To Thine Own Self
By Judith Cullen
I came into the possession of a literary journal recently. I took it home, excited to turn its pages and enjoy the work of fellow scribes. That I would consider myself a peer with people recognized as “Literary Fellows” as these were, is a major step in confidence in itself. I may be a humble self-published writer of fiction and essays, but I felt I deserved to belong simply because I do consider myself a writer. By the same token, after years of qualifying my stage design work with the word “craftsman,” I now do regard myself as an artist.
I began to read the first essay. I stopped. I couldn’t read it. The form was so self-conscious that I was distracted from the words. “Maybe it is just this author” I thought and turned the page to another story. Same thing, another composition so wrapped in its form and its own erudition. “I’m not stupid,” I thought. But these works made me feel so, because there was an “it” to be got, and I just didn’t. I realized that I was waiting for someone to tell me a story, to transport me into a world of their imagination and thoughts. Note to self: I love stories.
I have the same problem with some contemporary poetry, especially the rant format. The form becomes so much about the delivery, for reasons I understand, that I lose the words and thus lose the impact of the language beyond that of the voice slamming at me. Another note to self: I love language.
An odd phenomenon happened when my contemporaries and I crossed the median into mid-life: many of us started writing. I find myself looking at my contemporaries and I can’t help comparing myself to them and wondering.
I jumped in enthusiastically and began advocating for their work, always being a proponent of the “if you want success, help support someone else in attaining theirs” theory. A few of these writers are doing incredibly well and I have to rattle myself and remind myself that their success is not a reflection of any perceived lack on my part. Success comes in different shapes and sizes. When mine is meant to be, it will come. The success of others does not preclude my own success – it does not automatically make me a loser.
I don’t have the resources that some of my author friends do. That’s the reality of it. I don’t have a literary agent; I don’t have the resources to afford to do some of the things I “should” be doing to advance my work. My new releases do not arrive in boxes, they arrive in bubble envelopes – as many as I can afford at any one moment. I am about as grass roots as you can get and stay in any proximity to the surface. Yet people who like the stories I write, really love them. If this were all family and friends it would be one thing. I might, then, rightly tag myself a vanity writer. But people I have never met take to my stories. I seem to hit a chord with them. So what if the growth of my following is measured reader one at a time! It becomes very personal that way, simply because I am so small an operation. Being that close to your readership can be very validating and satisfying. I reach for another post-it, and add to the “notes to self” pile: Only compare yourself to what you can achieve yourself. All other comparisons are irrelevant.
Then my self querying shifts to what kind of things I write. If I want to be successful should I be writing more popular pieces, longer pieces, or more culturally hip pieces? Hey, sex always seems to sell! It depends, I suppose, on how you quantify success: is it the objective, or is it a by-product of the objective? To state it another way, am I writing to succeed? Or am I writing because I believe in the essential power of stories?
“Should” is possibly one of the most misused words in the English language. Just its presence in the thought is enough to key me off that this is a moment of silliness. I should not be writing romance, historical bodice rippers. I have tried actually. No matter what I do, my essential “Pooh Bear-ness” emerges, as does my sense of humor. My sexy writing sucks, most likely because it is consciously written and does not flow from me naturally. If I was meant to write, as I believe I am, I was meant to write what comes from me naturally. Of course I am writing what I should be writing! Final note to self, written in red ink and plastered across the others: Write what comes from inside of you.
I love writing. I have fallen in love with it the same way I fell in love with stage design 30 years ago. I still feel like a child in a toy store when I am immersed in the process of creating a new story. I love that it takes on a life if its own, just as design does, and that I get to come along for the ride. I never want to lose that sense of wonder, never lose that compulsion to read what I have been working on to someone, anyone, when it is freshly written.
I am not a great technical writer. Don’t start asking me about the form or what participles I have dangling today. I write for sound. My becoming a writer was inspired by reading literature aloud weekly over a five year period of time. Publishing my work was motivated by doing audio book auditions and wondering why the heck some authors are writing what they are writing. All judgments aside, I realized I had stories to share, and I found joy in crafting them into literature. My rubric is how the story sounds when I read it out loud. Other people help keep me honest where the rules of language are concerned.
I recently was turned down for a writer’s residency that I really wanted. Getting it would have added validation to my work and exposed me to some others who are on their journeys, allowing me to learn from them. It’s the third instance this year where I put my work out there competitively, only to be rejected. The reality check there is that in one case I was among 10,000 rejections for 24 positions, and in another I was among 1,400 for 40 positions. These were not judgments on the quality of my work any more than bagging sweet peppers in the produce section is a judgment on the cucumbers. Let’s face it, with the advent of self-publishing there’s a whole lot of literary fruits and veggies out there. It’s not my place to judge them. It’s my job to be the best writer that I can be.
So, what is the final lesson here? I am neither more nor less than anyone else currently writing. I need to write the stories I write best and keep my focus on that. “Success” would be nice, but it is not my prime motivation. Working on my writing so that it gets better, and better and reaches a level that might be worthy of recognition, that is a journey worth taking.
One of my favorite authors and storytellers, Neil Gaiman, presents it this way: “The one thing that you have that nobody else has is You: your voice, your mind, your stories, your vision. So write, and draw, and build, and play, and dance and live as only you can.”
So in this coming year, I will remember that I am “a writer” not “the writer.” There’s plenty of room in the market, and diversity drives it. Perhaps I might be getting along a little faster if I had a more active ambition gene, but for a Pooh Bear that’s just too much “bother” and I do hate fuss. I shall stick with writing good stories that come from my soul, and crafting them over and over, making them better and better.
Shakespeare nailed it: “To thine own self be true.”