There was a moment last Tuesday 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 to 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.