“For the writers here, are there any contemporary writers who make you feel like a pretender?”
The kids in our “Author’s Club” at Sandburg Jr. High are just so cute. We teach it every other Friday at Jason’s school. After Career Day, Tananarive and I were approached by several kids who said they wanted to be writers. I remember wanting desperately to be a writer,and how much it would have meant to have a real professional sharing tips…so we set it up.
We’ve decided to publish a little e-collection of short stories, and pay every one of them five dollars. That makes them a paid, published writers. If we put it up on Amazon for a buck or so, their friends and relatives can buy it. If the money goes to their teacher, she can disburse it to each of them, and now they get a tiny trickle of cash that reinforces their “writer” personality.
Let me tell you–the first time you buy so much as a hamburger or paperback book with the money you make from your writing, you enter a new world. These kids are eager. I suspect they think that if they get across that line, it’s smooth sailing.
They are wrong.
Just yesterday, I saw a writer post the following question: “For the writers here, are there any contemporary writers who make you feel like a pretender?”
And writer after writer posted the names of the writers who were better than them, and how they felt like “pretenders” in comparison.
That’s fine, and in some ways those voices never go away. No matter how good you get. Why? Because every expert knows a thousand components that make up their craft. And the ALWAYS know people who are better at those individual components, so they ALWAYS know people “better than them.” Doesn’t matter what field you are in. Always better people. You might have the best specific COMBINATION of attributes if that’s where you’ve put your emphasis. I consider any human being to be better at me at something. But what saves me is that I’m the best Steven Barnes in the world. I’m who I wanted to be when I was a kid. Might I have chosen better? Sure, and working on it. But no one is better at doing me than me, and considering that I really dig me, that’s a pretty cool thing to be.
But it wasn’t always like that. I remember when a Famous Writer read the galleys on my first solo book, STREETLETHAL…or to put it more bluntly, read the first two chapters and put it down. “Its not ready to be published, kid. Needs work,” he said.
It was already at the publisher. And here was one of my favorite writers, a man at the top of his game, who I admired as I did few living human beings, telling me I sucked. Disaster. The “Impostor voice” in my head was screaming at me: I sucked. I had nothing. I’d never have my dreams. Larry Niven had only worked with me because of Affirmative Action
I was a pretender.
It was raining that night, and I lived alone so no one saw me curl up in a corner and cry. I was lost.
But…in the depths of my misery, I remembered something I’d learned while running on the track at Pepperdine University, forty years ago. My distance was five miles, and at the two mile mark, every time, the voices in my head said: STOP. My body hurt. I was tired. Everything was working wrong. YOU ARE HURTING YOURSELF. The voice said. YOU WILL DIE, it said. But if I kept struggling on…I hit a rhythm, and it was like a third lobe of lung opened in my chest, and there was the energy I needed.
And I realized that THE VOICES IN MY HEAD WERE LIARS. They told me I would die, and all they really wanted was to stop me. And finally, after it happened a dozen times, I got the joke. And the next time I was on the track, when the voice said “you are going to die” I answered “well, then die, dammit. I’m going to live doing what I want, being who I am. And if I’d die running on the track, I’d probably die by the end of the day anyway. So…screw you.”
And the voice in my head would mumble, and give up. And I would run like the wind.
I remember that, running around and around the track at Pepperdine, sailing. And there was an old black man, gray-haired and bent, who had stopped his laborious walk to watch me. Around and around the quarter-mile. And he smiled, and called out to me: “You keep running boy! Ain’t no telling what a young black man can do!” And we waved to each other, and he went on his way, and I never saw him again. And never forgot him.
I was curled in the living room, staring at the telephone that had just bit me, crying. And something inside me got mad.
So Famous Writer thinks my book sucks. Not everyone will agree. I’ll get feedback. Keep learning and growing. I don’t have the obligation to live up to Famous Author’s standards. I have an obligation to be the best I can be. The best Steven Barnes I can be. Because really? That’s enough.
Remember “Rocky”? The first one? He trained like a maniac, pounding sides of beef into tartar and drinking enough raw eggs to fuel an Ihop, but the night before the Big Fight realized that he was a joke, a laughing stock, a publicity stunt. That he had no chance. Adrienne asked him “what are we going to do?” (Note the beauty of the “we”? Masculine and feminine energies, together.)
And at that moment Rocky says the thing that made my eyes open wide, that raised that movie to the status of Truth. “No one has ever gone the distance with Apollo Creed,” he said. “All my life, I’ve been just another bum from the neighborhood. But if I can go that distance. If when the bell at the end of the fifteenth round ends, and I’m still on my feet, for the first time in my life I’ll know I’m not a bum. That I really am somebody.”
Now…Rocky already WAS somebody to Adrienne. He was the man she loved. Given that strength, he didn’t need the rest of the world to give him a victory. He WANTED their acclaim, but didn’t NEED it. He already had what he needed, get it? What he needed, what ANY of us ever need, is a sense of love and connection. He was then able to describe a path to victory that was dependent upon his actions, not Apollo’s, not the judges.
I’m gonna be on my feet. No matter what. And because of that inner direction, he almost beat the greatest boxer who ever lived.
You keep running, boy. Ain’t no telling what a young black man can do! A man of one generation, who had done as much as he could, run as far and as fast as he could…handing the torch to the next runner.
I sat in my living room and realized I didn’t have to write a best-seller. Didn’t have to win awards or acclaim. What I had to do was be true to myself, no matter what. No matter what it costs. That there will ALWAYS be criticism, from others and from the voices in my head.
Many years passed. Famous Writer and I became friends in time. And one day he saw my “A Stitch In Time” episode of the Outer Limits, and told me he loved it. I glowed, because I knew I could trust him with the truth.
And even more years later he grew older and fell sick, and I was at his house, at his sickbed, and he spoke of regrets. And this man who I had adored for so long told me that he didn’t know if anything he had done matters, if he had ever created anything of worth. And I smiled, and told him that he was, quite possibly, the most “himself” writer I had ever met. He was, quite authentically, Famous Writer. And there was nothing more any of us can do. The fame, the money, the awards come if they come. But the real reward, if you have chosen your goals in alignment with both your childhood dreams and deathbed values, BEING WHO YOU ARE.
I told him I had dealt with fear, that that was the reason that drove me into the martial arts. “How did you defeat it?” he asked.
You don’t. You make your peace with it. It’s there for a reason…to keep you running.
So…yesterday I asked the kids how many of them had negative voices in their heads. 80% of them raised their hands. I laughed. “Very good,” I said. “The rest of you are lying.”
They laughed. “Here’s secret,” I said. “One of the most important secrets in the world. Are you redy to hear it?” They nodded eagerly.
“YOU ARE NOT THE VOICES IN YOUR HEAD,” I said.
“Then who am I?” A little Asian girl asked.
“You are the one listening to the voices.”
“Well…who is that?” She asked, eyes shining and wide. Empty cup. They are the blessed.
“That is what you must discover,” I said. “And the answer won’t quite fit into words. But if you are a writer, you will do the best you can to answer that question, with every character you create.”
Write your million words. Speak your truth. Do your best. Enjoy every day, for the simple pleasure of being yourself, separating your is-ness from the voices of the crowd.
Run, girl, run. Ain’t no telling what a young Asian woman can do.