On Imposter Syndrome, Coffee Rocks, And Being a Resident Artist

“I mean, I’m not going to knock on your door and ask you to show me your paintings or stories!”

Across from me, the Most Genial Man in New Mexico laughed. A painter from Memphis sat to my left; both of us wriggled in our seats. I muttered: “Maybe you should…”

We chuckled, nervously.

“No really,” the man continued, explaining how the woman who began the foundation didn’t just want artists to come and create, but also to provide them respite from their normal, urban lives.

“If you want to sleep for three months,” he said, “that’s totally fine.”

I didn’t say: Maybe for you! But I thought it.

The last, and only other time I attended an artists’ residency, I had a concrete goal: to write a new draft of my book manuscript. I had five weeks, and I used every minute (well, every minute that I wasn’t falling in love with N…) to get the thing done.

This time, I have three months, and my objectives are less concrete. When I applied, I assumed I’d be editing that book manuscript, still. I might. But at the moment it’s on pause. And so: I find myself with a cute little casita of my own, a lot of time, no obligations, and, evidently, an expectation no greater than a solid nap.

I am vastly grateful: for the charming space surrounded by tall cottonwoods, for the picnic table outside and the snowy mountains jutting along the horizon and the rock crystals that, for one dollar, a nearby coffee shop suggests you put in your coffee to aid with walking an unknown (presumably internal?) path.

And perhaps most of all, I am grateful to sit across from an exceptionally nice man (no superlative can really suffice) who makes me mint tea, looks me in the eye, and regards me as part of a community of artists–all selected on the basis of their work to come to this beautiful place, and do whatever.

Imposter syndrome. It’s the feeling I never had the words for until graduate school, when my advisor explained it.

“Every writer suffers from it,” he announced, his voice flat. “I still do.”

All artists are are beset with twin compulsions: to relentlessly expose ourselves, our intimate, deeply personal (regardless of subject matter) work to the world; and then, to relentlessly worry that it isn’t good. That we aren’t good.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that no amount of validation can convince us not only that something we’ve made is decent, but that we, personally, are worthy of acclaim–even that we are worthy of being dubbed an “artist.”

“If any writer is going places, it is Laura Van Den Berg.” That was Publishers Weekly in 2013. When asked by The Rumpus whether she ever felt she’d made it as a writer, she said, first “Not even remotely,” and then, something I’m sure I’ve heard other writers say: “I’m only as good as the next project. I’m only as good as the next book.”

Don’t get me wrong, there are moments: that split second right after someone sends you a nice email, or you get something published, or three hundred people hit “like” on your beloved blog post…oh wait, that never happens.

But anyway, those moments come, and then they go. And that is okay. Many writers say this insecurity is what drives them, that the need to constantly prove ourselves is what compels us to keep going.

But there is the danger that we give up: that those moments come fewer and farther between (as, for periods of time, they inevitably do), that we spend so much time doubting that we let ourselves believe the internal cynic, and we stop.

And so, while I would like to think that I will do more in these next three months than sleep, I appreciate that the value in this experience is so much more than what I might make, and so much more than the inspiration or rest I might get: simply being acknowledged, somewhat formally, by someone who is not my grandmother or my roommate or my grad school peer, that I am, indeed, a writer.

So far I have been passing the days walking around town. Reading books. Doing some yoga. Getting to know the other residents: a varied group of artists that could make the New Jersey turnpike interesting, much less a town where no one blinks at Coffee Rocks and half the (white) population has dreadlocks. And writing: mostly fiction and poetry that I’m pretty sure are unreadable.

At first, I felt something like panic: I have three months to write! I should be drafting another book! Not dabbling in genres in which I am completely worthless!

And who knows what’ll end up happening between now and April, when I go home. It’s a lot of time. But what I’m realizing is that what matters even more than what I do here is what happens when I do get home–rejuvenated, inspired, reeking of patchouli, and, hopefully, resolved to keep writing.

 

 

 

 

The Precipice: On Wanting, and Not Wanting, to Know Why

Here are a few of the books I have begun reading in the last six weeks:

A biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. A new novel set between contemporary Nigeria and the US. Assorted editions of Best American Essays. A friends’ recent, acclaimed memoir about his mothers murder. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. A sardonic memoir about searching for D.H. Lawrence. A book about goats.

Let us not discuss how many I have I’ve completed. But, well, on second thought, lets–because that’s precisely the point: lately, my attention span has rescinded to that of a teenage Labrador. (In other words, technically, one.)

The urge to write most often strikes when my mind is least clear; so it is that I come to you in the middle of things. Among them: a seven (formerly known as ten)-day juice fast. A new relationship. A recent, cross-country move. A grueling apartment search whose tone I hope to soon turn.

I want to say that I come to you because I miss you. But to be honest, it isn’t exactly “you” I miss–”you” being an anonymous and widely dispersed cluster whose visible gestures (to me, at least) are few.

What I miss is the space to make sense of things.

Even though, at the same time, I don’t.

At the end of August, my family gathered in Vermont to celebrate a confluence of significant birthdays: this month my brother Jon will turn forty, I will (yep) turn thirty, and Pops will be seventy. We don’t often manage to get all of us (thirteen, at last count) together for meals or holidays, much less several days in the country. It was special.

One of the memories I’m currently cherishing is a walk with my nine-year-old niece. Her two cousins had departed the day prior, which meant that she had stopped running, and now had time to indulge contemplative conversation with Aunt Lizzie.

We were walking along a dirt path, flanked alternately by stands of maple and grassy fields where the Brown Swiss graze, and she bounced a small blue rubber ball on the ground, and told me that she hated not knowing things.

I asked her what she meant; she explained that she just hated not being able to figure things out, things like opening a door (what I knew had been a recent issue in the hotel).

“And I hate not knowing why things,” she said. “Like, why I like to ride horses but I hate riding a bycicle.”

I could feel my insides leap at the chance to Preach Writing: this niece has shown a fondness for the written word, and a compulsion to read thousand page books dozens of times. This was it, I thought, the chance to set her to follow my writerly footsteps!

“Well, that’s the really neat thing about writing,” I said. “It helps you figure out how you feel.”

“How?”

“Well, like if you were to describe how you felt on a horse…”

She played along for a moment—maybe she felt excited, maybe a little bit scared, there was one feeling brought up by jumping, another in that moment right before the jump—but we didn’t get far before her patience ran out.

“Actually, I’m not sure that I want to know after all,” she said, forcing a shrug and a smile, not wanting to let me down too hard.

“That’s okay,” I told her. “You’re only nine.”

But, even at my (rapidly-escalating) age, I know exactly what she means. I sometimes feel as though I live on a precipice: between an urgent compulsion to understand myself, and terror to do just that.

And in these few months away from blogging, that precipice has come into uncommonly clear relief: the urge to write, to connect, alongside that sense of relief–the recognition that I don’t have to connect the dots, don’t have to question everything, don’t have to pull back and ask why things are the way they are.

And I have wanted both.

I have wanted to ask myself: Why this person? Why this place? Why this path and this kind of writing? The kinds of questions that surface for all of us–propelled by shades of doubt or discomfort or those very elusive things whose murky nature compels us to go deeper.

Too, I have wanted to put my head down and just keep moving. To seek shelter from that mode of self-reflection and just be.

I know that I will walk that precipice for the rest of my life. Because it can be terrifying to know what drives us, and it can also be the most compelling thing in the world.

 

The Next Big Thing!

So there’s been this, um, internet thing going around around for a few months called The Next Big Thing: an opportunity for writers to interview themselves about their next project, and then spread the love by tagging another five writers to do the same.

Last week the lovely poet Katherine Deblassie Page tagged me, so, as promised, here are my answers…and at bottom, the five fabulous writers I’ve nabbed to go next. Look out for their stuff next week.

1. What is the working title of the book?

I think titles are the female pull-ups of the writing world—if you can come up with half of one that’s decent, you’re doing great. At least, I am. The working title of my last complete draft was Close: A Family Memoir. I still kind of like it.

 2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

Kind of the whole point of Close is that it’s an idea and a story I’ve needed and wanted to tell my whole life.

It’s the story of my immediate, blended family: my father’s first wife, and the mother of my three much older half-brothers’, whose name was Jackie, was diagnosed with Stage Four Hodgkins when she, and the boys, were very young. She died two years later, and a year after that my mother came into the family: a young teacher from Manhattan. A few years after that my mother had me, my parents’ only biological child. Because my brothers were so young when Jackie died and my father had been through such a trauma, everyone was very eager to move on, and by the time I came along hardly anyone spoke about Jackie.

I started writing, in various ways, about the subject as a teenager. But it wasn’t until my late twenties, during my MFA, that I finally gave myself permission to tell the story. The initial draft was actually on a totally different topic—my maternal grandmother—but during the process of interviewing her my own family story kept pulling me back. It was a deep longing I couldn’t get around.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Literary memoir!?

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

This is actually all my entire family wants to talk about. My father has an amazing Tom Selleck mustache, so, that. Once, at an Urban Outfitters in Cambridge when I was fifteen, someone thought I was Natalie Portman–even though she’s about one eighteenth my size. A guy I used to date once told my brother Jon that he looked like what would happen if Ben Affleck and Ryan Reynolds had a baby, so…not sure what to do with that. Jon’s response, though –”I want to fuck you so bad right now” (he’s straight) –is better than anything in the book.

5. What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

I grew up with a particular fascination with this woman, Jackie, who was my older brothers’ mother and father’s first wife; this book is a search for the source of that interest–one that, along the way, explores how all of us seek to understand ourselves in the context of family. (Are semi-colons cheating? Oh, well.)

6. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

About a year, but the first version was very different than the last. (See above, grandmother.)

7. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Well, there are a lot of ways to answer that: my family members, various writers I admire. What’s inspired me to keep going was a message from the father of a good friend of mine, who happened to read the first draft. He’s about as different from me as anyone has ever been, in terms of age, religion, background, life experience. (Put simply: he’s a pastor from Wyoming who met his wife when he was five). And yet, he was able to connect his own experience to the material. That’s the dream, so that’s what keeps me going.

8. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

My first answer to this question was a long ramble about experimenting with form and fiction and fragmentation in memoir, but no one wants to read that. So, instead: while researching this book, I learned that Jackie and I slept in the same room when we were kids, and that she married my father in the living room of the house where I grew up.

9. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m represented by Deborah Schneider of Gelfman Schneider.

My tagged writers for next Wednesday are:

Jennifer Simpson

Nora Hickey

Nick DePascal

Mike Smith

Casandra Lopez

What My Gut Does and Doesn’t Know

“I’m just going with my gut!”

Either I am surrounded by yes-men, or everyone to whom I have casually explained my haphazard approach to revision honestly thought this was as sound an idea as me.

“What’s your strategy?” They’d ask, all earnest, having heard that my project for the summer is work on a book manuscript.

I’d mumble something incoherent about the necessity of starting over completely, make ample use of the words “craft” and “process,” and then state, with an attempted air of what my stockbroker brother likes to call Supreme Confidence, “You know, I just think it makes sense to go with my gut.

Right,” they’d say, narrowing their eyes and nodding vigorously. “That totally makes sense.”

I’m beginning to have doubts.

Said doubt was sparked, yesterday, by a conversation that had nothing to do with writing. It had to do, instead, with my love life: you know, that thing I’m trying to neglect for the sake of writing about how desperately I want one.

I’m not doing all so well. Yesterday, on one of our regular walks around Prospect Park, I told my brother about my latest interest.

“It’s just that, you know, it’s really rare for me to meet someone I even like.”

He didn’t miss a beat: “No it’s not.”

“What are you talking about?” I snapped back, incredulous. “I, like, never meet guys I’m that into.”

“I could name seven guys from the past two years,” he said, trying his best not to laugh.

I paused. “Maybe! But it didn’t work out with any of them!”

Finally, he cracked up. “That isn’t the point!”

Mildly enraged, I turned my head down to watch my Birkenstocks pound the pavement and ponder that, fuck, my brother was right.

It seemed impossible: my gut feeling, whenever I get smote, is to convince myself of how precious the connection is, how extraordinary and rare, how practically impossible to find.

But, as my brother pointed out, that conviction is, to be straight-forward about things, false: hard won through a tangle of amplified longings, projected emotions and adolescent patterns.

Which, twenty-four hours later, as I pieced together an outline of the manuscript I’ve spent the last few weeks taking painstaking effort to completely rewrite–fistfuls of problems becoming quickly apparent–seemed totally, abundantly clear.

Just as I delude myself about whoever it is I’m dating, I’m also pretty good, turns out, at convincing myself that whatever approach to writing feels right is the best way to go.

With artistic pursuits, that kind of BS is expected: for all I’ve been indoctrinated the past three years about how creative success is more about hard work and discipline and those ten thousand hours, no one can dispute that artists’ work is shrouded in some degree of mystique, an ingredient that can’t be shaped or named. But my instinct, I’m realizing, isn’t so much a matter of sacred creative instinct: it’s about what’s familiar.

The problem, unfortunately, is that what’s familiar isn’t, often, the best idea.

I haven’t, actually, written a book before: perhaps it’s necessary to train-wreck your way through the gambit at least once. Perhaps it’s a learning experience. You know, like getting disappointed by flakey-but-creative men very many times.

But a lot of people have advised me on the process. A lot of people suggested I write an outline: one of my dearest professors in grad school spoke frequently about getting your writing “off the page”–making charts and summaries and lists. Over a year ago, a dear and very accomplished writer lectured me, repeatedly, on the value of making maps.

Organization, though, does not come naturally to me. I make lists and lose them. I buy folders and then collect papers in distinctly uncomposed piles. Still, I didn’t think of my approach as a negative decision, to avoid the tools offered: I thought of it–”it” being rewriting a 300 page manuscript without any clue how the thing should be shaped–
as doing what felt right.

Which might be how an alcoholic feels about an occasional pint, or a sex addict about getting laid a lot of times.

My tendencies–disorganization and dating habits–aren’t quite so toxic. But the same principle applies. Sure, maybe I need to make mistakes for myself, learn the hard way. But at a certain point, too, I have to remember that there are often better alternatives: ones my gut can’t necessarily see.

In Between Times

Yesterday, about twenty minutes after dropping off my dissertation manuscript at Kinkos, I sat at a coffee shop and talked to one of my best friends on the phone.

“Congratulations!” she said. “You must feel so great!”

“Are you kidding?” I snapped back. “I feel like a wreck!”

“What are you talking about?” She asked. “Aren’t you so relieved?”

No!” I said, going on to explain how I had spent the whole night stewing awake in bed, fantasizing about the eight hundred typos I convinced myself I’d missed on the first two pages. Probably, I told her, I’d misspelled my adviser’s name. Probably, I’d be instantly humiliated and destroy my credibility with him and everyone else in the literary world. (Nevermind that I could have looked at the document to assure myself otherwise–too frightenened. And nevermind that there are a total of four members of the literary world who give a shit about my dissertation.)

“Not to mention,” I went on, “I feel so behind in my entire life. I have to plan my creative writing class. I have to do my taxes. My car is falling apart. And in two months I won’t have a job.”

“Can you please,” she begged, “just take half a day to celebrate? You’ve done so much work.”

“Ugh,” I said. “I’ll try.”

I did. I forced myself to get a pedicure. To meet a friend for excessive helpings of frozen yogurt. To pick up a six pack of beers and drink half at a friend’s barbecue last night.

But let me tell you: it wasn’t easy.

Here’s the thing: that manuscript, the nearly 300 pages I got printed and copied and all-fancy-coil-bound yesterday, has consumed me–my mind, my energy, my emotions, everything–for the past year. Everything I’ve done–I mean, everything, even my trips to the bathroom–have felt charged with a terribly coherent sense of purpose.

And at times it’s been daunting: managing this much material is a new and persistently challenging task. (Does this paragraph on p. 158 echo a sentence on p. 12? Or does it develop that thought, bring it somewhere new? Did I forget a physical description of this character, or that one? What happened to that sentence I wrote three drafts ago and impulsively threw out?)

But, mostly, it’s been a huge relief, a comfort, crutch, even, that, no matter what I was doing at any given moment–I always knew what I should be doing.

Now, suddenly, I don’t. As I moaned to my friend, I have no shortage of things to catch up on. Fairly urgent things, among them a wayward rearview mirror and 20 beleaguered undergraduates who haven’t seen a calendar since January.

But it isn’t, actually, those stresses themselves that are nagging at me right now. What’s nagging at me is that I don’t know what I’m going to do on Tuesday.

I mean, a week ago there would have been no question: I would spend Tuesday at some combination of coffee shop, library and home–writing. I would have taken a break for yoga, another for a walk, made some quick meals. But there was no real decision to make: I had to devote most of my day to writing.

This Tuesday, what am I gonna do? I could grade papers. I could deal with my car. I could buy or make one of the many thank you gifts I owe. I’ll try and make myself productive. But I’ll have to decide how. And as someone who has a terrible time making any sort of decision, I would honestly prefer last week’s predicament to this.

My adviser warned me this would happen.

“Enjoy it!” he’d say, whenever I complained about feeling overwhelmed by the many demands of my project.  “It’s better than the alternative.”

What he meant was that, as daunting as big projects can be, at least they give you a long-term focus. As soon as you finish one thing, you have to figure out what’s next. And that uncertainty presents a whole different kind of angst.

Fortunately, I don’t actually have to fathom that angst quite yet. As I’ve been explaining to the few friends and family asking to read my book project (bless their hearts for wanting to): it isn’t, really, done. This is just a draft on which I’m getting feedback from a committee of writers, and with which I’m earning my MFA. Many more drafts will come between now and when I’m ready to show it to the world.

So, really, I should relax: this in between time, this period of having to actually make plans for Tuesday, is just temporary. In a few weeks, I’ll be back to ignoring my taxes, my check engine light, my physical health and uncertain future.

Thank God.

On Trusting Yourself. Or, At Least, Trying To.

While I was working on my portfolio to apply to graduate school, a friend and former colleague generously agreed to read my work. I’d email her drafts, we’d chat on the phone, she’d give me the sharp, keenly astute feedback only she could. I was tremendously grateful.

And, it turned out, tremendously dependent. After I started school, and had to submit to my first workshop, I sent her a draft of my essay: “Can you read this!?” I pleaded.

“Sure,” she wrote back. “I can read it. But at some point you’re going to have to realize that you don’t need me.”

I thought of that exchange today, when I traded emails with someone else who has become a writing mentor.

I’d sent him some pages from my manuscript to look over–he hadn’t seen any of it before.

Let’s face it: no matter how blatently we seek others’ opinions, there’s a (not-so-small) piece of all us (pathetically insecure) writers that really just wants them to turn around and say “Great job! You’re brillant! Quit all that revising and go pop an Ambien!”

Needless to say, those were not, exactly, his words. Instead, he gave precisely the candid and thoughtful advice I both wanted–and feared–he’d provide.

“Thanks!” I wrote back, as cheerfully as I could. I told him how much I valued his opinion, and–hoping he’d appreciate the predicament–that the last person I’d spoken with had told me something pretty much opposite.

“Look,” he replied. “There will always be people telling you one thing or another–ultimately you should do what you want to do and feel is right, and forget about everyone else.”

“That,” I told him, “is the most important advice.”

I’m pretty sure it is. I’m also pretty sure it is the most difficult for me to take.

In writing–as in relationships, as in life–I often feel dependent on the opinions of others. It’s not that I can’t handle criticism: somewhere along the line, (not so far back, I’m pretty sure), I accepted that there will always be people who don’t respond to my work, and that–so long as there are some who do–that’s okay.

But still: I rely on the assurance that latter group exists. I rarely feel certain that something is “good” until I hear it from someone else.

And that scares me: because my mentor is right. In the end, you do have to dismiss what other people say. You have to trust yourself, because a million different people will tell you a million different things.

When I was choosing between programs, a friend at Columbia told me that, in any workshop of hers, maybe two out of the twelve participants would actually provide a useful response.

At the time, I took her words as a harsh critique of the program. But now, I realize that’s the case anywyere–it’s simply the way it works. Not everyone shares your aesthetic. Not everyone understands what you’re trying to acccomplish.

And most importantly: you won’t agree with everyone. It’s not that those other ten people aren’t good readers or don’t have smart things to say. It’s that you simply can’t listen to all of them. Ultimately, you have to go with that ol’ elusive gut.

This is where I wish I had some deeply wrought wisdom to share about how to get better at this: how to get your gut to be more articulate. Or at least, louder.

I’m not sure I do. But I wonder, sometimes, if it’s saying more than I think it is. I wonder if underneath all the self-doubting noise blustering about in my head, there’s some small, subconscious guiding voice that gets through without my even realizing it.

Really, what I think is: there better be.

 

Solitude Notes Cont’d: On Stephen Dunn, Anna Wintour and Just Being

So here’s my dirty little secret: sometimes, I tell people that I can’t go out because I need to be home, writing, and instead, I go home, make popcorn, and watch documentaries on Netflix.

I tell you this not to out myself to those members of my social group who I routinely turn down. (Bless them for the courtesy of persisting with the kind gesture; and, if any are reading, sorry: it’s, specifically, not personal.). Nor do I tell you this to discuss why it is that, these days, I suddenly have zero attention span for any sort of fiction–in film or in literature.

(Though, I did want to write about that, at first. And for now, I’ll quickly surmise just one possible reason: Anna Wintour, Eliot Spitzer and Bill Cunningham–the subjects of my latest three viewings–are characters so rich and vividly complex I’m not sure they could be invented.)

But anyhow. I tell you this because I have more to say on the subject of solitude. What I have to say is this: the more focus I try and summon on a creative project that requires substantial time to accomplish, the more time I require to just be, alone, not accomplishing shit.

I swear to God, I had this thought as I went to bed the other night, and then woke up, and saw that Dinty Moore had posted this quote on Facebook, from Stephen Dunn:

I think it’s really important to go to your room and sit there. The amateur writer only writes when something big happens in his or her life. Unless you have a better life than I do, you would write only three or four poems a year. So you go to your room and you wait for something to happen. You do that regularly.

In part, that’s a quote about discipline: about how writers can’t just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike; we’ve gotta make ourselves write the sentences, even when they’re not at our fingertips.

But it’s also–I think–about the fact that creativity often requires a lot of not very creative time. A lot of not very creative time spent not out in the world, being stimulated by fashion and design and conversation. But a lot of time spent just being. With yourself. With your thoughts.

Because creativity means not just taking inspiration from the world, not just observing, but interpreting: letting ideas and images percolate, toss around, bump into one another, connect and disconnect and connect and disconnect again.

I mean, I don’t know what Stephen Dunn means by simply sitting alone in his room: I picture him just, you know, sitting there, on the edge of his bed (actually, I picture him on the edge of my bed, because I don’t know what his looks like, which is weird), his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped between them, staring off into space and thinking really profound thoughts.

But for me, and I suspect, for lots of other creative types, the really valuable time doesn’t look anything like that: the most valuable, most stereotypically inspirational (lightbulb!) moments come when we aren’t consciously seeking them. Instead, they come when we’re taking a shower, or riding a bike, or half-watching salacious documentaries. Or, of course, trying to fall asleep.

I recently commiserated with a fellow dissertating friend about how our minds will feel completely stuck, completely uninspired, sitting in front of a computer; but the moment we close it, the moment we get in bed, new thoughts come. Because the pressure’s off. Because we’re not trying to solve the next problem or produce the next idea.

Am I sounding really preachy? And does this have anything to do with anything this blog is supposed to be about? Probably, and, probably not.

But I wanted to share it because, to me at least, it’s a new and important thought.

As a social person, I generally take advantage of opportunities to engage with people, to go out and be in the world. Usually, when I say I need to be writing, I do: I need to be writing.

I mean, these days, I should basically always be writing. But no matter what my adviser says, I can’t dedicate all those hours to making the sentences. Some of them, for me, need to just be about being: with myself, with random fashion celebrities and fallen politicians, with peculiar and prying thoughts of which I may or may not ever make sense.

On The/My Constant Need for Constant Praise

About an hour after my latest blog post, I sent a message to my friend N.

“Can you read my new post!?” I wrote. “I haven’t gotten any response yet and I’m starting to panic!”

“Sure!” she wrote back. Of course.

And, of course, a few minutes later: “It’s great! I like the writing and the questions!”

I knew, before and after, that this was an absurd exercise. How did I expect her to respond? “Eh, not your best”? “Okay, but the prose is mediocre and the ideas mundane”?

(Perhaps another friend, though I’m pressed to produce a name, would have offered such candid feedback–but certainly not this one.)

And yet, I immediately felt better. At least one person thought what I had written was decent. Or so, at least, I could tell myself.

Did it appease my insecurity entirely? Of course not. I proceeded to spend the rest of the afternoon compulsively checking Facebook, to see if anyone else had “liked” the post, and my email in hopes that someone had left a comment.

(And then, after various errands, I got in bed and watched multiple episodes of my new Netflix addiction, “Friday Night Lights.” No, I am not proud of any of the above.)

But when it comes to the need for validation, is it ever enough? Are any of us–those of us, creative types, who habitually put things into the world and then pin our entire self-worth on that world’s response–ever fully satisfied by what we receive?

Recently, I heard an anecdote about a Nobel-Prize winning writer–Nobel Prize winning–who called up an acquaintance in a state of panic because a reviewer had noted that her most recent book was her best since the one she’d written two before. “What?” the writer pleaded. “Was the last one not any good?!”

The story seemed incomprehensible to me when I heard it. How could someone whose life’s work and accomplishments had been recognized so profoundly, so thoroughly, so consistently, possibly retain any shred of self-doubt?

Still, it’s difficult to fathom. But whether or not you buy it, the anecdote illustrates just how powerful that need is: that desperate, urgent need for external recognition.

Last semester I read an essay called “Why Write?” by the poet Alan Shapiro, published in  Best American Essays 2006. It’s a great essay, but the part that has stuck with me is about this very thing: the infinite cycle that is the writerly desire to be validated.

He describes thinking, as a teenager, that all he’d need to make him truly happy was to publish a poem in a single magazine. And then once he did, he thought he’d be truly validated if he could publish in a place like The New Yorker. And as soon as he did that, it would be to write a book. And then to get a good review.

And so on, and so on, until he concludes that “even if God Himself, the Lord Almighty, hallowed be His name, came down from heaven and gave me a big fat kiss on the back of the brain, I’d probably shrug if off: ‘What? That’s it? For years you don’t write, you don’t call, and now all I get is a lousy kiss?’”

He goes on: “Don’t get me wrong. Acclaim of any kind is wonderful…But even at its best, that sort of ‘reward’ or ‘recognition’ is like cotton candy: it looks ample enough until you put in in your mouth; then it evaporates. All taste and no nourishment.”

Perhaps, though, the need for recognition is part of what drives people, pushes them to keep producing even once they’ve achieved some measure of success. And while, like Shapiro, I’d like to think that what motivates us is nobler than that, I also think the desire makes sense.

After all, the reason we write–or at least, the reason I write–is to connect. To assure others, and ourselves, that our experience isn’t totally unique. I don’t know a less cheesy way to say it. And I know there are other reasons, other values and other pleasures, to be found in creating. But I do believe that at the core of it all is connection.

And if that’s the desire, than doesn’t it make sense, and isn’t it a little bit important that we’d want to know we’ve succeeded? I don’t like it, but I think it might–even if we’ll forever be wanting to succeed a little bit more.

Dating-While-Blogging Hazard #8,232

The other day I got a Facebook message, a very sweet Facebook message, from one of D’s friends whom I’d recently met. Said friend told me, as she put it, what she would write if she and I were to pass notes between Geometry and Study Hall.

She signed off by assuring me that D also leaves the toilet seat down at her house–thereby assuring me that he does in fact posses one certifiable flaw (for the record, he’s improving), and that she has been reading my blog.

This is a wrinkle of the whole dating-blog-meets-real-relationship event that I did not anticipate. Namely, that I would become Facebook friends with friends of D’s, that they would find my blog, and that they would then know things about him–and his oversharing girlfriend–that he might feel uncomfortable with them knowing.

Now, as this anecdote illustrates, I don’t think I have yet revealed, nor do I intend to reveal anything about D that those around him don’t already know. But still. It’s awkward.

“Oh, shit!” I said to my NY S (who, blissfully, visited me this weekend) when I saw the end of that message. “D’s friends are reading the blog!”

“Yeah,” she replied, in the same tone of voice she always uses when I gripe to her about the various complications I’ve imposed upon myself by blogging about my personal life. And then she said what she always says: “You’re gonna have to figure that one out.”

(I feel obliged to point out that S is generally a font of extreme helpfulness and compassion, and is absolutely supportive of my writing; she just happens to have a slightly skeptical stance when it comes to her best friend exposing herself so recklessly on the internet, for which I cannot blame her.)

Of course, it doesn’t bother me that his friends are reading: in the past year-plus I’ve happily adjusted to the fact of my readers including people who teach me, people who I teach, various ex-boyfriends, and my maternal grandmother. I’m over it.

But D didn’t sign up for this kind of exposure. I thought his decision not to read himself (one that he has, I’ve confirmed, been adhering to) would solve the problem: so long as he’s not reading what I write, our relationship could exist outside the realm of my online musings.

And so far it has. Mostly.

“Oh, I’ve been meaning to tell you,” he said to me at a coffee shop yesterday, looking up from his novel with a giant grin. “A few of my friends have asked me about your blog!”

“Oh god,” I said. Again.

“Yeah, it’s funny,” he went on. “They’ve like, asked me if I know about it!”

“Yeah,” I said. “Funny.” And then, flush with guilt, (I had gone and “friended” these people! what had I been thinking!?): “I can avoid being ‘friends’ with people you know on Facebook. I’m really sorry.”

“Oh no,” he replied, not missing a beat. “I don’t care! It’s just funny!”

“Really? You don’t mind your friends reading my blog?”

“Not at all. Why would I mind?”

I could have answered this question in earnest: could have suggested that it might make them uncomfortable, that at some point someone might tell him something they’ve read that he didn’t want to know, that the whole enterprise seemed, to me, like risky business.

But I didn’t. Instead, I took a breath, looked at him lovingly (no, we haven’t said it yet, those of you folowing at home), and did what I ‘ve always done upon encountering states of panic about possible effects of blogging: resolved not to worry about it until I have to.

Or, you know, until I blog about it.

The Problem With Memoir?

Last week my father sent me a link to an article about memoir from the New York Times: “it’s terrific, well written, and very funny” he wrote.

I had seen the headline–”The Problem With Memoirs”–but at that point, I hadn’t read it. Probably I hadn’t read it for the same reason I often don’t read New York Times articles: that I didn’t have time. Or at least, thought I didn’t have time. (Who has time to read whole news articles when there are endless Facebook statuses to skim and the internet is crowded with pretty pictures of lemon tarts and raspberry linzer cookies you like to fantasize about baking? Welcome to my world.)

But possibly I also didn’t read it because, well, because the headline promised a pretty direct attack on what I do.

It’s hard not to feel insecure about the impulse to write memoir. That article hammers home, rather agressively, the worst stereotype about the genre: that it’s filled with narcissistic, over-sharing attention whores shamelessly appealing to readers’ most base, voyeuristic impulses.

Now, I have never claimed that I don’t like to overshare. I’m not proud of this trait, but I accept it. The narcissistic label is one that I, with varying degrees of success, try and resist. Do I like attention? Sure, who doesn’t. (Okay, lots of people. But those of us who do aren’t exactly a minority.)

Should everyone who exhibits these traits write memoir? Of course not. Honestly, I think it’s really hard to write successful nonfiction. But it’s possible. It’s possible if you write well.

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