It’s 3:53 AM and I have a terrible stomach ache. I started taking Iron supplements just yesterday and, despite having no concrete evidence, I blame them. I’m sick of being cold all the time, but apparently not sick enough to start eating more meat—so I’m trying to take a shortcut.
It’s an interesting thing, this shortcut, because as I sit here with nausea unfurling in my belly in that irritating way that is too low-key to make me puke (and thus rid me, ideally, of the culprit), I am thinking about another shortcut, or a series of them, that I’ve long dreamed of. The shortcut to success, or even, simply, career contentedness, that I envision in the form of a book that I’ve swiftly written and that everyone will (naturally) love.
I am thinking about this because it has haunted me for at least two years now, two years in which I’ve, ironically, written less and less (for myself, here) over time. But I have also just stumbled upon an old favorite treatise of sorts on writing, by Cheryl Strayed, that seems to have answered the question of why I’m not writing in one (undeniable) fell swoop. Strayed, who did not write her first book until she was 35, responding to a similarly anxious young writer for her Dear Sugar column, starts off by describing that experience as follows:
When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote… And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.
Do you know what that is, sweat pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground.
She then goes on to highlight what’s really going on beneath all of that anxiety—the workings of an inflated ego—that young writers (and creatives) like myself often seem to forget about or flat-out deny:
Buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes you should be successful at twenty-six, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there… You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done. We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce.
This, right here, is the foundation for my supposedly dried-up words, inspirations and determination—an arrogance (driven by perfectionism and the need for control, but also naiveté) that, somewhere along the way, began preventing me from just getting the words out and doing the work and allowing the unknown to happen. Without confirmation that the work would pay off in some way, it no longer felt “good” to do, or worthy of my time. Without the assurance that it wouldn’t be misconstrued by someone, somewhere, or used against me somehow in the circus of life (by future employers, lovers, friends, etc.), it seemed too risky a pursuit. That, and the fact that I was growing uncomfortable with being so honest and raw, allowing the world to see my uglier, or just slightly less-curated, parts—or, to use Strayed’s word, it had gotten harder to be humble (or, to at least work towards being humble—a state I’m not sure I had truly achieved).
But I also knew that I had never been happier than the year or so that I spent writing every day, spilling things out on the page that were not always flattering or ideal but were true. Writing like that was no cure-all, but it gave me purpose and something that I felt I was finally really proud of. It was one of the few activities in which I could truly lose myself, while also happily connecting with others.
Sadly, or perhaps not, I gave up on it a bit, and what it could do for my soul, when it began to feel like it wouldn’t pay off superficially (fame, fortune, yada yada ya). It felt frivolous, too emotional, not contained—too much a potential threat to my fragile ego, which I’ve tried to protect in various, often-detrimental ways.
Now, having revisited Strayed’s spot-on words, this reality feels more obvious, and more difficult to deny. It feels like a wall I should work towards dismantling, however slow or unsure I may be in doing so.