I was able to look at the realities of what I was doing, refine my personal vision, and then turn my back on the “opportunities” that were in conflict with that vision. Clarity is a good thing.
I’m so sorry I hadn’t yet found my way to your site back in January 2011. I am thrilled to have found it now!
Thank you for sharing your journey so that others will see “we’re not alone”. To my students and my one-on-one clients, I speak often of the trap that comes with recognition — the one that paralyzes us. You’ve told the story beautifully here. And most importantly, I can feel the energy of your shift through your words.
Thank you! I’m smack dab in the middle of one of those crushing blocks. Comforting to know there are other “writers” who spend substantial chunks of time writing nothing at all.
Tara, I came across your website when I stumbled upon the 10 rules for brillient women on yahoo and I have been breathlessly reading about you, the write ups, the poetry…and oh I loved the poems. I will be getting to know about you more in the coming weeks and will be in touch. Thanks for sharing all this brilliant stuff…
Goodnight, TSM. Feels like kismet to have found this. I am in my own 7 year famine, having quit singing and music (the loves of my life!) at the top of my game. The safest way to avoid critique is to just drop out, right? Except I feel like my leg is missing. Thank you for your honesty. I’ll be digging around your site for the map back to my voice.
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Thanks for this heartfelt post – I’m reading it long after you published it, but then these core things resonate beyond the constant online chattering we’re all accustomed to…
I love your observation on daily grace – being connected to something bigger than ourselves and in doing so experiencing bliss on a daily basis. No one else can do this for you and yet the resistance many of us feel is huge.
When you take away the fear of both failure and success though – like you say, letting go of attachment to other people’s estimation of your work, you can finally allow yourself to stop measuring stop judging yourself, and get blissfully lost in the doing of the work itself.
Which is, as we all know, easier said than done, but here’s to each and every one of us stepping in, sooner rather than later. (OK, that’s it, I’m off to the studio!…thx!!)
I so enjoyed this article in particular,it met me right where i am. I have a small boutique i would like folks to know about,at times i sell and then once i sell one item. I seem to go in this type of cave.
I really don’t understand it. I’m keeping my on self back.i design clothing and jewelry pillows etc. I’m in school at the moment, for fashion design it has helped that i”m around folks that are like me.I know i’m saying a lot for my first time writing.
thanks for listening
This makes me soooooooooo excited for today’s Playing Big class! I can relate to everything you say in here, Tara. Thank you. Can’t wait to hear you on the phone later today!
Tara, I am completely stunned. I’m teary and my heart is racing. I’ve just seen myself in your article and it is wa-ay freaky. Counting on my fingers says it’s been 5 years. I’ve written loads of stuff since then, articles for peer-review journals and news media and so on, but not heart stuff. I’m so shattered by this revelation that I’ll need to work on this, think on it and return when things are a a little more… coherent.
Thank you, a million thanks.
We are kindred spirits. Very kindred. Your article made me tear up, because I know exactly how it feels. I never realized that it was the huge amounts of praise that made me doubt myself so much (and yes, with writing). I started losing my “love” for writing when I was in middle school, when it became more about other people telling me I’m good enough than about actually writing. But no matter how much people told me I was good, and still do, I’m terrified whenever I try to write (except for Journal entries that I know no one but me will see).
I don’t know how to let go of the need to be judged by others. I don’t know how to just simply believe myself to be a good writer without anyone else’s input. Or really, to believe myself to be able to succeed at anything (and people encouraging me is just as scary, if not more so, than them discouraging me!)
I need to overcome this. I need the tools and resources to help me. Because that feeling that you described: “like life was rather gray, not vivid, not alive.” That’s how I feel. I need to move past it.
I’ve written plenty in the last 7 years, but I haven’t really believed in my work during that time. Like, I knew I wanted it to be my future – and it scared the heck out of me that I wouldn’t be good enough. And so I’ve been stuck. Writing becomes a dreaded chore instead of a joy. For all the reasons you described in your article.
If you have any tips, advice, help, and/or resources for me – that would be awesome. I want to move past this.
I hear you albeit two years later. When I found out that by writing regularly I became in touch with something more than just me, a kind of centering joy, I thought I would never stop writing. But I did. So Thank You for saying what you have shared in this post. Because I see me in all those words. I love what writing gives me and I, at one time, loved sharing the process. Then, one day I did not meet my expectations of writing daily and I stopped. I relate to what you have written and I too miss the “Daily Bliss.” I am awakened. Mahalo.
[…] self (from an MBA program, a very analytical job) that it felt super scary to be blogging. Would people think I was “a bad writer?” Would they think the the ideas I was sharing were naiive or cheesy? And then as a beginning coach, […]
i too am just discovering you, 2yrs plus after your article. i guess it’s time finally. i enjoy writing but i LOVE LOVE LOVE painting, which i deny myself the pleasure of doing. my paints have been drying out and my brushes nibbled on by moths for over 5yrs, and life does indeed feel ‘gray, not vivid or alive.’ when i think about it, it seems crazy that i am ‘creating’ this experience rather than the joy available through simply putting paint to paper. the ‘not good enough’ voice has been running my life, and i’m taking it as a good sign that i have found my way here. with blessings and gratitude for your sharing.
Thanks for sharing such an authentic part of yourself!
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[…] her article, How I Got My Voice Back, Tara writes about the years of her life when her inner critic prevented her from creating. As […]
Views, likes, comments, follows… They all give feedback that can be useful. (Recently read your post of feedback, too!) But to take them into one’s soul as a measure of worth is a mistake.
Create because creation is powerful. Create because creation is therapy. Create because creation is soothing… So many reasons to create. But others’ response to what we create is more about them than about us (or so says a wise woman I’ve met recently…)
Whats up are using WordPress for your blog platform? I’m new to
the blog world but I’m trying to get started and set up my own. Do you need any html coding knowledge to make your own blog?
Any help would be really appreciated!
[…] to “play big” by outlining her principles to becoming a brilliant woman and sharing how she got her voice back after avoiding her creative self. She is encouraging without being preachy, in fact she’s also a poet so her encouragement is […]
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[…] her article, How I Got My Voice Back, Tara writes about the years of her life when her inner critic prevented her from creating. As […]