Writing, Expectation and Excitement

About 5 minutes ago, I said this on Twitter:


I did it because it’s both true to some degree, and a challenge to myself.


It’s not a stretch to say you should be proud of what you work on. You’re in the middle of making a thing, you’ve finished it, you’re seeing what avenues are available for it. It can be a really exciting and simultaneously frustrating time. Maybe you’ll get disheartened by rejection. Maybe you’ll celebrate a book deal or some sales figures. Maybe you just make a thing and never share it, out of some fear that it’s not good enough. We’re going to come back to that last ‘maybe’ in a second.

When the authors in my Twitter feed talk about a book deal or a TV deal or some accomplishments, it’s not hard for me to feel really jealous – they’re the benchmark I’ve selected to measure myself against, and at times that feels somewhat like comparing a toddler to an astrophysicist. It’s also not hard for me to take that good news and retreat back to my workspace and for a few minutes really hate everything. The chair is stupid. My last page of text is crap. The idea I have on the legal pad is lame. Even the trackball is just dumb and sitting there taunting me. I feel like garbage about myself, and the bookshelf that holds the books that have my name it is nice and all, but it’s not like this piece of news I just heard. Those books are weeks or months or years old, what have I done lately?

This spiral of bullshit usually sits under the doubts I have that I’m any good at anything. I can write. I can edit. But when I’m feeling like I’m not measuring up to others, you might as well swap “write” and “edit” for “breathe” and “sneeze”. My own sense of worth and talent and value seem to pale in comparison to this person’s new accomplishment or that other person’s satisfaction.

I spend a lot of time thinking about this, since it’s a variation on a problem I tackle in therapy on a weekly basis  – internal versus external approval and validation.

It’s easier to understand if we start with the external, because we can all point to things that aren’t us. External approval is when someone else permits us to do a thing or agrees with us that the thing should be done. Like when your parents let you take the car out on that first date or when your roommate said you could borrow her hairdryer. External validation though, is more satisfying. It’s confirmation that whatever we did or are doing, we’re doing it “right” or for “good reasons” or that we “deserve” reward for it. This could be a positive review of something written, or someone telling you what a good job you did and that they’re proud of you.

We spend a lot of time looking for external validation. For some of us, it’s a big hole that we spend so much time filling either in healthy ways or unhealthy ways, because at times when we would have benefited from it, it wasn’t there. (This is different than needing it and getting a negative response, I’m talking about its absence.) For me, this was a parent who was (and is) incredibly cold and tepid at best about my life, my work and my decisions, who is quick to point out the numerous failures and shortcomings as evidence that good things don’t really happen to me, or if they do, that I screw them up and squander them. What this does for my life is make me work way too hard and spend too much time and energy trying to get that validation. It’s not coming. It’s been at least twenty-five years since I got legitimate validation and praise, and I’m certain that it’ll take a deathbed confession to get anymore.

What this also means is that I go hunting for external validation like a nomad in search of oases. Other people saying good things about me and my work? It’s like a free pass to Cloud 9. How can I keep getting more of it? I guess that means I gotta work harder and more often and push myself, because no one receives the same praise twice for the same thing. It might be good once, but not the tenth time.

This sets up an idea in my head where other people telling me good things far outweighs anything I can tell myself. In fact, it goes so far to say that what I tell myself is almost comical in terms of its ability to instill confidence. This is heinously wrong thinking.

Why? Because we birthed the idea, hopefully because at some point it excited us. We wanted to tell that story. Maybe we got giddy. Maybe we eagerly put down a few words, then a few more before the first fires of excitement cooled. Now, yes, time passes and the idea that we were wild about might not spark the same feelings later, but if we apply discipline and make an effort to keep stoking that fire and excitement, we can develop a depth of satisfaction because rather just being an initial gust of work, this is something we’ve stuck with through thick and thin and see it pay off.

Both of my therapists tell me that the internal approval (the permission you give yourself to do something) and the internal validation (that satisfaction derived from doing something as well as the confidence from doing and/or completing it) is supposed to outweigh whatever other people tell us.

On some days, this is true. On some days, I have no fucks to give about how other people judge me or what they expect from me. I do the work I’ve been asked and paid to do, I do things that make me pleased and things that I enjoy.

On other days, like, say days where one of my main sources of external cheerleading and validation is busy, when my resolve is a little low, I let the doubt creep in and try to counteract it with more words from outside myself. This makes for a complicated and often unrewarding cycle of “doubt self, look to others to fix it, not get it from others, doubt self more, look even harder, rinse repeat” where ultimately I’ve spent time not working and instead looking for someone to tell me I’m good or okay or safe or loved or talented or sexy or capable or whatever. That’s not going to magically make the work finished, it’s just trying to band-aid the hole in me so that I can remember I’m competent and qualified to do the work in the first place.

I know there’s a saying about loving yourself before you can love others, which is sort of true and sort of not, because I can love others and still hate myself. I can also love to tell stories and hate my stories because they don’t measure up to others. But there’s a kernel of good in there somewhere, because WHEN I’m cool with myself, I don’t think about grading the work on some scale of “Is this okay”, or “Am I good at it”, there’s a confidence that comes from believing in yourself, which for me, is easier to do when I cut myself some slack.

Back to the quote, I believe that the excitement for your work is instrumental in marketing it and generating interest in it. I believe that being passionate about wanting to make art is not the ONLY reason to make art (as many people say to me in response, mistaking my enthusiasm for passion for some statement that passion by itself is sufficient to succeed), but I believe without passion, the art won’t propagate. You’ll peter out. The interesting idea will cool off too quickly. You’ll slow down, you won’t push through, you’ll let doubt seep into the cracks and you’ll stall. Granted, this is what happens to me at least half a year when I lose myself to depression. It might not happen to you.

It’s not wrong to be proud of your work. It’s not a crime to be excited that you’re working and not yet done. It’s not a lack of professionalism to have doubts or be scared. I believe that pride in your work (and I mean an appropriate level, not some delusion or arrogance) can act like a springboard to take you to new challenges or new opportunities. I believe that excitement over a job done can grow an audience, encourage other people to try or prove to yourself that you’re capable when you think otherwise.

I still don’t have any answers to this on-going concept. It ties me in enough knots and frustrating holes as it is, since I try quite hard to both clarify my answer and have it somehow feel legitimate in the face of doubters, detractors or other points of view.

I’m putting this post up, though I believe it incomplete. I’ll do a Part 2 on it when my head isn’t swimming with tangled thoughts about it.

Posted by johnadamus

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