The inspiration for this post comes from Dear Sugar podcast episode “How do I find the courage to be my own guide?” and, perhaps more indirectly, from Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. This topic is relevant to so many areas of life but I’m going to consider this question in light of creative pursuits.
I’ll admit that I feel like a fraud for this post.
Why? I don’t know if I do trust myself very often, especially when it comes to anything requiring abstract creativity. I’ve made the wrong choice in decisions relating to my career, friends and family, academics, and especially writing.
Lessons can be learned through any of our choices, but the difference between a not-terribly good decision (“I can’t afford this dress and have no occasion to wear it, but damn, I need to have it!” “I should probably stay at this shitty job so that my resume doesn’t make me look like I have a spotty work history.” “Our roommate won’t mind if we open her half gallon of shitty rum and accidentally drink it all before we go out tonight.”) and painful experiences is the intensity of the feeling of shame. The more vulnerability involved in a decision, the more humiliated and filled with self-doubt we feel when we find that we didn’t take the best course of action.
Mistakes happen, but sometimes the weight of the wrong choice clings for years, letting it influence our choices so that we don’t make that apparent mistake again.
I’ve realized that I’ve associated moments of vulnerability during times when I felt uncertain about my life – when I felt like I had made the wrong decisions – with creativity. This lead to incredibly self-limiting beliefs, mostly that I couldn’t trust myself to create anything worthwhile. It’s OK to nod along, I know you’re out there.
The culprit incident that lead to me having zero confidence in my creative abilities occurred during my first term of graduate school. I left a full-time job, one that paid shit and added an obscene amount of stress to my life but to which I hinged my sense of identity, for the life of a full-time student. I went to grad school to get out of that shitty job, to qualify myself to be a college-level writing teacher (which I thought I had wanted to be), to figure out the next steps in life, as many a 24-year-old is wont to do.
One of the courses I signed up for that first term was benignly named “Advanced Composition.” I took the undergraduate equivalent at the same university, a creative nonfiction writing course, and the instructor for this graduate course was a newly hired creative nonfiction professor. Still, I enrolled, even though this course barely fell within the parameters of my program. Part of me thought this course would bridge the gap between my undergraduate work (I got an English degree but mainly focused on creative writing and the study of contemporary fiction and nonfiction craft), my professional work (journalist and copywriter), and my long-term goals (I assumed that I wanted to be a teacher so that I could write on the side, because all writers are either journalists or teachers, obviously) and help me forge an academic path forward; I’d have to write a thesis on something, after all. This particular class would likely have Master of Fine Arts students in it, which gave me pause – these were students from a completely different program than mine – but I had dealt with future MFA-ers in my undergraduate classes; I could deal with this new crop. To assuage the hesitation I felt in the days before the start of class, I emailed the professor to confirm that I would be the right fit for this particular class. Indeed, this was a creative nonfiction-writing class, but the professor gushed: of course I was invited and welcome.
Nope. Not accurate.
The other 11 graduate students gathered in that room for a once-weekly, three-hour evening class were teaching assistants, except for me, meaning they all had a connection as brand-new or second-year composition teachers. Enter the outsider. I’m naturally introverted, at times obscenely, but in these types of new situations I am eager to be friendly to strangers even if it gives me mild anxiety. For the first several classes I fished for conversation. I tried to jump into group discussion. I forced smiles. No takers. I couldn’t help but feel completely excluded from this new group. Of course no one was actively plotting against me, excluding me, but a first-year, non-creative writing student who wasn’t teaching the same first-year composition class as everyone else didn’t seem to have a place in this space.
As the class unfolded over the term, I felt more and more excluded. The points I’d occasionally bring up were quickly contradicted or followed by silence from my classmates. I stopped speaking. Better to stay silent than invite discomfort. The enthusiasm for tackling creative writing projects on the ideas rattling around in my mind soon faded, too. I stopped writing for the love of it, but because I needed to finish my assignments so that I’d be closer to the end of this awful class.
Which brings us to the moment when my essay was workshopped. I’d participated in many workshops as an undergraduate and knew the drill: hand out printed copies of a creative piece of writing to your classmates at the end of one class, and at the following class, they’d spent a chunk of time critiquing the work. Eventually you’d receive your printed copies back with comments, questions, and feedback, both positive and negative. While the experience is painful due to the exposure of your work to a wider audience than just you and your professor, the result is often helpful. A few deflating comments can be absorbed when you ultimately can walk away with helpful feedback to put toward improving a specific piece and your craft overall.
This workshop, however, was different. Silence dominated what should have been a conversation among the class. Bless the heart of the professor, who tried to force discussion (I wasn’t allowed to talk, as this was a bona fide creative writing workshop), but hardly anyone wanted to contribute anything to the discussion. A few said relatively unhelpful things. A second-year fiction writer flipped through a few pages and sighed with just enough impatience to make me want to call the whole thing off: “I feel like this is like my writing in my first year, where I assumed things would just come together.”
To be fair, that workshopped essay wasn’t good. I don’t have the file saved anywhere and have long tossed the printed workshop copies of the piece, but from what I remember, the essay was some clusterfuck about three of my family members and their own individual connections to the Vietnam War, with my own relationship to the war in Iraq sprinkled in. Politics. Family. Big topics that required a lot of space, longer than 10 or 12 double-spaced pages and a few weeks of sporadic, undisciplined writing and revising.
Part of me knew that essay wasn’t great as I worked on it, but rather than scrapping it and focusing on improving one of the other essays I’d begun in that class, I cobbled together something I was far from proud of, something I knew I probably wouldn’t work continue to revise. Something that wasn’t worth the time of my classmates, though I don’t think that was part of my intentions at the time.
I sat with patience through that awkward, painful sham of a workshop, a tedious experience for all no doubt, then collected the copies of the essay that others had scribbled on (weeks later I looked at their notes, which were so much more sparse, textually and emotionally, than what I’d been writing on others’ workshop drafts. I pulled back on my own reading and feedback on others’ essays after that), waited for that class to end, and went on my way.
Four years since the end of that class, I hadn’t written a single thing that could be considered “creative writing” until very, very recently.
That perfect storm of changing career paths, from something that structured my identity to something that I wasn’t sure I even wanted, combined with beginning a graduate program that I could already feel myself doubting was right for me, and being surrounded by new, unfriendly people in a class that wasn’t right for me, simply deflated me creatively. Of course that crabby second-year MFA’s comments about my essay not having a deliberate narrative thread running throughout – that I can’t assume a reader is going to clearly understand my argument without some damn work on my part to make that argument understood – was legitimate feedback and helpful advice. But her tone and the overall disdainful vibes from others made me wonder what the point was of such creative vulnerability. I dropped my dreams of being a writer.
I don’t know what’s caused me to open back up, just slightly, to writing. Maybe being in a new place yet again. Maybe it’s having more time on my hands than normal, with there being no side projects and a nonexistent commute to work. Maybe enough time has passed, some emotional maturity has occurred, some relative career stability and self-confidence has developed.
I wasn’t wrong to have such a negative reaction to that experience, but the time has come to drop my association of creative pursuits with major life upheaval and the insecurities that come with this.
We, and that includes myself, have to learn to understand that there will be struggles and disappointment and failure in whatever we do – that struggle can particularly searing when it comes to our creative efforts. And along the way on our creative journeys, there will be feedback of all kinds: the good, the bad, and the good masked as bad. And there will be radio silence.
But we also have to learn to trust ourselves, to live in the truth of whatever it is we so deeply desire to do. A small amount of faith in our abilities and dreams can carry you farther than you would have gone otherwise.
So put trust in yourself by finishing a small piece of writing, art, or music you’ve been working on. Put trust in yourself by sharing a draft of your work with someone whose feedback and honesty you trust. Put trust in yourself by submitting a piece of work you’re proud of into a competition without any certainty that you’ll win. Put trust in yourself by feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment in your work. Put trust in yourself by opening yourself to honesty and knowing that great art follows vulnerability.
Trusting yourself, an ongoing exercise, takes practice and deliberate action. But know that you’re not alone – and know that I’d love to hear about your journey.