I was either too X or not enough Y. Too fat, too weak-eyed, too loud, too dreamy, too smart, too stubborn, too artsy. Not practical enough, not obedient enough, not pretty enough, not quiet enough, not thin enough, not smart enough. Nobody was ever entirely pleased with me, and every praise had sting in the tail. The first taste of approval-without-a-barb I can remember came in fourth grade, from Mrs. I., the teacher of a gifted class. But she was stretched thin with twenty of us to deal with, and the little nibbles I got then gave me a taste for academics. They did not fill the void.
Alas, not all teachers were Mrs. I., who was a genuinely sweet woman. It seemed that, like Jane Eyre, if I had been a “sanguine, brilliant, careless, exacting, handsome, romping child” I would’ve had more luck. (I suppose that’s part of why I identify with Jane so strongly during the first third of the book.) I would get drabbles of approval for various things, but never more than a teaspoonful. I was a disappointment to every adult I met, except the few teachers patient enough to see that I was bored silly and also needed some sanctuary. The bruises were hard to cover up, but it was the damage inside that I needed help with.
Anyway, I’ve struggled with being found wanting in one way or another all my life. This has bred an odd dual problem: wanting approval on the one hand, and fierce perfectionism on my own terms on the other. If I was harder on myself than anyone else, my young brain decided, then I maybe, maybe could please someone. Anyone. It took me until I was almost thirty to start figuring out that I wasn’t wanting, that just maybe I was okay.
This isn’t just navel-gazing. I do have a point in mind.
Recently I was talking about writing with someone, and they said, “But it wouldn’t be good for you. I mean, they would be books you didn’t want to write, so they wouldn’t be your best.”
And I immediately said, “There’s no way I’d turn a book in unless it was the very, very best I could make it. I can’t do less than that, not even by a hair. I’d know. I just can’t.”
Writing for publication opens up the door to be judged and measured in every single possible way. You write, and judge it while you’re writing (even though you probably shouldn’t.) Then your beta reader/crit partner/group/inner editor judges it through a draft or two. Then your agent sees and judges it, and sends it out for editor to judge. The editor judges it through at least one and more likely multiple drafts. A copyeditor judges it, then it’s judged through a proofreader and your own eyeballing of proof pages.
Then it’s sent out into the world, and it’s judged by reviewers and customers. Sometimes quietly by them choosing to open their pocketbooks–or not–and sometimes loudly and vociferously. Over, and over, and over.
Is it any wonder writers get a little neurotic?
For someone with my background, this is nervewracking to the highest degree. I literally could not have found another career so tailored to take advantage of my particular fault lines, to rub figurative salt into my wounds. This has forced me to toughen up. It has forced me to grow up, to make the decision to find my self-worth as literally self-worth–and not what-someone-else-says-worth. To confront those voices inside my skull repeating not X enough, too much Y and see them for what they are.
Like everything else to do with writing, there is a paradox. Because during creation, the time when it’s me and the keyboard and that’s it, is when I feel most free. It’s like dancing naked in a dark vault–somewhere I know nobody will possibly see me, so I’m free to do what I want, however I want to do it. I am free to make the ultimate effort with nobody judging me but myself. Within my fierce perfectionism, I have absolute freedom–because I know at every moment I am doing the best I can. I am incapable of giving any less.
Sometimes I think that is what Readers respond to on some level. Even if your book is not perfect, some part of doing your absolute best, giving yourself heart and soul, makes it through. I’ve read books that made me cringe, but I did not stop because I could tell both that the author had put their time in mastering craft, and that they had done their level utter best. The commitment came through, and that commitment was something I responded to.
Your mileage may vary, of course. And I do not claim to have seen every time an author was giving his or her personal best. The point I am trying to make here is: try not to judge your own work too damaging-harshly. You will find plenty of judgment in everyday life, in the editing process, after your book is on the shelf. It took me thirty years to begin learning one simple thing: There is no way you can please everyone. You are going to have to concentrate on something else, and for my money, that something else is giving myself over to my work. Heart, soul, body, everything. At the end of the day, when it has just been me and the keyboard–that lonely place where the magic happens–I need to know that I’ve done my best, each and every time.
It gets me through. It gives me the strength to go on. Knowing that I have never done less than my best, that every time I turn a book in it is as good as I can possibly make it, that I do not and will not ever be shoddy or slipshod, even if my best is judged to be found wanting in the eyes of reviewers or editors…
…well, quite frankly, that’s all I’m going to get. So I’m going to take it with both hands and hold on tight.
Over and out.