When I’m in a writing slump, the littlest thing can make me doubt myself. After a week of moving words around on the screen to little avail, or – more recently – a week of not opening a single writing file, I start to wonder. Maybe it’s not too late to go to law school? I get an email announcing a prize given to someone I met once at a conference, and I think uncharitable thoughts about that someone. I read about someone doing amazing work teaching writing to prisoners or illiterate adults or underprivileged kids and I think I’m not giving back enough.
“You’re so hard on yourself,” I’m often told. Yep, and in some perverse way I embrace my self-criticism. As though letting myself off the hook would mark the first step on the slippery slope of Low Standards. Writers worth their salt push themselves, right? “You’re not a writer unless you write,” I tell my students, and I try to live by those words. It’s not about how much you publish, it’s about how regularly you sit your ass in the chair and write.
And yet, how susceptible I am to the fortunes of others! Competition, envy, schadenfreude: come on down! All it takes is reading about the latest Hot Literary Star or attending a party with the cool writers to feel myself transported back to seventh-grade. Feeling awkward in class. Feeling more awkward on the softball field. Feeling unbearably jump-out-of-my-skin awkward at the school dance.
But here’s the thing: the little things can cheer me up, too. A few months ago, after a panel at the Mechanics’ Institute, a woman approached me. She introduced herself and said she’d loved reading the excerpt on my web site. I thanked her, and assumed that she had read the first chapter of my memoir. (You can read it, too, by going to my website and clicking on “excerpt.”)
But no. “Rincon,” she said, and I stared at her. How’d she know about Rincon, the name of the fictionalized town in my unpublished novel? Had she read my diary, hacked my files? She seemed so genuine, and friendly, and wore chic eyeglass frames, so I relaxed. And remembered.
A few years back, I decided to post the first chapter of the novel. I’d worked on it for so long, and its publication future was looking uncertain; I wanted to do something to put it out there. And this woman had actually read it! And liked it!
I talked to a few others after the panel. Unpublished writers, all, but engaged, interested people, whose love for words and the practice of craft was enough to buoy me up. I felt encouraged about the writerly life, an endeavor that doesn’t elicit much in the way of daily validation. Buoying ourselves up day after day starts to feel pathetic. Who doesn’t need some outside validation that we’re doing something right?
Some weeks later, I attended a reading featuring students from classes at the SF Writers’ Grotto. Having taken Meghan Ward’s class on social media (from which this blog was born), I was allotted a reading space. I chose a story written a few years ago, and read for three minutes. I love reading my work to an interested audience, and this audience was fun, engaged, supportive. But what really made the evening worthwhile for me were the other readers. Reading as part of a community – listening to other people, some of whom had never read their work aloud – cheered me immeasurably.