The dark side of doing it
Exploring the ugly stuff that happens when you're really, really close to something good.
The process is gaining momentum. The words it took me two years to write and refine are now suddenly laid out and on their way to a printer who is going to make them into something that I can sign my name to and hand you across a table with a smile that says, thank you for being part of this! It’s REAL, and coming together beautifully. (Read the first two chapters.)
I recruited a fastidious friend (‘begged’ might be more fitting) to design the book cover. When she showed it to me, I wept openly because it was perfect. This book is now so close to being done that I can almost taste it and it tastes, well, kind of gross.
After the call with my designer friend, I basked for a moment in the excitement of reaching another tangible milestone. I felt the sense of accomplishment that came with knowing that it's actually happening. Almost as soon as it arrived, though, the joy gave way to something else. Doubt rolled in like storm clouds and darkened my happy moment with gurgling waves of anxiety. Sneeringly, a voice inside my head asked me who exactly I thought I was to be excited about this book. No one is going to read it. I'll never make back the money I invested to bring it to life. I'll be an utter failure. Prepare to be humiliated, it said.
The voice was hurtful and antagonistic and was making some solid points. Her words cut me with their razor sharp edges because they felt true. I considered, in retrospect, the grandiosity that must have propelled me past the point of making something, to bothering others to help me bring it to life, and beyond that to the point of expecting people to partake in my creation. Can you imagine? The absolute NERVE!
In that stormy moment, my joy felt absurd. I broke my reverie and chastised myself for hubris and the profound way in which I had wasted my own and others' time. I dreaded the moment that the book would arrive and imagined stashing the boxes in the basement, committing an act of kindness by refusing to "come out" as a bookwriter. Perhaps the good and proper thing to do, after all, was to stay hidden.
The woman in the arena
Occasionally, I get feedback from people who have read my writing, saying something along the lines of “Wow, it's so real and raw!” I know what they mean, and I appreciate their reflection, and it always hits me the wrong way. It strikes me that authenticity may be an imposition to those with better boundaries. In response to what feels like an indictment from an imposed-upon plaintiff, I feel inclined to apologize.
Creating, by its nature, is putting yourself on display, because you are taking something that was hiding inside you and making it real. To create is to step onto a pedestal and invite others to witness and experience the parts of you that have come forth to be expressed. It’s taking your inner workings and slathering them onto a page or a canvas or a record and offering them up to the world like a sacrifice. That’s why our creativity is often the truest thing we ever do. And being so honest is terrifying because there is nothing left to hide behind.
That mean voice in my head hears the praise for ‘authenticity’ and makes me feel like a court jester dancing stupidly to the delight of jeering onlookers. Or a gladiator laying my enemies to waste as the coliseum crowd cheers in triumph and ridicule. I hate them for witnessing me and hate myself for needing them to. I am tempted to explain that it was not my intention to slice myself open and spill my guts onto a piece of paper, but if that's what happened, then thank you for witnessing my auto-evisceration, and I'm sorry.
As I sat at my kitchen counter, reeling in the tainted joy of progress made, the inner conflict raged and made me tired. Grouchily, I decided my efforts and my whole life suddenly felt like a dumb joke. I was embarrassed. I needed to soothe myself by overcompensating, by proving that I was not just some “creative” but also very productive and serious. I responded to the emails in my inbox in rapid succession. I cleaned up to-do lists. I powered through hot yoga, avoiding eye contact with myself in the mirror because if I looked too long, I would see all of the things that the voice says are embarrassingly wrong with me.
The struggle of being seen
The great irony of coming out with a book is how uncomfortable I get when I know people are looking at me. The longer they look, the easier it becomes to spot the flaws. The more flaws they see, the less they will love me, and if I am not loved I will be shunned from society and destined to die in a cave, alone. And yet, when I write, I naturally wield my flaws like swords. I light them afire and juggle them above my head. While you watch in wonder, I brace for the moment that I am sliced wide open by my own high-flying aspirations.
At this point, a half a dozen or so people have read my book. Their feedback has been overwhelmingly (stress-inducingly) positive. Readers have expressed feeling "seen" and "understood" by the stories. HALF WILD made them feel less alone. Though I wrote about struggling with my own demons - drinking, distraction, anxiety, overwhelm - I touched a nerve that was connected to their own. It didn't matter if what plagued us wasn't the same. My revelations illuminated and blessed their struggles. By tossing my fiery swords into the sky, I showed it was possible to play with pain. Maybe it offered some sense of permission to those who read it and felt connected the the protagonist's ongoing failure to outrun her own bullshit. Even if our BS is different, it's also the same, because underneath our disparate struggles runs a seething river of self-loathing. That's what showed up when I caught myself feeling too happy about how this process is going. I hated myself for believing I could really do it.
Author Steven Pressfield has built a body of work addressing the subject of conquering creative blocks, including the incredible The War of Art. In a related blog post, he identified that crushing self-loathing as a favorite tactic of Resistance.
"Self-loathing, we have said, is a form of Resistance,” he wrote. “The apparition of Resistance is by definition a good sign, because Resistance never appears except when preceded by a Dream....The dream arises in our psyche (even if we deny it, even if we fail to or refuse to recognize it) like a tree ascending into the sunshine. Simultaneously the dream’s shadow appears—i.e., Resistance—just as a physical tree casts a physical shadow."
So, by this equation, my hatred showed up just in time. As the dream looms ever-closer to becoming tangible reality I recognize that I must soon confront the fact that I have, in fact, done it. That means that the voice in my head who scolded me so vociferously for trying was actually wrong. I won't gloat or rub it in her face. She was just trying to protect me from getting out over my ski tips and wandering too far from safety. She wasn’t sure I was strong enough to handle what comes next. Neither am I, but I’m going to try, anyway.
Pushing past her is to acknowledge that danger and proceed regardless. That mean voice, really just existential fear coated in caustic self-rejection, is a good sign.
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And, despite my protest, thank you for seeing me. Each time I remember that I am exposing myself to the world is an opportunity to confront that prison warden voice in my head and decide that it’s worth enduring the harsh words to bring more truth to life in this world. 🙏