In the middle of my freshman year of college, I surprised myself by picking up a writing minor. My brothers immediately asked if I was following in the footsteps of that one SNL character played by David Spade and planning on living in a van down by the river.
Nothing prepared anyone for this decision. I was competent at writing papers in high school, but had never participated in writing to the degree of some of my friends. While they were designing their Hunger Games spin-off characters, publishing their murder mysteries on Figment, and creating entire world orders for fantasy lands in middle school and early high school, I was content to read and praise their early attempts at fame and weakly mimic them to feel included in the process. The curse of perfectionism never allowed me to get past the first couple paragraphs or pages or chapters before I would deem them “trash” and never try again.
It was because I never let myself work at it long enough that I never considered writing to be something that served more than the functional purpose of getting good grades. Given the circumstances, this would probably still be the case if someone hadn’t told me “Hey, you’re good at this” and I, being the displaced and insecure freshman, willingly believed them and decided to harness the talent in the form of a minor.
“Okay,” I thought, “here is a strength. I’ll just start with a class where I’m not super intimidated by the form and then I can end up taking the classes that I’m uncomfortable with later.”
There was one issue with this plan, though. The only writing class that would fit on my schedule the next semester was Intro to Creative Writing.
“I suck at creative writing,” I groaned to my best friend, thinking of all of the times I had never gotten beyond writing one line if it wasn’t an essay that my GPA depended upon.
Now I was supposed to walk into a room full of writers. People who had been writing since their angsty middle school days, at least. Their writing had already walked through the fires of melodrama and they were immune to the disease of overthinking. Compared to me, everyone in that class must have been a god-level writer.
The first day of class I remember hearing other people talk about the stories they had written, the genres they enjoyed working with, and how long they had been writers. The girl I sat next to talked about the notebooks she had filled with novels that she had written over the years. I looked over at her notes from class. Frick. She had pretty handwriting too. In fact, her entire life seemed put together. She was eloquent and nice and I was jealous of her sweater.
Meanwhile, I was considering the different ways I could escape answering the question. How was I supposed to say “Oh, well, I’ve only ever written one story and it was an autobiographical narrative I wrote for class last semester. Fun fact, I run away from fiction screaming because I’m afraid of failure”?
To be clear, I wasn’t just doing this because one person complimented me that one time. I did feel called to it and I knew writing was good for me–like eating broccoli. While I didn’t always enjoy it, it was healthy. But my entire confidence was shakily built on that one moment.
I was developing a complex, thinking that everyone else knew what they were doing except for me. Everyone was better at writing than I was, and only those who followed the straight and narrow “write everyday” would be considered true writers (if you’ve been following so far, that was everyone except for me). I avoided giving my own opinion in workshops like the plague. I sat in silence and I listened, nodding along when others gave their critiques.
I wasn’t miserable, though. It was still my favorite class. I was learning and slowly growing more comfortable with the people, and short fiction was the only unit I truly struggled in.
It was all wrapped up in imposter syndrome, that no other person except me could undo. The condition only worsened when halfway through the semester, we went into the 3-month long lockdown due to COVID and I had beaten my self-esteem down into a six foot deep grave. I had to give up using validation as a life-sustaining force in order to climb out of the pit. I had to find my own way and, even if I didn’t believe it entirely, I had to stop finding ways to destroy my confidence and just own it enough to genuinely claim the title of “writer” one day.
In hindsight, I needed writer friends–people I found only a little later. Because then I could have seen that we all had no idea what we were doing and were all hoping that something in what we produced in that class stuck and meant something. We were doing are best, but we naturally fixated on our faults and others’ genius. Even the girl I sat next to told me after we became friends that she didn’t have it all together (although I still think she’s a lot smarter than me).
Destroying the gods I’ve made of my peers has helped, but that isn’t to say that I have arrived.
To be a writer, in what little I’ve experienced, is to be on a rollercoaster ride called “self-esteem.” Sometimes you find your stride, you like what you’re writing and other people like what you’re writing and you see yourself as a legend on the edge of materializing. Perhaps you will be published by the time you go to grad school. You will be the next Great American Author, Poet, and Essayist. Your image will be cast in bronze and memorialized in your favorite spot on your college campus, like Walt Disney holding the hand of Mickey Mouse in the center of Disneyland. Only your statue will have you sitting serenely on a stump outside of Ferncliffe with a plaque that reads “Beloved by her professors for her brilliance and her wonderful personality. A true joy to have in class.” Fame, fortune, and being your professors’ favorite are all in your grasp.
This is immediately followed, for one reason or another, by a period in which every document in Microsoft Word is titled “Garbage”, “More Crap from My Brain”, “Garbage-2” and so forth. Self-deprecation turns you into Gollum. Unrecognizable to your family and friends, you spend time in caves cursing yourself in the third person and asking unanswerable riddles like “why can’t I write something with a plot?” and “why can’t my story just materialize from The Vibes?”.
I currently find myself in an odd in-between. I’ve lied enough to myself that I can call myself a writer without propping it all up on the opinions of other people, but I still constantly want a second opinion and continually ask if what I say makes any sense. I’m comfortable enough to fail, but still harp on my flaws until I start digging the grave for my self-esteem again. I’m confident in what I’m good at, but the my weaknesses still make me doubt if I will ever actually be a writer.
But maybe it’s okay to struggle.
Maybe being a writer is to be tossed by the sea, shifted on the shore until you’re miles away from where you started. And though you and your work may have started as a broken shard, you’ll end up as smooth as sea glass. It’s the process of refining and the constant moving, growing, and aging that reflects life itself.