A reliable companion to my writing process is the voice in my head that tries to beat me down. In a singsong and crudely nagging voice she reminds me that my work is unoriginal, hurried, and cliche. The Not-Good-Enough voice, as I like to call her, seems to follow most self-aware people around, poking at passion and greedily soaking up creative energy to feed an exhaustive anxiety.
My Not-Good-Enough voice, when I pause to imagine her, probably spends most of her day scrolling through Instagram, complaining avidly but never quite doing anything, darting in front of mirrors to check if she’s got anything in between her front teeth and just generally being a true asshole. She is flighty, agonizingly unsure of herself, and worries that because people are better than her, she has no reason to do any work at all. There is no space for her, and there is certainly no room in the conversation for what she has to say.
I’m not so sure when this antithesis to a muse, for lack of a better label, was born. Nor am I sure when, without considering the consequences, I decided to rent her a room in my body (a big room, too) to set up all of her furniture and get comfortable so that she could begin to tell me what was/is wrong with my work, myself, and my current unshakeable stasis. Perhaps I fed my little voice until she became so big, her fists drumming on the inside of my head, that eventually she drowned out all the goodness I was willing to give myself—all the assurance I had gathered from working hard and putting in the time.
The Not-Good-Enough voice has served me, sure. She has even motivated me. And yet, I think it’s also important not to conflate the Not-Good-Enough voice with humility. Debilitating doubt at one’s own potential on a near constant basis is not healthy. It is not honorable. More often than not, my Not-Good-Enough voice has caused me to fold in on myself, to hide my disappointment and anxiety, to paint myself into a very isolated and unforgiving corner. And I am sick of her.
And lately, the Not-Good-Enough voice has presented some particularly complex problems. In the last blog post I mentioned that I have spent the last five months applying to graduate schools for an MFA in writing. My last semester of college was a whirlwind; I was so stressed that its conclusion felt like a relief, although not exactly for the right reasons. The graduating ceremony felt oddly false and surreal. I told myself, idiotically, that this accomplishment would feel worthy once I received my first acceptance to graduate school. Then I did. I got my first call. And then I got a second. And I was happy, in an unconvinced, anxious way. I wondered at my privilege. Am I really so selfish as to not be grateful? I still didn’t feel content or assured of my credibility as a person who could do this—as someone who not just wrote, but as someone who could begin to consider herself a writer. Instead, I felt embarrassed.
And then I received my first rejection email from a school I had been pining over. It was one of my top choices, a university I had pictured myself at time and time again, complete with a daunting three-year program that offered incredible opportunities to learn the craft. Any assurance I had been waiting for arrived, just not in the way I had hoped. In fact, a rejection email was all the convincing I needed that I was not cut out for this kind of thing at all.
Let me sidetrack, here, and tell you a little about rejection letters. And I use “a little” purposely, because I don’t know much about them. That is not because I am very good or unaccustomed to failure, (I hope that’s been established) but instead because I have just began to familiarize myself with the bravery of putting the work out there. I am just beginning the rather nasty and rewarding process of sticking my neck out—of allowing the work to humiliate itself and grow, to be criticized and considered. And that is hard. It is also wildly personal. It’s how I would imagine falling in love for the first time might feel, only to have all your expectations of happily-ever-after shattered early on. Or putting in the lousy time and effort into a seemingly worthwhile relationship only to have an assumed soulmate turn to you one night and say: I don’t feel the same. I don’t think this is love. In fact, I kind of think you’re terrible and self-involved and very, very neurotic. That was hyperbolic, of course. A dramatization. So maybe putting one’s work out there and getting rejected is not quite so debilitating as being scorned in love, but in some ways the two are quite similar. Two sides of the same Not-Good-Enough coin that further reinforce any doubts about an ability to find and keep contentment.
I have also realized that I can love my work to death: the time I spend on it, the care I take with it, the days that I close the laptop or the hardbound covers only to return minutes later because the writing has already called me back. All of this lends itself to an intimate relationship with the stuff that gets on the page. I don’t think any writer, or want to be writer, would deny that. Of course, sometimes that intimacy is utter garbage, and loving the work, feeling close to it, does not mean I think that it is good. The emotional connection cannot supersede whether the work is actually of any redeemable merit. More often than not, I come away with the conclusion that the writing is crap. The emotion/quality dichotomy has been an important lesson in learning. It doesn’t mean the work doesn’t deserve or need to be written, even if it’s only for myself.
But the rejection letter still stung. It felt as if some faceless committee in a faraway state had held my work up close to the light, quite like the way that the employees in Sephora tilt your head back to examine your skin before applying a shade of oddly unmatched foundation. Much like leaving Sephora with a clown-like, put-on face, I envisioned the people on the committee reviewing my application, pushing it aside, and remarking that the work was utter shit, or even worse, painstakingly unimpressionable. It needs to be completely different to fit in here, I imagined them saying. I didn’t want to have to put on the clown-face to have my work seem worthy. I just wanted it to be good enough. Don’t we all.
I was never so silly as to entertain the idea that I was talented enough to receive acceptance letters from all the universities to which I had applied. About half were reach schools. I have always been a reacher, courtesy of the values my parents instilled in me, and it doesn’t always fail me. I know that I will receive many more rejections than acceptances, that is the name of the game, and at least I am learning and growing and going after it.
My current creative rut, however frustrating, was a catalyst for some difficult questions. I haven’t written anything even remotely worth returning to in weeks; applications wore me out and somewhere along the way I ditched putting in the work in favor of reading books in the bathtub and taking snapchats of my cat. To that end, I have been reading a lot, more so than ever, but oftentimes I find myself in the middle of a page completely lost, my head a blank twilight zone, the words floating by in the inky darkness. That paired with the Not-Good-Enough voice and the rejection email only amplified my questioning—handing the voice a megaphone of sorts that she could use to shout at me in my moments of weakness.
For perhaps the millionth time, I stopped to ask myself if I really wanted this. If I was average. If I could see myself writing forever. If it was worth the hurt and the questioning and the unshakeable feeling of lostness that had settled in and begged me to reconsider.
And here are the answers to those questions: Yes, I do really want this. And when I question that, as I will do again and again when things don’t go my way, I will remember to return to a book I love that has changed me.
Yes, I am average. Of course I am. I have never had anything so interesting happen to me that would provide the content for a scathing, riveting, turn-the-page memoir. There’s a certain kind of gratefulness that has to accompany that. But I don’t subscribe to the notion that because I’m young my work is somehow silly and incomplete because I lack a few decades of age to offer it an air of wisdom. I’m not going for wisdom. I’m going for observation, for excavation. However young I am, my life still presents difficult choices and asks me hard questions. It is worth wondering about and it is certainly worth writing about. So what if I am average? The act of writing gives me the greatest joy I have ever known. That will never be average.
Yes, I can see myself writing forever. I’ve written through nearly everything, and those moments when I didn’t, well, I was thinking about the writing and agonizing over the fact that I wasn’t.
Yes, the feeling of lostness, of pursuing something unconventional and questionable and then reconsidering whether I have what it takes, in whatever fluctuating way it presents itself, is undeniably worth it. It is worth it (!!!!!!) That’s all I can say right now. I don’t know how it will be worth it, at least not yet, but I do know that I love something and that when you love, you push out the doubt and offer that loved thing both attention and space. You treat it kindly and check in on it. You stomp out the Not-Good-Enough voice and you get to work, even if the end-product is only mediocre. It is something, after all.
I wanted to write this blog post because when I was looking for MFA programs and looking into the pre and post application process, it was hard to find any commentary on the experience as a whole. And I’m still in the beginning stages, so I have a lot of learning ahead of me. After a bit of searching I found some blogs that offered insight into the way rejection is a spur, an act of kindness that often masquerades itself as a stinging criticism. That gave me hope.
This is the first piece I’ve written in weeks, thanks to a rejection email that popped up in my gmail inbox and then popped up again, as if to say: yes you’re not good enough, of course you’re not, which means you have all the more reason to keep going.
As my favorite and most beloved writer Sylvia Plath once wrote in her own journals: “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”
And try I will.