Stop Looking for Validation

February 10, 2015 § 21 Comments

ski-1A guest post from Eliana Osborn:

In fourth grade at Sand Lake Elementary School, I wrote an essay for a contest.  I won.  My prize was a month of ski lessons plus equipment rental at a resort an hour away.  I’d ride an early morning bus on Saturdays, sharing the bench seat with an older girl who’d let me listen to her Bon Jovi tape on her Walkman.  It was the only bright spot on freezing, dark Alaska winter days.

The next year I entered the same contest, confident I could refine my downhill technique.  The principal called me into her office for a chat.  I was certain I’d won again.  Instead she suggested it wasn’t really fair if I got the prize a second time.

That early boost of confidence planted the idea of success deep in my mind. I inscribed all my paperbacks with “Eliana the Great” in shaky cursive letters.  I sat with my fellow literary dreamer friend Annemarie in a tree fort behind her home.  We’d talk of the dedications we’d put at the front of our novels.

In ninth grade I entered and won another essay contest.  I put little thought into school writing assignments, always getting A’s, and dashed off the ones for college applications.  These stories of hiring someone to write for you, people who stressed about the AP English test, made no sense to me at all.


The real life standard for writing is far different from the k-12 one.  I worked all semester in ENG 292, Intro to Creative Writing, on pieces that won acclaim from teacher and fellow students.  So I was shocked when my prized essay, one from the heart that had been through many drafts, didn’t even place in a university contest.

I shut down my creative side then, spending the next ten years writing only the facts with no adornment.  Boring, dry, well organized professional pieces that were functional but unfulfilling.

In 2008, with one small child and a new embryo growing in my belly, I got a call from a national magazine.  The winner of a contest couldn’t go through with her assignment—a travel piece by a reader.  Was I interested as their second choice?  I didn’t notice the implicit rejection, just said yes, and jumped at the opportunity.

My first draft about a trip to Louisiana with my best friend was completely amateur.  When the editor sent the kindest possible email requesting revisions, I was embarrassed and devastated.  How could I have thought I could possibly do this?  Clearly I had no talent, was nothing more than a wannabe hack.


I did my best to improve, stressing myself out.  I tried to muster enough confidence to pitch other magazines but my efforts were frantic rather than well thought out.  Over the next year I did progress, using my postpartum depression to fuel the non-mom part of my brain.  Assignments came, few and far between, but enough to keep me on the path.

I stopped writing commercially again after agreeing with an editor that a large story should be killed.  Her criticism broke me.  I couldn’t imagine being able to get the piece where she wanted it so I gave up, closing off a major doorway forever.

I hated myself for thinking I could do this writing thing, commercial or literary.  I’d place a few pieces in journals by then but decided to stop submitting anything anywhere.

I cut back on rejection of course but I still wasn’t happy.  Not until I kept writing, just not sending out my work.  I stopped looking for validation, for the gold star of approval from a stranger.

That of course is how I finally found my voice.

Eliana Osborn is a writer, English professor, wife and mother living in the desert.  Commercially she writes mostly about family and education issues.  You can follow her @ElianaOEliana if you wish.


§ 21 Responses to Stop Looking for Validation

  • Phil Gentile says:

    Wonderfully written article. I think we all struggle with seeking approval from others – i know I did.

  • aqilaqamar says:

    Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:
    Very brutally honest 🙂

  • Sarah Bresnahan says:

    I needed to read this. I’m a former journalist, fired from my last newspaper for similar reasons.

  • mzroseey says:

    i sincerely AGREE, ITS SO true, i am now trying to write, but i already feel i cannot, just because i do not get validation from others

  • It’s so easy to get lost in the criticism and expectations of others .

  • Sue LeBreton says:

    I needed to read this today. Some criticism can be helpful but others do make us lose our voice.

  • bloggerau says:

    Wow! Boy can I relate!

  • Your point is so important. I’ve been hearing and reading it over and over lately. Even Sam Smith with his 4-Grammys said that he finally chucked the idea of making music to please an agent and then found his true voice and music success. Always such a good reminder.

    • eliana23 says:

      Thank you, to you Gregory and all commenters. It feels so shallow to care what others think–we’re supposed to be artists, right? But I appreciate hearing I’m not alone.

  • Liberal Soul says:

    And that is indeed a lovely voice.

  • Kristine says:

    I quite enjoyed this! The feeling is definitely a universal one. Good for you, for figuring this out so early. 🙂

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you for this. I recognize the pattern of early encouragement and later withdrawal from the “market.” My story as a visual artist would be similar. I won praise and contests early. I sold and then was unable to sell, and then as a new mother I stopped thinking of my art as anything other than a gift, and that is what it became.

    As a writer, my experience in the marketplace has been quite different, though creatively it is similar to working in the visual arts. The same stages of inspiration, struggle, and persisting through cold dark despair to completion. This I know how to do.

    However, there is the need for a light touch, absolute concentration, and trust in writing, and without the tactile reassurance of the visual arts. It is a more cerebral experience, and that might be why it feels so much more personal to me.

    I exhibited all over the world as a visual artist, and I have found publication, but the struggle in writing is less about accepting rejection—I learned how to do that in art school—than about making space in my head. I need an empty space that allows me to fill it with the story I need to tell, and opening that space, allowing it to open, is a challenge in my busy life.

  • davidwberner2 says:

    This SOOO rings true for me.

    When I was trying to get my second book published – the memoir Any Road Will Take You There – my agent at the time joked that maybe I needed to put some zombies in the story to entice potential publishers. I had received modest praise for my first book, and that had fueled me. But the reality was and is – I am not about to compromise my story for anyone. Oh, certainly suggestions from a skilled editor were and still are welcomed and vigorously sought. Writers need editors! But to adapt work to a marketplace just doesn’t work for me and never will. I have accepted what this will and won’t do for me. And that’s okay.

    I need to write what I consider to be necessary for ME to write and I’ll deal with all else that comes afterward.

  • pickandsafe says:

    Great, honest article.

  • Tracey says:

    Your words resonate. If you write for yourself, it always feels soooo good.

  • Cara says:

    Love this. I only wish I could get paid to write for myself. But then again, that outer connection you have with others when your writing just clicks for them pays off in a whole different way.

  • jlcannon says:

    No one who tries to write could fail to relate to this article. What I don’t see included is the notion that without readers as well as without the recognition of monetary worth, we still seek those validations. Cara, getting paid should be part of what we expect, but in my case stopped happening after the first 10 years I was writing. It’s work we’re doing, and why shouldn’t we be paid as well as the busboy?

  • My Cents says:

    We all need validation. It’s the question, “how much validation and what type is enough?” that needs to be addressed I think.

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