Creation is the Point: Overcoming Comparison and Inadequacy as Writers

Image of a flowering plant against blue sky

I have imposter syndrome. Every writer I’ve ever met does, with few exceptions. We’re haunted by that critical voice that whispers in our ear, with an especially sardonic tone: “you’re not really a writer,” or “you’ll never be good at this,” or “no one will ever publish your work.” The voice persists despite any successes, despite my MFA program director’s reassurances that “every person in this program belongs here,” which he says every year at our first MFA meeting of the fall semester. And it often gets in the way of discovering and developing a different voice—our authentic, artistic voice, the one we want to tap into as writers. For me, it also fuels a persistent tension between a desire to “prove myself” as a writer and a drive to become the best writer I can, however my work is received.

wild/open to/change/falling open/and/apart/along a worn-down/spine

My first semester in the MFA program at Texas State, I took a poetry workshop with the wise professor and poet Kathleen Peirce. She told us in the workshop that, throughout our time in the program, she would focus on our successes in cultivating our craft over celebrating our achievements. The writing was the point, not the public perception of it, not the awards we might earn or the journals who might laud us. I took copious notes, hoping to absorb her way of approaching the work, and thus let go of the nagging worry that I should hurry up and “get published” to prove myself. I revisit these notes now, in my second year of the program, and see their wisdom anew: “I want you to write in ways you haven’t written before, to be invested and changeable.” “I want you to find the freest possible way in language.” “Whatever your work is, do the work.” “Be devoted to poetry.” Not a word about how to prove you’re a “real” poet. The creative endeavor itself, not its outcome, is the goal.

The brush has a will,

has a beauty, has an acrid bite,

has a solemn mission to destroy—

or create, if she knows the difference.

Immersed in Peirce’s passion for poetry and her vast knowledge of craft, I forgot to feel like an imposter. When I sat down to write that semester, I worked to censor myself less, play with language, and take risks with form and line, as she urged us to do. Then, I started submitting my most polished poems from that workshop to journals, hoping a focus on craft before prestige had paid off. In response, I received rejection after rejection … after rejection. The critical voice began its breathless whispering again: “see, you’ll never be a real writer.” It urged me to look at my classmates who were getting poems published and berate me for not “succeeding” like they had. The creative flow, and the willingness to play and experiment, soon disappeared, and I spent more time than I’d like to admit indulging in escapism: mostly Netflix and the like. (It wouldn’t hurt anything if I re-watched every season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, right?) These were familiar ways of coping, and the reason I spent many years not writing at all, beyond what was required for my journalism and teaching careers. The imposter syndrome, the fear of failure, the fear of rejection stopped me before I even started. Escaping was easier, and perhaps it’s necessary for a while. Sooner or later, though, every writer must decide—if not now, when will I write? When will I, as poet Fanny Howe puts it, “lie down in mystery,” and write the poems that are mine to write?

sinew for you

to taste, my burn-

battered hand—

I hold it toward

you.

My second semester in the MFA program, I took another class with Peirce—this one on poetry form and theory. In that class, I encountered poets and thinkers who inspired me to let go of the obsessive need for achievement and pay attention to the creative process instead. Poet and activist Audre Lorde said, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” Lorde’s words helped me remember why I’m a writer in the first place: because I need to speak about what is most important, not for a particular result. Poet Stanley Kunitz also helped me accept writing as a process, not product, when he described it as “swimming underwater toward some kind of light and open air that will be saving.” These ideas continue to reign in my self-criticism and worry about not being “good enough.” As Peirce says, my goal is to do my work, not anyone else’s. My goal is to heed my artistic voice rather than my critic.

The deeper I go into developing myself as a poet, the more that artistic voice surprises me (seriously, what is my deal with writing about fingers and hands? And why am I so gory sometimes?) The more I approach writing as a playground rather than a battleground, the more my work feels like an authentic representation of my own voice. I can only overcome the imposter-self by inviting it to the playground to watch me climb up the slide, swing facing the wrong way, break all the rules and give up trying to prove myself. Poetry doesn’t work like that; there is no proving myself. There is only authenticity and commitment to the craft.

I slug like a waifish rug on the dung-pile,

all of the uns tugging at my humdrum

with a belly full of un.

Truth be told, I still procrastinate sometimes, and my writing practice is at times inconsistent. But whenever I turn away from the tension and worry of “when will I get published” and let myself simply create, I become a better writer, which was the reason I came to the MFA program to begin with. I am here to “devote myself to poetry,” as Peirce says. In the end, it doesn’t matter if I “belong here.” It only matters that I keep writing.

A woman who sleeps

each night in an iron lung tells us, “Look

at the small world,” and I do.

 

 

Note: All poetry included in this piece was excerpted from the author’s own work.