Monday, December 30, 2013

On Success

I’ve been doing this a long time, you know. This writing thing. Many of the people I am closest to now met me in college, where I double majored in philosophy and religion, or graduate school round one, where I studied theology. I call myself a theologian, and slowly, with practice, I am starting to believe what I say about myself. “Writer,” though -- that is a title I took on at age twelve, a title I have believed for a long time. Maybe not all seventeen years that I have described myself that way, but most of them.

My high school teachers said I had “potential” as a writer. The dreaded “p” word, and all of its accompanying baggage of pressure to succeed. At eighteen my skin was not thick enough. I gave up too easily. I applied for a writing scholarship, and when I did not get it, I decided to major in literature instead. I submitted to the college literary journal, and when I was rejected several times I stopped submitting. It was easier to believe the rejection than the successes. Easier to focus on the judges who had said “no” than the ones who said “yes,” when they awarded me the first year writing prize. After all, I won that prize for writing the best essay in an English 113 class -- the class many of my smart friends got out of because they had taken AP courses in high school. I attributed the win to a big fish, small pond scenario. It did not even occur to me to suggest that my parents drive the hour from Kalamazoo to Holland for the honors convocation where I would receive the award.

I knew I was a writer, though. I just didn’t expect I would ever be successful at it. I didn’t think anyone actually cared about what I had to say. I didn’t believe that I had anything to say worth paying attention to, honestly. I wrote because it was something I needed to do. I wrote for me, and I didn’t show my work to anyone.

The philosophy department, where I wound up at my English advisor’s recommendation, was the place I learned that I had something to say -- and that it was worth saying. Most of the things I had to say, it turned out, were more philosophical than I realized. Many of the things I wanted to say were about God, too. And so I dove into studying religion as well. These became the things I wrote about most, besides my own life and how I got from one day to the next -- topics which were also related to philosophy and religion, perhaps unsurprisingly.

And so, my decision two years ago to pursue an MFA is not and never has been a career change. It’s a re-routing, as if my internal GPS has recalculated based on various circumstances, an interdisciplinary combination of interests, figuring out an alternate route to the same goals I had sitting in the philosophy department on the third floor of Lubbers Hall in Holland, Michigan.

I bring this up now because I have had, by most standards, a wildly successful year as a writer. And, as an article a friend shared with me this week expressed so well, it is easy to defer to luck when it comes to explaining that, rather than acknowledging that this has been the result of years and years of work -- work that’s not nearly over. Work that’s just getting started.

The work I am familiar with, though the recognition is new. So, much of this year, the parts I haven’t spent writing and editing and tutoring and teaching, has been spent learning how to respond to that recognition. I have had to practice saying thank you, without adding a self-deprecating tagline. I have learned, concretely, why people say, “Never read the comments.” I have met total strangers for the first time and had them say they like my work, and been rendered speechless -- that is, until I said something totally awkward that I wished I could take back as soon as it left my mouth.

I have written home to say, “I was quoted by the New York Times today,” even though my family doesn’t read the New York Times.

This year I learned that success hurts.

No one told me that. No one told me how writing would change when suddenly the audience wasn’t imagined, but real. No one told me that I would have to work harder than ever to overcome the internal demons of my own self-doubt that try to keep the words in my head away from that blank page. No one told me that all of this would feel like a big game of make-believe.

10,000 people could not possibly have read an article I wrote last January. That number cannot be real. Or if it is, that will never, ever happen again.

See what I mean? Even in an essay trying to say, here I am world, embracing my life as a writer -- a life I have worked hard for, a life that has and will continue to require certain kinds of sacrifice, commitment, and solitude, a life I love -- even here, a little bit of that self-deprecating humor sneaks in.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret, at the risk of seeming unfeminine, of coming across as overly ambitious instead of sweet, gentle, and receptive, just waiting for something to happen. People have asked me on more than one occasion how I got such-and-such piece published in such-and-such place, and I usually think too hard about how to respond. It feels a bit rude to just tell the truth: I sent it in, and they published it, because it was good.

I’m increasingly convinced that while markets are real, and networking is useful, and sure, luck exists -- what makes it in the end is good writing.

There’s no magic. I’m not playing a game. I’m more stubborn, more persistent, more thick-skinned than I was at eighteen when the college literary magazine sent me packing, and I’m putting words on paper every day regardless of where they end up. The last decade-plus has done me some good, both in the years of practice writing, and the tough shell I’m developing to handle criticism and disappointment. These days rejections -- though they still sting, and though there are more of them than there are acceptances -- feel like proof that I am really doing this thing I have wanted to do since forever ago.

As a young woman whose entire body has been socialized to shrink, to take up as little space as possible, to keep my voice calm and level and quiet, to avoid disrupting the important people and their important conversations, I now have to learn what to do when people are listening. How to stand up, take up space -- physically, verbally, with my whole person. I have to learn how to take credit for the work that I do. In short, I’m learning a new lesson about pride.

Virtue, as I learned in seminary, is a mean between extremes. An excess of pride may be a vice, yet we often forget -- if we were ever taught in the first place -- that a lack of appropriate pride -- excessive humility or shame, the kind of self-deprecating attitude beaten into young women’s bodies and minds since birth -- that too is wrong. A movement toward appropriate pride in one’s God given gifts, used -- I hope -- to bring some truth and beauty into the world -- that lesson may be years in the learning.

Every time I cross my legs, fold my arms, slouch down, and rest my chin on my hand as I so often do, I know I’ve internalized a sense of shame about the space I take up in this world. Every time someone asks me to speak up I know this shame has shaped even my speech patterns. Every time I feel bad about the number on the label of my pants, what I ate for dinner, and the run I did not take, I feel it in my flesh. Every time I apologize before I speak I know that there are lessons I never knew I was learning that I will spend the rest of my life trying to forget.

I’m lucky about one thing, which is that I have people in my life who want me to speak up. People who listen when I do. People who encourage me to eat pie, as well as to write poetry. And so, while I started this essay wanting to write about work, and success, I am also writing about community -- the kind of community that values women’s gifts, that encourages them to grow rather than to shrink, that forms them in the kind of humble pride that exists between those excessive extremes.

For the time being, I just want to say thank you for reading. Thank you for being the audience I never expected to have. Thank you for helping me learn pride in a world that would rather I feel shame, and for giving me the chance to say I am working hard for this, and it is worth it.