What I’ve Learned About Creativity + Fear

I am a writer.

I say this with confidence and certainty. Whether or not I am a good writer is up for debate—but I stand in my truth when I say that I am, in my mind and in my heart, a writer.

About a year has passed since I’ve completed a piece of fiction (or at least, a draft). This I say with shame and frustration. I have managed a few pages here, a sentence or two there. Just fragments.

Let me clarify. I have written: blog posts, letters, journal entries, product descriptions, marketing copy, technical documentation, and countless emails. While each style exercises my creativity and keeps me lithe, there’s something within me—a truth, a passion, an excitement— that these projects do not have access to in the same way that fiction does.

So, what’s stopping me? It’s not writer’s block, because that does not exist. I have plenty of ideas that I could run with.

Lately, I’ve been watching and listening to a lot of content by Marie Forleo (entrepreneur, writer, philanthropist, overall lady boss). On the way to work last week, I tuned into her interview with best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert. They focused on the vexed yet necessary relationship between fear and creativity.

In the midst of their discussion, Elizabeth laid out this big piece of TRUTH.

“People tell me about the projects that they want to be making and are not making […] When they come to me with their problems about creativity, […] I find that they always have some rational, reasonable, material real-world reason why they’re not doing it that they can lay out as an explanation. But when you scratch away at that, what’s there is always and only fear. […] Creativity will always provoke your fear because it asks you to enter into a realm with an uncertain outcome, and fear hates that.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

I fear rejection and criticism. I fear that my stories do not have enough value or meaning. I fear mediocrity. I fear that I will invest time and energy into a piece that will never get published.

The last one is major for me. Be it the desire for human connection or the need for validation, I get a thrill from sharing my work with others (once I gather the courage to do so). However, I’ve somehow convinced myself that sharing is equivalent to publishing, and that my platform must be public, whether that’s a blog or a paperback.

In another interview, Marie Forleo speaks with Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, who says:

“One of the early decisions I made was to not focus on getting published and to rather focus on my craft.” – Cheryl Strayed

Most of my fears hinge on what other people think of my writing, as well as what they will do with it. The pressure to publish does not help; in fact, it is paralyzing.

With the help of Elizabeth and Cheryl, I’ve realized that time spent on a story that I’ll never published is just as fruitful as time that I’d spend on a lit mag submission. Published words, though more visible, are not inherently more meaningful than the words that I scribble into my journal. Now is the time to reclaim my creativity and my passion and to redefine what gives my work value.

I’ll begin now by saying this:

My writing is important, because it is important to me.

What’s Inspiring Me This Week

Some books, podcasts, places, and people feel like serotonin for the soul. Here are a few things that have been filling me with inspiration and happiness lately:

In the Company of Women by Grace Bonney

img_8234

From the founder of Design*Sponge, In the Company of Women contains 359 glossy pages displaying stunning photography and textual portraits—all focused on awesome women who’ve built creative careers. You’ll want to pluck quotes from these interviews and read them to yourself every morning. It’s uplifting but raw, the kind of book that you want to have on your shelf at the ready, whenever you’re feeling a shred of doubt about your creative pursuits.

#GIRLBOSS Radio with Sophia Amoruso

Available for download anywhere apps are available

I listen to this podcast every morning on my way to work so that I walk into the office, ready to make my mark. Hosted by Sophia Amoruso, the founder of Nasty Gal and the author of #Girlboss, these episodes feature women who’ve bossed it up in their creative, cultural, and business ventures, from CEOs of major media companies to YouTube personalities. Sophia likes to say, “Don’t compare your hustle to their highlight reel” – and this podcast lives by that, giving these women a platform to tell their real stories, warts and all.

Spoken Word Poetry

I may not write or perform any of my own, but I am obsessed with spoken word. These artists view and experience the world in a very special way, with an awareness that many people do not take the time to cultivate. Each poem—from the sweet to the tumultuous— reminds me that life is itself a piece of art, both beautiful and ugly, that we must pay attention to.

Tell me: what’s been inspiring you lately? Any recommendations? Comment below!

Frank, Funny, and Fun: Mindy Kaling’s “Why Not Me?”

If my childhood, teens, and twenties were about wanting people to like me, now I want people to know me. So, this is a start.

– Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me?

So, I lied. I originally said that this blog would be a space for me to talk about reading and writing fiction, but after binge reading the entirety of Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? yesterday, I am expanding the scope of this blog to include nonfiction as well.

Why Not Me? is Mindy Kaling’s second book of personal essays [the first being Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), which I have yet to read]. After trudging through slews of novels by Dead, Serious, and Canonical White Guys throughout my university education, it was refreshing and exhilirating to dip into the pages of Kaling’s contemporary life as a writer and actress–one that does not always align with the standards of beauty and behavior that police the existences of women in Hollywood.

My Favorite Essays (1) (2)

What makes WNM such a thoroughly enjoyable and valuable read is Kaling’s voice and attitude: she is simultaneously frank about her (very human) insecurities and faults and unapologetic about her confidence and overall fabulousness. Her language is colorful and sharp, colloquial but eloquent, sprinkled with perfectly selected pop culture allusions. A professional comedian, she cranks out sidesplitting jokes, while, at the same time, articulating poignant, honest musings about experiences/feelings that readers will undoubtedly relate to. There was one particular reflection in “Some Thoughts on Weddings” that resonated with me:

With my friends, the sad truth is that our best “best friend” days are behind us. […] It’s traumatizing to think that a best friend could become just a friend. That’s because there is virtually no difference between an acquaintance and a friend. But the gulf between a friend and a best friend is enormous and profound.

-Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me?

I think that it’s easy to forget that celebrities have personal lives that are structured very much like our own, with familial and platonic support systems. Kaling doesn’t upkeep that misconception by lingering too long in the seemingly glamorous aspects of her career. Instead, she breaks it down for us, as in essays like “A Day in the Life of Mindy Kaling,” detailing what kind of work went/goes into building and sustaining that kind of life. Yes, she assures us, having your own TV show actually requires a lot of hard work. Sure, there are some perks, like becoming buddies with the President of the United States and being BFFs with cool people like B.J. Novak, but underneath all of that fluff are long hours of writing and editing scripts and meeting with scarily important network executives who may or may not shut down your projects any minute.

Kaling, who is especially open about her desire to please people, focuses a great deal on her personal relationships, as well as the personal side of her professional relationships. She doesn’t hesitate to tell us about celebrity-friendships-gone-wrong and crushes that fizzled into could-have-beens. She confesses to taking immense pleasure in filming sex scenes. And she paints idiosyncratic portraits of the most influential mentors that have shaped her career. She humanizes the experience of working in a business that relies so heavily on illusion and facade.

Why Not Me? was the most fun and pleasurable reading experience that I’ve had in a long time. It was straightforward and easy to read (refreshing after taking courses on Chaucer and Shakespeare), but, at the same time, it was thought-provoking and intelligent. I didn’t have to exercise too much intellectual brainpower to feel connected to it, either; I just connected. Mindy Kaling proves with WNM the power of a book that inspires effortless emotional connection and balanced mental engagement.

If you’re looking for a book to enjoy this weekend, I’d definitely check this one out!

Till next time…

-JoAnna

How I Fell in Love with Writing: From Middle School Mania to Life-Long Passion

I think that YA books proved to me that my voice and my stories were valid and worth putting on the page.

Most English majors or writers that you meet will tell you how 1) they were avid readers in their youth, with their noses perpetually dipped in books; 2) their reading capabilities far exceeded that expected of their grade level; and 3) they identified with Harry Potter houses in the same way that some people live by their astrological signs.

Confession: as a kid, I didn’t meet that description.

When I was in elementary school, you’d be more likely to find me directing soap operas with my Barbie dolls, watching Jackie Chan Adventures, or reenacting scenes from Peter Pan by myself in the backyard than reading a book. I journaled often and enjoyed writing in school–I even asked my fifth grade teacher if she could assign more essays. I loved creating characters and stories, but with the exception of Lemony Snicket’s The Series of Unfortunate Events, I didn’t have that zealous obsession with literature that a lot of writers had as children.

That is, until middle school, when a relative gave me a Borders gift card for Christmas. (Moment of silence for Borders’s demise.)

I found the Young Adult (YA) section on the second floor. The book spines burst with color–rainbow patterns that stretched across the shelves, drawing me in. I pulled some books out to read the synopses, pleasantly surprised to find that these were stories about people my age, or just a few years older, and in the contemporary world. That warm, glowing, glittering feeling of connection sprouted within me.

Among the wide selection, I came across a familiar title: Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen by Dyan Sheldon. I’d seen the movie with Lindsay Lohan. What would that story be like on the page? I wondered. This book was my first purchase at Borders, and the first YA book that I’d ever read. Though I found the narrator of Confessions to be, well, a bratty drama queen (should’ve expected that), the book instantly hooked me to the genre.

img_5174

It wasn’t long before I discovered Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen and…well. Eventually, my bookshelf looked like this:

My relationship with books became much more crucial when I was in ninth grade, when I, like the archetypical coming-of-age novel protagonist, underwent a loner period. Books (and the characters in them) became my dearest friends, my safe haven.

Around this time, I began to really delve into creative writing  on my own, totally inspired by all of the books that I read. I think that these YA books proved to me that my voice and my stories were valid and worth putting on the page. So, when I wasn’t practicing the violin or doing homework, I’d write teen dramas inspired by television shows that I watched, like One Tree Hill. Eventually, I started to write semi-autobiographical works in which all of the things that I wished happened to me…happened.

And that’s the kind of self-indulging motivation that led me to write my first full-length YA novel.

You see, in middle school, as I developed a love for reading, I also cultivated an obsession with Fall Out Boy and their bassist/lyricist, Pete Wentz (or as I used to call him, Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz III, because I was a creepily fanatical and newly hormonal twelve-year-old with Internet access). I memorized lyrics, collected posters, learned the band member’s biographies, joined their fan club–what the Beatles were to girls in the sixties, Fall Out Boy was to me.

So, one day, when I was in seventh grade, I got out a purple spiral notebook and decided that I was going to write a story about it. I transformed myself into thirteen-year-old protagonist Grace Parker and recreated Pete Wentz as Pete Wenston (very clever, right?), the new boy in school and love interest who happens to be in a rock band. Everyone in my actual middle school manifested as background characters in my novel in one way or another. As I wrote more and more, I ditched the notebook and shifted to the computer, writing everyday until I finished at 293 single-spaced pages.

The novel, as you can imagine, was painfully cheesy and amateurishly written, exploding with clichés, mispellings, and narrative inconsistencies. I didn’t write it with the intention of showing anyone (though, some friends pried it out of my hands, so to speak) and that’s probably why it was so easy and fun to write. I wasn’t overly critical of myself as I am now, because I wrote it purely for the pleasure of writing.

And I didn’t stop there. Within the next year, I wrote a  sequel in which all of the characters are in college (talk about a time-jump) and two more lengthy novels; one was about a garage band that gets a record deal and the other was about the shenanigans that went down at a music camp. I guess you could say that by fourteen, I was already prolific. 

Once I decided that I wanted to “be a writer,” it all became significantly more difficult. I wrote less, even avoided the blank page altogether, my creative faculities shut down by self-doubt and self-inflicted pressure. It took me a long while to realize that a New York Times best-selling title didn’t make you a real writer. Writing makes you a writer. With that epiphany,  I found my voice again.

I went on to attend a creative writing program during the summer before my senior year of high school as part of the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA). This experience–four of the best weeks of my life that I will undoubtedly cover in another blog post–solidified my passion for storytelling, validated my abilities, and showed me that I existed within a community. Writing, I realized once again, connects me to people, places, and things–it is my way of making sense of the world and finding my place in it.

In college, I enrolled in short story workshops and, just last week, I completed a senior thesis. A novella, the longest work that I’ve written since middle school. I can say that I have matured dramatically as a writer over the last few years in terms of style, subject matter, and technique. I’ve somewhat departed from YA in terms of both reading and writing, but I will never lose my appreciation for the genre and its significance in my own narrative.

I’m excited to see what will come next in the saga of my writing career. Who knows? Maybe, someday, I will actually achieve that New York Times best-selling title. Regardless, one thing is certain: I’ll keep on writing.