A few weeks ago, I was informed by email that one of my (non-fiction) pieces has been selected to appear in a soon-to-be-published local anthology. I was delighted at first, but doubt followed quickly thereafter.
It was a rather raw and vulnerable piece, and I felt a little terrified at it being out there, but then I reminded myself that only a handful of people are likely to read it at the most, given the small scale of this project.
But so delighted I was to have been selected that I crafted a reply, expressing my joy in all its glory, and also offered to undertake a free round of final proofreading. The project had given me an outlet for creative expression, and this was my way of giving back to it; this is what I told myself, when I made that offer. Besides, I had been in a writing funk for a while after Dying Wishes, and was itching to do something else, something new for a bit.
An hour later, I found myself in a mild panic. And trust me, I don't use terms such as 'panic' and 'anxiety' lightly. I was worried that the project editors would take me up on my offer and I'd have to spend precious hours proofreading - hours that I should be spending writing, hours that I don't have in the first place.
Anyway, there was a small exchange of feel-good emails, and nothing more concrete was mentioned about my offer to proofread, and turns out the project has run into delays, so my services may not be needed after all.
A fortnight ago, I received another email from a second editor working on the same project stating that another piece I had submitted (it was a short poem) was selected for the collection.
My first reaction to this announcement was that of dread. Utter dread.
I went into a funk over two thoughts. (1) I was terrified by my assumption that this meant my first piece would no longer be part of the collection. It was my favourite and I personally felt it truly captured all that I had wanted to express. (2) And if (1) were true, readers (if only the one or two people who'd read this small work) would see me as a poet and not as a writer of prose.
Before writing back to the second editor, I decided to go for a walk. I was taken aback by this assault of emotions, and I couldn't for the life of me fathom why I'd react to such seemingly good news with dread and anxiety instead of joy and delight. This was a little too much blue funk even for me. Actually, it was way too much, and I needed to unpack it.
Walking along Lakeshore Rd, looking at the blue lake beyond, I found my answer.
What I truly felt about my pursuit of writing was shame. A great deal of shame.
That day, I realised I have mostly been ashamed of calling myself a writer.
Ashamed of the poems I write.
Ashamed of the kind of stories I write.
Ashamed of the kind of prose I write.
Ashamed of all the time I have been squandering on writing, indulging in what my critical mind insists can at most be a hobby and a 'career' for only a privileged few, when I should be working, earning money, contributing to the household, looking after D and playing with him, spending time with KrA instead of living my life in my head and transcribing those scenes onto paper or screen.
Ashamed of all the time I was not dedicating to writing because I kept allowing myself to be distracted by the ceaseless demands of life or of my head.
Ashamed that I'm wasting time and creative energy in writing this blog post instead of crafting a few more paragraphs in my current WIP.
Ashamed that it took me two years to write Dying Wishes, and that three years had lapsed between the publication of my first work, In Search of Leo, and that of Dying Wishes.
There have been several moments in these years when I've found immense delight in my own words, a turn of phrase I may have employed, a twist in the story I may have stumbled upon after persevering. But for the most part, I seem to have found a way of entangling this entire act of expressing myself using the written word in a roiling mess of shame.
I'm not talking of Imposter Syndrome, in which one is riddled with self-doubt and a nagging fear that they'd be exposed as a fraud or not as competent or skilled as the rest of the world has so far believed them to be. I experience that too on occasion, but it has not been as crippling as this overwhelming sense of shame.
This realisation stopped me in my tracks that morning, literally. I held myself on the sidewalk, arms crossed over my chest, giving myself a big hug, as the tears rolled down.
Once I understood what I felt, it took hardly any time and effort to get to the why. Although I won't go into the details here, suffice it to say that much of that sense of shame typically came from external sources, because that's where we go for validation and approval and acceptance, and over a period of time, it had all crystallised into a very harsh internal critic.
I love writing so much, and to find this pursuit of mine is so mired in shame was more than I could handle. But I also realised this had to do with much more than writing. It had to do with me, how I felt about myself, and the word to describe that too is the same: shame.
Me, always wanting to be somewhere else, doing something else, being someone else. So I wouldn't have to undertake the most difficult and painfully shameful task of being me.
There were so many ways in which this shame has shown up. I will share two of the more recent ones here.
I distinctly remember berating myself a couple of months ago for regularly drinking up to two cups of coffee during my morning writing sessions. My coffee addiction became something I had to fix, and I obsessively tried a lot of things - sticking to only one cup, 'rewarding' myself with a cuppa only after I had put down a set number of words on screen, taking afternoon naps so I wouldn't resort to the third cup of the day (and screwing up nighttime sleep in the process).
And then I came upon a discussion in one of the writers' groups I'm part of on FB. Many writers are planning to attend a conference in Vegas later this year (I don't have plans to go), and someone found out that their hotel room would not be equipped with a coffeemaker; although the hotel supplied a unit upon request, all the available machines had already been reserved. So this gentleman had posted a question in the group soliciting suggestions for alternatives. Hundreds of comments followed with countless recommendations for carry-along French presses, collapsible kettles, and what not.
I sat there, gobsmacked, reading the post, over and over again, examining how the original poster had begun his post, unapologetically, with "Coffee! Let's face it, I'm an addict. I'm willing to bet many of you are, too. Let's see a show of hands - how many authors here are addicted to that burnt bean from South America and need their daily fix first thing in the morning?"
I was astonished. It would never have occurred to me to accept my 'addiction' and find a way to please myself, give in to my urge, and here was this chap, tapping into the hive mind, rallying an entire forum of people, to find a way to address his need, to look after himself, to find comrades in his all-t00-human pursuit of meeting his caffeine fix.
Had I turned up at Vegas and found myself in a room unable to make a morning coffee, I'd have moaned about it at first and eventually gone about the day, sleepy and cranky, berating myself for being so fixated about having a cup of coffee to begin my day, shaming myself for being this person instead of an imaginary alternate self that could do just as well without coffee, instead of simply accepting that I love coffee and knowing that if I didn't have access to it in my room, I could find a way to fulfil my need, for instance, by heading to the nearest Starbucks and treating myself.
It is so twisted. The way my internal critic talks to me is so cruel and twisted.
I have been so careful about not shaming D for any reason whatsoever, yet I have completely let this fearful inner critic run amok within me for years now.
The other instance in which shame reared up its head was the one I talked about right at the beginning: when I received the first email about my first piece having been accepted and I responded with a thank you and an offer to provide free proofreading services.
To anyone on the outside, it may appear as if I was being generous, but only I know what prompted me to make that offer: a deep sense of shame, a lack of self-worth, because of which I couldn't quite believe that a stranger in the world outside would consider my writing worthy enough of being included in a collection, so much so that I felt I had to somehow 'compensate' for receiving this gift by offering something in return.
I couldn't simply take what was given to me and say to myself, "Good job!" or "You deserve this" or "You've come a long way." Instead, I subconsciously told myself this couldn't be true, this wasn't right, they had made a mistake, and that I had to do something to ensure this gift was here to stay, this decision would not change, and hey, maybe if I could pay a price for it, that would seal the deal.
For a long time, I knew I had gone astray, away from myself. But it's only now that I've come to realise how far away I had gone.
But I suppose I'm also closer to my true self than I have ever been because that day on the sidewalk, as all these thoughts and feelings collided within me, as the tears rolled down, I didn't want to be anywhere else, doing something else, being someone else.
I was somehow able to feel sad and tender and compassionate towards myself, instead of slipping into my usual habit of criticising myself for having gotten myself tangled up in this mess. I could hold myself in that space without feeling the need to blame - either myself or my parents or my teachers or my friends or the society or the world at large or circumstances or what have you.
Some other things began to make sense too. Other than writing essays for schoolwork, the very first pieces I wrote for myself were poems. Even long before I wanted to write a book, I had loved writing poems. I wrote them for the sake of writing them and sharing with a handful of close friends, only to discuss the words and the feelings, never demanding anything more come out of those works. It was only years later that the desire to write novels, stories, arose.
A few years later, I discovered Neil Gaiman and devoured Neverwhere and Anansi Boys, wowed by all the magic, imagining all that wonder just lurking behind the door, around the street corner. I read anything and everything by Gaiman at the time, and that's when I stumbled upon these words of his: "If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist — because you’re going to have to make your word count today, and those words aren’t going to wait for you, whether you’re inspired or not. So you have to write when you’re not “inspired.”"
Gaiman surely meant to inspire writers of the long form, but guess how my inner critic, keen to find any which way to belittle me, decided to interpret this? It promptly concluded that poetry holds little value. I'm pretty sure that was the day poetry stopped bringing me joy, unless my inner critic could deem it genius or brilliant in some way.
If you've read this far and find yourself mildly alarmed, please know I will never talk to you or anyone else the way my inner critic talks to me. (Although, if I'm being completely honest, I must admit that KrA has been on the receiving end of my harsh rebukes so often it's a wonder he still chooses to be with me.)
I suppose that is the purpose of art. To reveal our own selves to ourselves. To show us things about ourselves, about others, about the world that we'd otherwise have not known. And in so doing, to invite us to make what we will of this truth, this knowledge, of our selves, of our precious lives.
Well! Because I still believe in happy endings, I will leave you with what transpired after the walk. I came back home and replied to the second editor, thanking her and stating that I was confused because of what I'd heard from the first editor about my first piece. The second editor replied confirming that both my pieces had been selected for the collection, each one chosen independently by each of the two editors. Both editors are well-established local authors, and so I decided to end this saga by congratulating myself and moving on to other things, while coolly making no references whatsoever to my previous offer to proofread for free.
And because I used a Neil Gaiman quote to show how words only take on the meaning we assign to them, I'll leave you with another weaving of wise words from the same author.
"Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." ~Neil Gaiman, Coraline
(I have nothing against dragons personally, but I get the point.)
Brain Pickings threw this poem at me today, and I find it apt. I feel as if I'm recovering from a heartbreak I caused to myself, and am learning to fall in love with myself all over again.
LOVE AFTER LOVE by Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
And because I'm feeling especially 'generous' with my revelations today, here's a comic by Lynda Barry on creating through all the self-doubt and fear.
“'The Two Questions' came from trying to write something good and not getting very far because I had forgotten that trying to write something good before I write anything at all is like refusing to give birth unless you know for sure it is going to be a very good baby." ~Lynda Barry