When I was a very young writer, just a couple years removed from dropping out of college, I’d occasionally find myself in a down moment wondering if I had the necessary stuff to become a professional author. People had told me I could write, but those people had been wrong about plenty of things. Why not that? I certainly liked writing when it was going well. When I was really in that wonderful, effortless, creative zone, I didn’t care about the future at all; all I cared about was what I was doing. That was a great feeling, but writing didn’t always go well, and there were also lots of hours in the day when there was no writing to be done and plenty of time think.
One day I was feeling particularly low about myself and my work and my future in general. It was a lousy state and I wanted out of it quickly. I thought of something I’d written recently, something that, when I wrote it and then reread it, seemed like proof that I had that necessary stuff every author needed. “I know what I’ll do,” I thought. “I’ll reread that chapter and remember what a fine writer I am and then I’ll feel better be able get on with my life.”
Do I need to tell you how this went? I will anyway. It went poorly. I didn’t like what I was reading at all, though to be honest, I sensed I was seeing the words through a kind of artistic kaleidoscope, one I could turn and the writing would be good one moment, and then turn again and the writing would be bad the next. It would have been easier if I could have just said, “Nope, I was wrong. This rots.” But I couldn’t even do that. All I had was boundless uncertainty, an aesthetic vertigo that made all forward movement wobbly. So what if I liked it again tomorrow?
It was the first but not the last time I reread my work in search of my self-worth. I had to repeat that mistake many, many times before I finally learned–no, accepted that doing so brought as predictable an outcome as touching a hot stove. I say accepted because I knew this lesson was not the end of the problem rereading my work was meant to solve. All I had learned was one way not to solve it.
You may have heard the story of Edison and his failed attempts at inventing the lightbulb. The famous inventor was said to have remarked that he didn’t fail to invent a lightbulb a hundred times, he’d actually succeeded in finding a hundred ways not to invent a lightbulb. This isn’t like that. Edison’s problem was that he knew he wanted a lightbulb, but he didn’t know how to make it. I’m sure that every failure brought him closer to success, taught him something different about lightbulbs.
This is true of stories also. You start a story knowing you want to tell it but not yet knowing how. The writing is a discovery process, and lots of chapters and scenes and sentences get chucked along the way. Sometimes there’s no way to know a scene doesn’t work until you write it. All the pages that end up junked aren’t evidence of failure, they are the necessary debris of learning and discovery. In this way, stories are like interesting problems writers create for themselves to solve.
I love that discovery, and without it, I wouldn’t write. That search is so interesting and meaningful and engaging, it’s easy to believe that everything valuable in life must found in this way. Yet the moment I start looking for my self-worth in anything I’ve done, I’ve merely created a problem that needn’t ever have existed. I’m like a fish in the ocean searching for water. My self-worth is that from which stores are told, from which my life itself is created. And yet I look at the story after its been told, look my work, my house, my family, and I cannot see all of myself in any of it, nor in its sum. Everything I was a part of creating seems less than that from which those creations were born.
Vertigo is largely a product of attention. If you want to walk across a high-wire, you can’t look at the ground. Just I have to have my balance to stand, I have to accept my inherent value to create what I value. I can’t find the value, I can’t prove the value, I can’t argue for it or demand it, I can only accept it, like a gift I was given the day I was born.
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