I know I said I’d stop freaking out about my comfortable life, but I have to bring it up one more time, because I’ve finally understood what that obsession was all about. As it turns out, what it was about was, naturally, fear: fear of rejection, fear of failure. And as usual, having named the fear, I’m feeling better about it already.
I got to this because I went to Berkeley twice last week to see friends at this year’s VONA workshop, and being around all those writers intensified all the excitement and anxiety and comparisons I always feel about myself as an artist. After I left Thursday’s rousing faculty reading (if you missed Friday’s video of Staceyann Chin, I urge you to check it out), a little voice of doubt crept into my glee. I started to feel deficient. Of course this was partly my inner critic berating me for my imperfections, but I was also thinking about the fiery passion of Chin’s reading, and noticing its absence in my own work. I was feeling panicky because everyone says passion is crucial.
“Your work should be crying out to be written,” they said at VONA last year. “You’ll know what you have to write, because it won’t leave you alone until you do.” I love that in theory, but in practice I’m not sure I know what it means. There’s almost nothing in my life that grabs me this way, consistently and regularly. I can name no life-or-death constant; I live in all the places between obsession and indifference. Does this mean I can’t be an artist? Other writers have told me that art should come from the heart and from the groin. I remembered this, the morning after the VONA reading, and thought desperately, “Even sex doesn’t always come from the groin, for me — it comes from the imagination. Am I doomed? Or am I just, from some combination of genetic predisposition and conservative upbringing, really out of touch with my body?”
I was getting really agitated, thinking about all this, and I thought I should write it down. So I scribbled a quick note, and then went to wash the dishes — one of my many m.o.’s for avoiding writing when there’s something really pressing on my mind. But maybe it’s good I did, because while soaping up the plates, I remembered Ruth Forman’s “May Peace Come,” and started to think, “Why can’t passion be quiet and contemplative as well as sparking explosive?”
I think of all the artists I’ve ever compared myself to, from childhood to the present, and realize the whole practice of comparison is based on a fear that I am not enough. Art-making is all about authenticity, and yet I’ve been trying to make my experience live up to the experiences of others. My fear has told me I’m not edgy enough, not tortured enough, not ethnic enough, too ethnic, too mainstream, too weird, too quiet, too delicate, too sweet, too happy-ending and peace-loving. My fear says: No one wants to hear about my happy suburban childhood. No one wants to know what it’s like to be married to someone I love. My watercolors are too girly. My drawings are too soft. Bottom line? Everyone else is better. Every single comparison is made in the fear that if I really write and draw what I know and think about — if I really work from my authentic experience — I’ll be dismissed. It’s crazy because I believe unconditionally in the importance of everyone’s story, so my fears about my own inauthenticity are actually in opposition to my own beliefs.
I vow in this moment to stop worrying about how my work measures up to anyone else’s — to stop worrying about whether I measure up to anyone else, in art or in anything. We are all unique. (In this sense, no one else measures up to me!) As long as I am as authentically myself as I can possibly be, I am enough. And as long as my work always comes from this same place of authenticity, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of it. It will be original and it will be everything it needs to be.