Author’s note: On Tuesday, Substack granted me and The Reading one of its Independent Writer Fellowships, financial support that will help take care of my basic needs so I can focus on expanding this space in the near future. Thank you for reading, subscribing, and sharing The Reading this past month. Receiving your messages has made it easy to see how important it is for that to happen.
I hope this letter finds you well. Yesterday marked the one year birth anniversary of my murder mystery (and first novel!). Now rationally, I know that writing is allowed to take years and years, but I can’t help being a little (okay, a lot) disappointed that I haven’t finished my second draft yet. Sure, I tell myself to celebrate the 60,000 word first draft, and all the tens of thousands of words of planning and pre-writing, but I can’t shake the feeling that this novel is not ‘valid’ until it’s finished.
A steady diet of craft books and author talks has prepared me for ‘shitty first drafts’ and being a lonely, reader-less writer for the first few years (decades?), and the consequent importance of ‘writing for yourself’. I understand that I’m not writing at a professional level (yet!), so I just have to keep writing what I enjoy until I’m good. The problem is that I’m always waiting for future me, who has transcended the imperfections that present me has to suffer through. Even as I write this, I’m chiding myself for focusing on the (mythical) destination instead of relishing the journey, but knowing something objectively is very different from accepting it.
[I hope I’m not rambling—I have a terrible tooth ache that is distracting me.]
Occasionally, I make digital art, and naturally, this art is promptly posted on my instagram. For many months I’ve noticed that I attach a lot of value to this act of sharing (to the maybe twenty people who follow me). Revealing the art to the world becomes the final step of creation, to the point where I don’t get closure from art that I just make for myself. You could say this is me wanting to connect with other people, but more honestly, this reflects my intense need for validation.
I think I approach my writing in the same way. A long thoughtful email to a friend is not valid unless I archive it properly (Even this letter, I am putting it in my journal, so it counts when I add up the total word count at the end of the month). A drabble is not valid unless I send it to my sister. This story idea will be valid when I eventually finish it and get it published. This political commentary is not valid because I’m just a student who doesn’t fully understand what’s going on. My book review is not valid unless it’s published by a gate-keeping literary website—what’s the use of a 500 word reading response I write for myself? But even in these thoughts I am not fully sold—there’s a part of me that stubbornly holds on to the conviction that my writing is valid, because I wrote it, because I wanted to write it.
All of this is compounded by my urgent desire to get something, anything published this summer. I feel that this is an opportunity to get some clips, so I’m overloading my to-do list with writing projects, and never finishing anything. I feel like I’m supposed to be doing something useful with my time—after all, I’m living for free with my parents, and I have no real obligations for the next two months. I understand that this is an instrumental approach to writing, but really, I have been writing for so long but I never submit any work. Now I tell myself, I’ll never have so much time, or so few cares. If I can’t write in these most ideal circumstances, how will I scrape together the time to write in the future?
Thank you for this newsletter. It is welcome relief to an ache I didn’t know I had.
First of all, congratulations on writing your first novel draft. You and I have a lot in common. I can tell because over the years, I too have had a “steady diet of craft books and author talks,” turning to tips, tricks, and technical know-how occasionally seasoned with life advice. I can tell because, like me, you’ve already anticipated things that I could say: the first draft is always shitty, sometimes the writing takes years, enjoy the journey, you want to be a future self, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, you have a need for validation, etc.
You are also aware of your self-criticism: how you chide yourself for not enjoying the journey or that your feelings about speedy publication and productivity are “instrumental.” And there’s a part of you that’s fighting for you to believe, already, what I’ve already said—your writing is valid because you wrote it. You know and I know—we’ve done the reading. Comprehensively. So I won’t waste your time on what you know.
You dedicate the second half of your letter talking about your need for validation, diagnosing it where it shows up in your writing. Your microscope grows larger to other areas of your life, expanding to analyze your digital art, your attachments to Instagram, and even how you don’t feel like something is real unless it has been categorized (archiving) or sent to someone else (your sister), the word count neatly accounted for. Not one to take up so much space about yourself to a stranger, you also worry about my impression of you, interrupting yourself in the middle to excuse your letter’s faults. This is, you say, from a toothache.
I, too, have some experience with problem-solving my feelings. Once, while I was talking about a relationship issue, a therapist once told me that I must be an excellent software engineer (my profession at the time). Why, I asked, confused. All alone as a child, she explained, you learned to survive by using your intellect. You analyzed and categorized your world around you to prevent danger before it happened.
Oh, I realized. I was hyperconscious of others’ responses to me because their judgments had consequences for not only my safety but also the love I received. The daily moods of my caretakers and community resulted in whether I was given, or starved, of love. So I performed as a chance to redeem myself. The harder I worked, the more data I analyzed, the better and more comprehensive my performances became. My sense of self became an ever-improving brand management, a ploy to try and control the relationships I needed to be different.
SV, you’ve determined that you have a need for validation. And you use that diagnosis to talk yourself down and to remain, forever, in need of more data. But knowledge and analysis are only feeding a need to control your writing. They’re merely processes and roles you reach for when you try to transform who you are. Wanting to escape your current outcomes, wanting to escape your current self, knowledge is your secret door, your chance to get out of there. But when you leave in the night, there’s a part of yourself that’s constantly getting left behind. You mistake your grief for incompletion. You replace this hole with attention from someone else. And with each new act to reach completion, you practice this art of abandoning yourself again.
In these late days of summer, my partner and I will sometimes go down to a creek where three streams meet at the ends of their separate waterfalls. The waterfalls come to mind while we make dinner, listening to Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, when Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz tells us how colonizers thought Indigenous peoples had the “disastrous habit of setting the prairie on fire for the most trivial and worst than useless reasons” and that “open, park-like woods,” could not have been the result of Indigenous cultivation.
She goes on to say:
In the founding myth of the United States, the colonists acquired a vast expanse of land from a scattering of benighted peoples who were hardly using it—an unforgivable offense to the Puritan work ethic. The historical record is clear, however, that European colonists shoved aside a large network of small and large nations whose governments, commerce, arts and sciences, agriculture, technologies, theologies, philosophies, and institutions were intricately developed, nations that maintained sophisticated relations with one another and with the environment (53).
Colonial myths like this can and have foreclosed not only lives but whole worlds from being realized. What would have happened, I wonder, if the Europeans had chosen to respect the intricacies of Indigenous wisdom and relationships these peoples had with each other and the land? What could they have learned if they had set aside the knowledge they had—conquest and enslavement—and dreamed instead of learning how to survive together with who and what was unrecognizable to them?
You wrote your first draft through the knowledge you gained. Now, you’re at an impasse. The land seems empty, but it’s only unrecognizable. No one can tell you how to face your own work. It is all too general, too askew from your situation. The problems, perhaps, are specific to your plot, nestled in your sentences, ingrained in your characters’ developments. And your draft, for which you built the mountain, dug the streams, and poured the waterfalls—now rushes water at your feet, seeming sloppy, wild, an uncontainable mess.
Perhaps, unconsciously, you never published these riches because they were made with all of you. Not the likable you, the smart you, or the hard-working you. The you who needs protection and attention rather than another thing to do. For there is no such thing as a place unoccupied or imperfect. If you want your art to come from a sense of possibility and not a sense of scarcity, you must relate to your art as a caretaker, not an overseer. Revisions are adjustments for a book to become more like itself. Like your whole self, a book appears as it’s supposed to exist. You might kill your darlings only to discover that you’ve driven the heart of your work to extinction. Instead of trying to move forward, you might have to go back. You might need to begin draft seven with a version of draft two. Your imagination does not belong to your will. Let it move as it truly wishes.
My first unpublished manuscript, no matter how many times I reordered it, never set quite right to me. And I couldn’t describe what it lacked then even if I had tried. I feel thankful to this manuscript even though it was never published. It was certainly good enough to be published. If I had used the right connections or had had a big enough audience, it would have been. I’m thankful it wasn’t.
As Dunbar-Ortiz writes in her book, the drive for capitalist-based colonization was “a belief in the inherent value of gold despite its relative uselessness” (52). You are looking for validation that will never satisfy you. You are searching for gold that will never be useful to you. Anonymity is not a weakness—it is a gift to sit undisturbed with your wholeness. What would you do if there was no audience to sell to? What would you write if it was just what you needed?
When I held that manuscript up to the light, I saw its structure and what I wasn’t saying. I had to give all I knew to see what I didn’t. What was hidden or buried—beautiful but impenetrable images, unfinished allusions in my poems—I excavated. Made plain. Rather than try to contain the water, I offered each poem as a glass to drink—enough for what we need to live, not to hoard. Not needing to capture its beauty, to contradict it, or to own it. To ask only that water nourish us. To remember what it’s really for.