by DW McKinney
If we’re lucky, at some point in our writing lives we’ll receive a genuine compliment about our writing. Maybe this person—either a friend, family member, or even a stranger—will mention that our words changed their life or helped them find closure on a persistent issue. Maybe we’ll make them laugh. Either way, the compliments feel great.
As writers, we ruminate on these words. We become superhuman. Our fingers scribble in our journals and fly across keyboards with incredible speeds to match our surging inspiration and confidence. Our words matter. We’re changing the world! We’re going to be a New York Times bestseller!
And then the moment we receive a rejection e-mail or a mild criticism from a person not brave enough to use their real name, that confidence boost is summarily banished as if it never existed. We forget who we are. We believe the criticisms and the rejections denote the truth of our capabilities.
Of course, this isn’t true. But how then do we let the complimentary nature of writing outshine the criticisms? How do we maintain a confidence that, even for the most accomplished of us, can still be so fragile?
In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott talks about…well, writing. How to write; establishing a routine; finding your voice; developing plot—all the important parts that provide structure and help us navigate those “shitty first drafts.” But we can’t reach this point if we don’t ignore the voices, what Lamott calls, “the banshees and drunken monkeys” that keep us from hearing our own writing voice. They keep us laden with so much anxiety, depression, and self-loathing that we struggle to begin our projects.
In one chapter, “Publication,” Lamott says:
“Even though so much of my writing time is stressful and disheartening, I carry a secret sense of accomplishment around with me, like a radium pack implanted near my heart that now leaches a quiet sense of relief through my system. But you pay through the nose for this.”
This chapter drops so many serious gems that I don’t have enough hands to pick them all up and give them to you, but the gist of it is this: we can’t wait for other people to tell us how good we are; we can’t depend on that.
At the start of the Infernal Groundhog Day that is 2020, I began writing my memoir with the aid of a writing coach, Kate Juniper. I was excited but a bit nervous. I had scrapped a memoir draft the year before—and had several dead manuscripts that were derivatives of that one. All of them stalled because I did not trust my voice, and I didn’t think my writing was compelling. I was also worried that readers would misunderstand what I wrote and take offense.
These were all things I told Kate. She responded, “My suggestion to you is to write affirmations each morning before you start writing.”
I wasn’t crazy about the idea. For one, it sounded like punishment. When I was growing up, my father would make my sister and me “write sentences” when we misbehaved. The last time we did this, my sister and I spent an entire Saturday writing 3,000 sentences. I cannot pick up a pen without recalling these days. But like Lamott mentioned, I had my own persistent banshees that I needed to silence. So, every morning, I made myself sit at my desk, and for 10 minutes, I journaled a different affirmation:
People love to read my stories!
The themes will appear; I do not have to craft them.
Life is ambiguous, therefore my writing will be ambiguous.
My family is supportive of and excited by my book project.
The magic is happening and building layer by layer.
What I am writing is not what I’m publishing.
It was strange to write these over and over. Little by little I unlearned the punishment nature of these sentences and embraced the affirmations. The more often I wrote affirmations, the more they became part of my routine and the easier it became to write what I wanted to say without fear of judgment or criticism. Soon, it became normal in habit and in thought. It was normal to believe that my story mattered, that my perspective was valuable, that the narrative would shape itself, that my non-creative writing background didn’t matter, that I was great. And my writing reflected these ideas. The story flowed. My creativity and form shined, and my voice resounded on the page—like it’s supposed to.
At some point, I stopped writing the affirmations daily. It got to be that I didn’t need them. I just sat down at my computer and began writing away, my voice freer and the worry gone. That’s not to say I don’t need the affirmations and I am far from being bulletproof against criticisms. (At the time of this writing, I am currently dealing with hate mail regarding a previous publication.) But it’s become second nature to recite them and to hear them as truth—because they are.
In a conversation between Lamott and a pastor in Bird by Bird, Lamott discusses her struggle with receiving the acknowledgement that she deserves.
“The world can’t give that serenity,” he said. “The world can’t give us peace. We can only find it in our hearts.”
“I hate that,” I said.
“I know. But the good news is that by the same token, the word can’t take it away.”
We have to believe this in our hearts and know that no one can take that truth away from us—no matter how good our words sound on Tuesday, or how controversial they might read the next.
DW McKinney is a writer based in Las Vegas. Her work is featured in Bitch Media, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Stoneboat Literary Journal, TAYO Literary Magazine, and others. Her essays have appeared in HelloGiggles and Elite Daily, and she currently serves as creative nonfiction editor at The Tishman Review. She holds an MA in Anthropology from Texas State University and a bachelor in Biology from Dominican University of California. She has essays forthcoming in Narratively and Road Grays. Learn more about her at www.dwmckinney.com or follow her on Twitter @thedwmckinney.