I find it difficult to give up on anything I’ve written. I don’t like the feeling of putting time and effort into a piece only to see it fail, so I tend to stick with crappy older work too long.
I’m reminded of college, the first time, right after high school. Before I got there, I’d decided to major in computer science, but before I finished, I knew I’d made the wrong choice. I didn’t stop, though. I didn’t change my major. I felt too invested in it, in terms of both time and money, to start all over. I was impatient to begin my adult life. Never mind that I’d been an adult already, working a full time job, for several years. I’d assumed the identity of computer-science-major-who-will-graduate-and-get-a-high-paying-job-with-a-guaranteed-pension-and-medical-insurance. Not because I cared very much about computer science and not because I couldn’t make a life working the job I already had. I built my identity around what I thought I was supposed to want and do as a high school honor student whose parents preached stability. To not finish college, or even to prolong my time there by changing my major, would be to fail, in my mind. I was determined to finish what I’d started, and I felt I was running against the clock of my life.
What followed was nearly a decade of heartache. I graduated and I got that so-called great job, but the longer I had it, the more miserable I became. By not giving up on a poorly chosen college major, I’d given up on myself.
Why was it easier for me to keep following a path I sensed was leading me in the wrong direction than it was to stop, reconsider, and redirect myself? When I think back on this time in my life, I must admit that I enjoyed being recognized as an achiever, as someone who could succeed. Becoming a college graduate meant earning respect. Landing a good job led to more respect and recognition. Advancing in that job—earning promotions, salary increases, greater responsibility—meant I would accumulate recognition and respect, from family members, from friends, from peers.
I had a deep need to be valued, and that need persists today. I know that it comes from feeling unvalued as I was growing up. I always made good grades and was well-behaved in school, and this was the only aspect of who I was that I ever felt recognized for as a child. Nothing else about me ever seemed to be very important, least of all what I would have said were my passions. I suppose, then, that I internalized this type of achievement as a way to earn love. Although love isn’t how I’d currently characterize the attention I received for being a good student.
The need to feel valued continues to manifest itself in how I’ve approached my writing life, particularly over the past year. After I finished drafting the memoir I’d wanted to write since my early thirties, I felt overcome by an impatience to publish something, anything. I felt a great need to taste again that respect and recognition that comes from succeeding. So I committed myself to submitting whenever and wherever I could. But, under pressure, I struggled to create new work that had any substance. I pulled out pieces I’d written one, two, even three or more years before, revised and reworked them here and there, and sent them off. Truth is, I should have never let them sit so long in the first place. I should have been submitting regularly all along. But the truth also is that I’m a different writer now than I was when those pieces were composed, and also, most of that work probably is better off staying on my hard drive. Just as when I was younger, it’s difficult for me to face the fact that sometimes putting in time and effort (and money) does not lead to either immediate or soul-affirming success. Sometimes all that work is just the smoothing out that must happen before a desirable path can be built.
This need to feel valued is, in its essence, a need to belong. Sometimes the desire to belong can be so strong, we can lose ourselves in activities or groups that are actually quite a poor fit. We confuse belonging with going along.
I’ve done the poor fit thing so often in my life, by now I should be able to sense it the way my dog knows a rabbit is in the yard before it can be seen. Yet, I still too easily aim in the wrong direction. My journey toward authenticity in the type of work I do began with that realization way back in college that I was on the wrong path, but my progress since then has been painfully slow and circular. I repeat mistakes. I correct again, and again. Being able to even think of myself as a writer, to even say those words out loud—I am a writer—is progress I’ve had to fight for. It’s so deeply ingrained in me to not trust what I truly want.
The challenge I face now is determining what kind of writer I am, aside from the usual discussion of genre. What does publishing mean to me? What does compensation mean to me? What is my purpose for writing at all? Last year I submitted a lot, and my work was rejected a lot. But I didn’t write a lot, and what I did write fell flat. I spent a great deal of time trying to get my work out into the world, unsuccessfully. And what I’ve learned from this is that the act of writing itself is more important to me than the pursuit of publication. Because I’ve missed writing. A lot. I’ve missed the fun of trying new things in my writing, of trying to write a thing because I feel compelled to write it, without worrying about how or when or if it might be published. And I’ve learned that I probably need to just write whatever it is I want to write and then send it out right away, before I think or worry too much, before I have a chance to become afraid. And then I should write again. I’ve learned that I care about the quality of my writing more than about earning money from it, which is to say I want to be the kind of writer who might one day be paid for what she writes rather than the kind who writes to be paid. The respect I need to earn is my own.
I realize that I began to want a type of writing life that is not the best fit for me, because of the deep need I still have to feel recognized and valued, to belong. I am never going to be that writer who endlessly pitches ideas and dashes off articles and lives off her freelance income. I am never going to be that writer who earns an MFA and teaches writing at a university and lectures at all the best conferences. I am never going to be that writer who churns out six novels a year and formats them all herself for e-readers and treats her book publishing like a business. I’m still not sure where in the literary world I will end up, but I have to believe there is a place for the kind of writer I want to be. Maybe writing will be less a business or career for me than a lifestyle. Maybe it will simply be how I spend my days.
I’ve been impatient with my work in part because of how very long I’ve been on this journey of mine. I always feel that pressure of running against my own clock. Fifty is looming on my horizon, but I realize now that I’ve been impatient in the wrong way. I don’t have time to waste on anything that isn’t the right fit. I’ve tried to make my old work, perhaps, into more than it truly is when, really, I should think of it all as necessary practice, what I had to do to get to where I want to go, just as every step of this journey has been. There’s no way to compress time, we can only make good use of what we’re given. Forward is the best direction to go.
I’m participating in Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge. This is #6 of 52.