Stop Looking for Validation
February 10, 2015 § 21 Comments
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.