Ali is our guest writer today with some thoughts about not giving up.
The Mean Girls in Your Head: On Not Giving Up
The first time I said I was a writer, I felt like a liar. I muttered it quietly as the answer to a question and fled the room. That is questionable behavior, at best, for a party. But the thing of it is, I almost always feel like a fraud. Every time I say I’m a writer or a poet, I internally begin to panic. No matter how many times I say it out loud. No matter how often I write things. I still feel like a kid playing dress up in her mother’s clothing. It’s weird.
This is what is commonly known as imposter syndrome—which is like the Mean Girls from middle school, except they live in your head. It doesn’t matter if you wear pink on Wednesdays or how big your hair is—if you make art of any kind, the damn Doubt Monster is going to rear it head on occasion. Sometimes, it’s going to grab you by the throat. Sometimes, it’s quieter and possibly more sinister, a lurking thought that you keep trying to push away. This usually happens a 1 a.m., when you’re already exhausted.
Often times, we judge art by the way society measures success. For writing, this equals the dreaded, “Oh, what novels have you had published?” When I started taking my writing more seriously, I was lucky that I had published friends to lean on. And panic at. (Because good grace and gravy, I can flail like a champion.) The simple truth is that if you’re writing, you’re a writer. If you’re painting, you’re an artist. If you’re taking photographs, you’re a photographer. What happens after that is entirely out of your control.
The important thing is to create. Tell your stories. You’re the only one who can tell them. You’re the only you, so whatever comes out is yours and no one else’s. As of right now, I’ve written three full novels. They’ve all been shelved for the rest of time (and dear god, in the event of my untimely demise, burn them. Toast marshmallows in the flames. Then have margaritas.). For a while, I felt like total failure. But in reality, I know those are not good stories. There are good things about them—great lines I’m really proud of, touching moments, killer jokes. But they’re not well-crafted narratives. But it took me years to realize that’s okay. That doesn’t mean they’re worthless. Everything I write from now until the day I give up coffee (aka die) is a learning opportunity. With art, you learn by doing. You don’t learn by osmosis. Sure, people have natural talent, but no one wakes up and is suddenly Shakespeare or Dickinson. You do. And you evolve.
Even now, when I talk about being a writer I feel a bit like someone is going to realize this grave mistake and label me a charlatan. I’ve made peace (mostly) with the idea that this never goes away. That each new project brings with it tremendous joy and terrible panic. Because holy cats and cradles, what if the other successes were flukes? What if I’ve forgotten how to word? What if I suddenly lose all grasp of the Oxford comma? (In the latter case, please have me checked for some kind of head injury. Because death first, darling. Oxford comma forever.) When those moments happen, I’ve gotten in the habit of telling them to bugger off.
And I’ll tell you a secret: writing something bad isn’t failing. The only way to fail at writing—at anything, really—is to not try. To abandon the pursuit. Now, Dorothy Parker once said, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” This is solid advice. Despite the fact that it is rewarding and I couldn’t give it up if it I tried, arting is rarely easy. (Fun bonus: when it is easy, you will later interrogate what you did for all signs of being a steaming pile of NOPE. Because easy often feels like a trick or a trap.)
Last summer, I had a poem published in Uncanny magazine. (If you feel like reading it, you can find it here: http://uncannymagazine.com/article/from-the-high-priestess-to-the-hanged-man/.) It is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. The piece is very close to my heart for a lot of reasons. I was beyond happy that it found such a wonderful home. But more than the publication—seeing my name in print, being able to point to this thing I’ve done—what happened afterward was magical.
People liked it. I wrote a thing that people connected to. Random people I’d never met sent me messages thanking me. Right there, it made all the hard work and shelved Frankenstein’s monster novels worth it. It made every bad sentence and heart-wrenching rejection okay. And I made a promise to myself that I was going to hold on to that feeling.
So far, I have. I’ve opened myself up and sent out more writing submissions in the past few months than, maybe, ever. I have learned when to ditch an idea because it’s bad and when to keep going because difficult is not the same thing is bad. I’ve learned to ask for help when I’m stuck on a story, which is a big deal for me. All of this has made me a better writer. It has also made me braver.
I’ve started doing what Neil Gaiman famously advised in his gorgeous poem, “Instructions”: trust your story. So, if you’re someone who makes art, listen: keep doing it. Keep at it. Don’t you dare give up for any reason. Yes, there are going to be hard days. There are going to be times where you consider lighting everything in a bonfire and inviting the neighbors. There are going to be days (momma said, momma said) when you want to give up.
Don’t. Because maybe you’re writing the poem that’s going to change someone’s life. Maybe you’re taking a photograph that changes someone’s perspective. Maybe you’re going to touch someone’s heart, a world away from where you’re standing. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
But you won’t know if you quit now. And if you were to do that, you’re robbing the world of something only you can make. I’m not saying that a painting is going to cure world hunger (it can’t; it also can’t solve a problem like Maria, but I digress). But art matters. And your art matters, too. Because it’s yours.
Ali Trotta is a poet, editor, dreamer, word-nerd, and unapologetic coffee addict. She is always scribbling on napkins, closing her eyes while crossing the street, and singing along to songs at the grocery store. When she isn’t word-wrangling, you can find her cooking, baking, taking photographs, or hanging out in parking lots. She’s on Twitter as @alwayscoffee, and you can read her blog at http://alwayscoffee.wordpress.com. Additionally, she does weekly reviews of the TV show Supergirl for Blastoff Comics, which you can find every Tuesday here: blastoffcomics.com.