I had a fellow writer friend chat with me recently. They felt all sorts of down because they didn’t feel like their work was worth a damn. We’ve all been there, right? You look around you and see how different your writing is from someone else’s and a bad case of Imposter Syndrome crops up. In this particular case, we have this one thing in common: we tend to let our natural poetic instincts take over and bleed into our creative writing rather than go for what’s trending now: which is to write in a clean, clear-cut way. We had a bonding moment because we were poets first, short story authors and novelists later.
This reminds me of the story of how I came to be a poet. Do you want to hear it? Well, keep reading if you do.
Imagine a twelve year old me, attending sixth grade in a small town in California. In English class, we came upon the chapter known as Poetry. We all had to study poetry in California back in 1986. I remember reading Langston Hughes’s “Hold Fast to Dreams” and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Mermaid” among other various poems. Then one day, we were promptly sent home with an assignment: write a poem. I went home and tore through several sheets of notebook paper because I was dissatisfied with everything I wrote. I even changed rooms in which I did my homework, hoping that a change of scenery might spark some inspiration. (Sound familiar?) My self-loathing chased me outside, to the garden in the back, where I finally, finally wrote a poem that kinda-sorta resembled what I saw in my textbook. (Do you see where this is going? I didn’t. Not at the time.)
When I arrived in class the next day and we turned in our homework, I was shocked to learn our teacher would be reading our poems aloud. I was downright mortified when I realized while I wrote a page-long poem about a unicorn in rhyming couplets, my classmates all wrote something along the lines of “the cat/sat on the mat.” While everyone was laughing and having fun, I was dying inside. Please let the bell ring, do NOT read my poem, I thought.
But Fate had other plans.
The teacher read my poem. I paled and shrank into my seat trying to become One with the Chair and Desk if not the Universe. By the time she finished, you could have heard a pin drop.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, this short girl who had always bullied me asked the teacher, “Who wrote that?”
My nemesis turned to face me. My heart stopped. I expected a jeer. But she smiled and said, “That’s beautiful.”
That moment, right there, changed my life forever.
I don’t know why we compare ourselves to others. I don’t know we try to “fit in” and the moment our writing style doesn’t match the work of others, we automatically assume what we did was wrong. There was a documentary I remember watching that claimed Mona Lisa caused a stir because before Da Vinci’s famous painting, all portraits were done indoors. I read that before Sappho, all poems were patriotic in nature but she chose to praise her deity, Aphrodite and wrote love poems instead, inventing even her own form: the Sapphic stanza. Byron invented the Byronic hero. So with all these people doing their own thing, finding their own greatness, why do we allow others to try and mold us to their own style? Granted, I understand we’re not all going to end up Da Vincis, Sapphos, and Byrons here, but goddamn it, I’m going to try.
Lush language and imagery might not be for everyone but I don’t think that should stop a writer from expressing what’s in his/her heart just because it’s not popular at the moment. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and the novels of D.H. Lawrence was a hot trend once. Styles come and go. And likes attract likes. I don’t think we’re such special snowflakes that we won’t find an audience who appreciates what we do. For fuck’s sake, if Ed Wood can get a cult following even after being nominated the Worst Director of All Time, (winning him a Golden Turkey award, I might add), then I say there’s hope for the rest of us.
Oscar Wilde said it best: “be yourself; everyone else is taken.”
Author’s Note: Special shout-out to author Colin B. Leonard for catching a few errors. You’re a doll! Thank you!