For the first two years of my writing life, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to pretend that I had it all together. On the surface, anyway, it looked liked I was doing all the right things: coming out with new pieces fairly regularly, sending them off to journals with an almost fiendish drive, and padding out my rota of publications. But behind the scenes, I knew the truth: which is that creative writing often felt bitter and painful to me. I knew that I was not, in fact, the thriving creative creature that people thought I was, when they looked at my website. Instead, I was goading and scolding and, more generally, punishing myself into writing these immaculate pieces - so much so that I felt quite deeply stressed, and steeped in self-loathing even when I did receive praise, or get published.
In the time that it took me to admit this to myself, I came to a realisation that felt both spot-on, and extremely upsetting to me. What I realised was: no amount of external validation would ever give me the thing that I had come to the writing desk in search of, in the first place. The thing that I was looking for, in my writing, was an authentically rich, joyful, and playful creative life. I wanted a ritual for making beauty that I actually enjoyed, and looked forward to practising each day. And this, unfortunately, had to come from inside me. It was simply not something that could be gotten from other people's praise, or from the ratification of any number of prestigious institutions. No award or gatekeeper would ever be able to give me what I most truly wanted - and had, in fact, shaped much of my adult life around procuring.
The joyful creative process that I wanted - I had to give it to myself.
Realising this prompted some slow changes in my attitude towards writing. Not all at once, but bit by bit. For one thing, I have come to accept that my creative process is different from most other people's, as far as I can tell. Maybe this has to do with the coping mechanisms that I developed around self-criticism, back when I was an underaged conservatory kid. But when it comes to writing, I can't produce drafts, and I can't do the usual thing of revising an unfinished work piecemeal. Instead, I go for six to eight months working at my day-job as a marketing researcher, not writing a single word. And then, one morning or afternoon or evening, I basically sit down with a gigantic flash of insight, and spill the finished piece out wholesale from my fingertips.
In the past, before I accepted the mechanics of this process, I used to hate myself so much for writing this way. I would force myself to eke out regular drafts, as everyone else seemed to do - mostly to falsify a feeling of control, and reassure myself that I was still on track. As a result of this, I would end up with all these beautifully-turned phrases that could be forcibly coagulated into essays - but that I knew were lacking in authentic insight, while skirting the true emotions and stories of my life. No matter how much I revised these drafts, I knew that they would never yield that through-line of authenticity that makes a piece of nonfiction writing pop. The ingredient that they were lacking - genuine selfhood - was something that I, personally, would only be able to access if I pulled myself away from the page, and sat quietly for a while without any expectations.
This year, I'm trying to relax into the knowledge that my process is what it is, and is beyond my control. Instead of spending those six to eight months chained to my desk, internally yelling at myself, and labouring away on Thesaurus.com, I try to spend them on littler creative gestures: doing paint-throughs on Youtube, cooking, painting my nails, and flavouring soaps. Cycling. Going to the beach to watch the sea. And now, perhaps, blogging. All this stuff might seem trivial, but it's part of a working process that I'm slowly learning to trust: one where beauty can materialise without emotional pain, and without the mechanics of self-flagellation and toil. It's not always easy, though! Right now, for instance, I'm processing an essay about my family that has been bubbling away in my thoughts since March - with not a single word to show for it. A part of me still feels uneasy, obviously - what if the tender yet sharp, complicated essay that I want to write never shows up? But increasingly, there is a counterbalancing voice inside me that says, also: Maybe it will and maybe it won't. It's okay. Let's wait and see.
I wanted to end this post with a picture of my writing desk - which I have turned into the most beautiful part of my flat, so that happiness might pool around it. But it's late, and I've just stayed up all night for the Tin House summer workshop (which I'll probably blog about at a later date!). I'll put the desk in a future post, and end this one off for now.