As writers, many of us grew up with dreams of becoming the next Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, or J. K. Rowling. We emboldened ourselves with hopes of emulating the brilliant minds that gave us a sense of connection in an overwhelming and overly-extroverted word. Yet, simultaneously, most of us also had huge insecurities about our writing. Will people read? Will readers connect? Will anyone care?
My love for stories began at birth, with my parents reading me board books and fables, and singing me through the story arcs of my favorite lullabies. Stories have always felt like a safe place–a cozy cavern in which creativity can manifest and thrive. In kindergarten, I drew pictures of my two cats and scribbled out misspelled stories with backwards letters, capturing the adventures of Princess and Dusty. A few years later, I drafted a short graphic novel depicting the perils of Pineappleman. Then, somewhere between the age of 10 and 22, I stopped writing. Outside of school assignments, my creative well ran dry.
I read voraciously during that time, though, devouring young adult literature, poetry, encyclopedias, foreign fiction, and anything else I could get my hands on. I was endlessly committed to continual learning, deep thinking, and applying new ideas to my own life. But, I didn’t think I could write.
During my senior year of high school, my Dual-Enrollment/AP English teacher made a comment praising my critical thinking skills, yet I was too embarrassed to be singled out in front of my 20 classmates to take note of her words. Starting that day, I began to wonder if I might be capable of reigniting that quieted fire in my bones. Perhaps, one day, I might become a writer.
One year later, in my university Honors English class, my professor asked me to visit him during office hours to discuss my writing. “All positive,” he assured me. The next day, I stood outside his office door for 10 minutes before timidly walking away. I was embarrassed, yet again, of my creative brain child. I was terrified that the constructive feedback would serve as an external pressure to reconsider my degree and career path. I loved that English class while struggling through Calculus and Biology, but objective truth is easier to discuss than our own subjective knowings. Perhaps, one day, I could become a writer.
Soon thereafter, I dropped out my my Pre-Med program to pursue Psychology. I focused on facts, while subduing my feelings. By the time I graduated, I felt utterly lost. I quickly realized the uselessness of my degree and resented myself for not working harder to qualify for medical school. Burdened by a sense of resignation, I moved back in with my parents and accepted a minimum wage job. I cried alone in my room at night. I started writing, this time–for the first time–about myself.
I am certainly not the first, nor the last, to experience the let-down of the post-university real world. Nothing could have prepared me for the barrage of emotions that flooded my being, and nothing could have guided me through them the way that writing did. As angsty and disjointed as my thoughts were, I had captured them: pinned down their colorful wings to more closely examine their exquisite details and small imperfections.
I recently read an interview with writer Jenny Zhang on The Creative Independent, which deeply resonated with me. She speaks of “writing the secret languages inside your head.” This tactic involves embracing the grand delusions of childhood–the hopes of becoming a world-famous author–and being humble enough to share your imperfect creative work despite the ever-impending threat of criticism.
“I think the main thing is to let go of the idea of greatness. Wanting to be great is really limiting. Wanting to be great, wanting to be perfect, wanting to wow and to stun and to dazzle—letting go of that is the most important thing.
You have to both be incredibly willing to be humbled and also, at the same time, hold an incredible high level of delusion. The high level of delusion is what allows you to keep writing and to want to share it with the world. But you also have to accept that it might not mean anything to other people, or that you might be writing so esoterically or so privately that other people have no way of entering into your ideas. Everyone is constantly trying to articulate the secret languages in their head to the outside world. If your language is too secret, then no one can understand; if your language is completely public, then there’s no mystery. There’s no longer the pleasure of decoding.
So how do you have both? I think it’s okay to be embarrassed. Especially in the beginning. When I say “beginning,” I mean when you’re starting out as a writer. But also in the beginning of writing anything new; it should be kind of embarrassing. Because the secret, intimate thoughts in your head should be kind of embarrassing. They should be kind of intense. It’s embarrassing to cry, but it doesn’t make sense to not [cry] in your life. It’s embarrassing to laugh really hard.
That’s where you start from, and then you have to figure out how much of that you want to clean up and translate for public consumption. I think it’s okay in the beginning for it to be really garish and wrong.”
So those of us who write, whether we call ourselves writers or have placed the title on some out-of-reach pedestal, must recognize the power of simply showing up and speaking our minds. The life of a creative is to walk up to a stranger, head hung shyly, and say, “Here, I made this” over and over again. To be an artist is to observe and practice and refine, not for fame or fortune, but because there is no other option. Though we all draw our creativity up from the same universal stew of consciousness, some people are more in tune with that particular frequency. For some, there is no choice but to pour out their innermost thoughts, and create.
“I think that every writer should have a question they can ask that there is no end to the pursuit of. Every writer should have questions big enough and pressing enough and multi-faceted enough and unanswerable enough that they occupy their entire life, however long or short it is.”
I implore you to consider: what is the answer-less question that entices you to roll out of bed in the morning and keeps you up at night wondering? As Jenny states so bluntly, every writer needs questions that continuously consume their mind. Yet, beyond that, we must also learn to believe in ourselves enough to do the work, but to a small enough degree that we’re not put off by the possibility of failure.
As writers, artists, and creators, we must learn to take shelter in that small crevice between grandeur delusion and impartial humility. We must show up relentlessly, proudly bearing our courage, our optimism, and our truth.