I’ve had an interesting writing experience this week. I wrote a short story – a little under 1000 words – to match a given brief. The story was our required ‘homework’ at a writers’ group I belong to. My response to the suggested title received universal approval.
I tell you this, not because I’m trying to prove I’m a good writer – and not just in my own opinion! But because the fact that everyone in the group appeared to like my story is crucial to the ideas I’m about to explore.
Whilst it was highly gratifying to receive only compliments for my work, it was also disturbing. Now, I’m not talking about any inability on my part to hear and accept praise – I grew past that particular hurdle a long time ago.
I practised for a while simply smiling and saying ‘thank you’, silencing the other voices in my head that wanted to tell me I didn’t deserve it, etc. etc. etc. After some time, the smiling and thanking became second nature.
Then, I started to believe that the people speaking actually meant what they said and were not being sarcastic. I gradually began to hear what they were saying, and to be able to listen carefully to the detail. And to enjoy the acclaim.
This was followed by a short period – when my book was published – of a few glorious occasions of sheer congratulation. Groups I attended regularly actually broke into applause at the announcement, and I revelled in that for a while. I thought I had finally ‘arrived’.
Foolish woman. It did not take me long to realise that such intense esteem does not last, cannot last. I knew this already, of course, as an intellectual theory, but the emotional reality of it was one I had yet to experience. People’s memories are short, especially if they already know you in another context; not to mention that no-one has the energy or the desire to keep telling someone else how brilliant they are.
And even if they did, the repetition would soon pale. On both sides of the interaction. The plain fact is that unless you feel that self-esteem for yourself, no amount of external verification is going to provide it for you. Yes, there were a few magnificent moments that I’ll never forget, that made up for a lot of childhood ‘crap’, but in the end, if I can’t get out of bed every morning feeling happy to be me, I’m onto a loser.
So back to the story for my writers’ group. I enjoyed the challenge of writing to a brief. I was pleased with the technical standard I produced. I took pleasure in the fascination of the editing process, searching for replacement words so that the piece never became repetitive, and so that it flowed gracefully from one section to another.
I revelled in my ability to remove extraneous phrases, odd bits of text, unnecessary script, making the story economic in its telling and using every single word to its maximum, since I had so few. I even enjoyed reading the finished item to the assembled gathering (I can be quite a performer when required). And I’ve already expressed my delight at the response.
The problem was that this story wasn’t actually that good.
Technically sound? Yes. A neat little tale? Definitely. A delightful piece of fun? I would say so. But did it really say anything that was worth saying? Did it have any part of my soul in it? Did it carry anything close to a deeper meaning? Absolutely not.
It was, as far as I’m concerned, a mere piece of frippery. An academic exercise. A trivial slice of entertainment. Nothing wrong with that per se. Sometimes, I enjoy reading that sort of stuff myself. No, the problem was that it didn’t deserve the praise it got – at least as far as I was concerned.
I used my nicely-honed skills of accepting compliments without objection, and was pleasantly surprised by the group’s reception of the piece, briefly feeling quite pleased with myself and enjoying the accolade.
But underneath that, I came to a new realisation. However much I may (or may not) be celebrated for writing superficial ‘stuff’ – and even if it earned me gazillions – I could never make it my main enterprise. It would feel dishonest. As if I was cheating, somehow.
I know that if I consistently work at ‘lower’ than the best I can do, I will always feel I have deceived myself, and my self-esteem will reflect that. For me, there will always need to be a deeper picture, a touching on the profound or the spiritual, a revealing of some essential truth.
Will this put some people off reading my work? Of course it will. But will it be the right thing for me to do? Of course it will. Because if I ignore this inner perspective, I’ll be ignoring the essence that drives me to write, and the energy that gifts me the stories. I have to be true to myself in how and what I need to write.
If I’m not, to slightly misquote Kirk, the cost will be my soul.