I recently sat down for hot beverages with a writing buddy of mine, Grace. To my surprise, she told me that she’d never felt great at writing in school, but that after she became a mother, she felt this urge to write anyway. She’s stuck with it for years now.
She still struggles with that not-good-enough feeling as she writes, but you wouldn’t know that if you read her work. Because she writes lovely prose.
We all struggle with that not-good-enough feeling, right?
I’m in the process (again) of sending out manuscripts to agents. Every time I look up agent profiles, reading what they’re interested in to see if they’d be a good fit for my work, I have to ignore the loudspeaker in my head that says FORGET IT YOUR WORK IS TERRIBLE THEY WILL LAUGH IF YOU SEND SOMETHING WHO ARE YOU KIDDING STOP NOW BEFORE YOU EMBARRASS YOURSELF.
Can I tell you that the voice has been trying to put the brakes on my writing for 20-odd years now? The only thing that has changed is that the volume has gone down.
This is a picture of the quote on my desk:
Madeleine L’Engle tells the story of being at a conference where a Boston professor said this quote to the audience.
Basically: do the work. Stop worrying about the quality.
My friend posted a similar quote from TS Eliot on Instagram. “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
Yes, TS Eliot worried he was a hack.
Guys, we are in really good company.
When You Yearn for Something But You’re Not Sure for What
I was talking to my friend Kristy the other day about the nudge she keeps feeling to live more creatively. She’s not entirely sure what that looks like right now—she’s tried her hand at blogging, Instagram, and takes beautiful photographs. She’s not exactly sure what the next step is for her, but I felt such a wave of respect that she’s trying to figure that out, to honor that nudge and put herself out there in the most faithful way she can.
I’m telling you all of these stories because it is so easy to talk yourself out of taking risks. To decide not to sign up for the painting class you saw at the local community college because you can’t quite explain to yourself why you want to take it. To keep your old college thesis in a drawer even though you’ve wondered what it would be like to expand and reflect on the project. To tell yourself your quilts are ho-hum, not that special, even though your friends all have asked if you can teach them how to make one.
I do it to myself: I’ve had several people ask about buying prints of my art work (I have a hard time even calling it “art work”) and when I researched creating a store on my site this week I had palpitations.
Look: it’s okay (totally okay!) if you’re not sure what your passion is. I am of the opinion that all of us (yes, even the supposedly uncreative) are makers and dreamers, but I don’t think that making and dreaming needs to look like commercially viable enterprises, be pretty, or even be explicable to other people. Gardening counts. Making cakes, decorating your house, sewing, scrapbooking…all that counts.
I loved what Elizabeth Gilbert says about passion in her interview on On Being: to paraphrase—“passion” sounds too grandiose. What’s more interesting and promising to think about is what you’re curious about. What you feel wistfully drawn towards.
We Honor Our Creativity with Mediocre Bungling
You know what I’m curious about right now? I would really love to understand the design elements and techniques behind art deco. Every time I try to recreate stuff from that period, I feel incompetent, but I love it. I love the way that style looks.
It is okay for me to feel incompetent.
It’s okay for me to invest time and energy in my garden, nervously ordering plants even though I can’t pronounce the names correctly and I’m constantly putting things in the wrong place and they die.
It’s okay for me to spend a half-hour in the consignment shop trying on belts because belts seem interesting to me in my journey into figuring out my style but OH MY GOSH I DON’T KNOW HOW TO WEAR THEM EXCEPT TO HOLD UP MY PANTS.
Do you feel a nudge to take a risk, to experiment, to dabble? Do you wish you could try vegan cooking, or figure out homeopathy, or make your own stationary, or sell weird cat tchotchkes on the Internet? Does the same idea—that weird, niggling, intriguing, terrifying idea—keep surfacing?
This is a Life-Changing Suggestion
You could try it, just because.
It is okay to suck at executing it.
It’s okay to be incompetent, mediocre, to be unskilled, to bungle it completely. It’s okay to experiment. Sure, maybe don’t invest your family fortune just yet, but even if you’re broke, you might be able to get a library book and learn more.
You don’t have to explain why you want to.
You don’t have to have a plan to make money from it.
You don’t have to know if you’ll like the end result.
You’re not required to have ANY IDEA what kind of “end result” you expect.
You’re allowed to waste your time.
It’s fine if you don’t tell anyone. (Or if you do).
You can decide on a small investment to spend on it and let yourself off the hook if the money goes down the drain.
It’s acceptable to be a beginner.
It’s actually life-changing to do something just because it makes your heart feel bigger.
It’s incredibly intoxicating to let your yearning make you a little kooky and adventurous.
It’s insane how it makes you feel alive.
What’ I’m telling you is that “I might fail” or “I’m terrible at it” is a very valid feeling, but it’s no reason not to try.
What I’m telling you is: when you do something that makes you feel incompetent, you have joined the ranks of TS Eliot, Liz Gilbert, Madeleine L’Engle, Grace, Kristy, and me.
Welcome to the club, querido.