Postscript on creative discouragement

It’s been a slightly frenetic week.

I got hooked into a writing community that’s so active and interesting, I’ve felt slightly manic for days, as if I needed to double my output just to keep up with whatever might be happening out there.

I went to the faculty reading of the 15th annual VONA workshop, where I hugged and reunited with so many writing friends and inspirations, and let the brilliance and community vibrate into me like a roomful of drumbeats (and if you’ve ever been to a taiko festival, you know the kind of sensory experience I’m talking about).

I went across the bay and made some sketches that please me:

first attempt (at least in a long time) at a two-page spread

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Give Bells Atlas a listen.

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My last post, the one on creative discouragement, got cross-posted on the Hedgebrook blog. The one time I applied to their residency in 2010, I didn’t get in, so this is validating on multiple levels! That post has also been shared across multiple other networks, which surprises me, because so much of it is so personal.

Because of that post’s newness, and because of the attention it got, everything I’ve done in the past week has unfolded as if in dialogue with that post — with those feelings of creative discouragement and my resolve not to let them bring me down. And so, since the dialogue has continued, I have new thoughts to add.

(1) There is no “made it.”

What do you consider the signposts of “making it” in your particular field? Have you “made it” if you’ve had a book published, had it reviewed in the New York Times, seen it sold in airports? Do you need an award or a high-flying circle of friends or your profile (complete with flattering, stylish photo) in a glossy magazine? Although I know “making it” is an illusion, I still accord too much veneration to these milestones, as if they counted for more than the work itself. But this week I was surrounded by other writers in many different career stages, and you know what? There is no “made it.” The ones with no publications look with amazement at my very few. The ones with awards and residencies and published short pieces are in awe of the ones with books. The ones with books are hustling to promote those, make sure they don’t disappear from public view. The ones with multiple books and awards… well, they’ve still got the same self-doubt and love and family and home and health issues as anyone else. Just as in any other aspect of life, there is no golden ticket to a magical existence free of insecurity and anxiety.

(2) It is okay to not know what I’m doing, as long as I do something, because that’s how I find out what I’m doing.

This is a really big one. I’ve had quite a lot of people tell me, “You are one of the most creative and prolific people I know,” and though this made me happy, it would also worry me, because although it’s true that I’m constantly creating, I’m not very consistent across genre, form, or discipline. I kept thinking there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t building, say, a portfolio of short stories, or a tumblr of flash fiction, or a life-size portrait a day for 365 days. But you know what? There are definitely throughlines to my work — ideas or characteristics that are distinct to the way I see the world — and those give a coherence to my output in spite of the wide range of formats. Whatever I’m doing, chances are, it’s related to work I’ve done in the past and work I will do in the future, even if I can’t see it at the moment. In other words, I may do lots of things, but I am not scattered, and I should stop worrying that I am.

(3) It is time to stop letting myself be consumed with questions of whether I’m good enough.

I’ve said this so many times already, but really, really, it is time. It’s not that I can’t improve, but come on, let’s just take this “good enough” question off the table. I am good enough. I can see it, others can see it, it’s understood. Let’s move on from there.

(4) Stop trying to be more than what you are. Instead, focus on being exactly who are you, but better, bigger, and without apology.

I’ve figured this out in various forms before, but it’s as I always say: we have to learn the important lessons over and over. I’m always negatively self-comparing to others, but the things that people like most in my work are the things I think of as being 100% intrinsic to me — and therefore they’re the things I’m most self-conscious about, because other people aren’t doing them! I don’t think I’ve ever noticed this before:

Originality = What I do that no one else does. Self-consciousness = Noticing no one else does what I do. Therefore: What I'm most self-conscious about = my strengths.

In reading over this post, it strikes me that it basically amounts to a resolution to get out of my own way. I’m telling myself:

  • you’re already good enough
  • everything you do helps build your body of work (even if you can’t see it right away)
  • stop fearing your strengths
  • stop comparing yourself to others.

Well, gosh, if all those worries are off the table, what am I going to do with myself? Make art, I guess! Geez. How frightening and exhilarating. Let’s go.

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