When I was 26, I knew what my problem was, and it was that I was lazy.
I was sure of it.
Couldn’t get my shit together.
Lazy, but with big dreams and a grandiose sense of entitlement that was laughable considering my results.
Scrappy, but with no real career trajectory.
I did have a stack of rejection letters… then a stack of years when nobody could reject me because I just didn’t write anything.
I sure showed them.
And the pain inside. The thousands of journal entries that went,
“I should be writing. I want to be writing. Why can’t I make myself write? What is wrong with me? I mean this is writing. Maybe this counts. No, it doesn’t, this is just narcissistic self-indulgent cowardly navel gazing. I think I’m supposed to write something, something real. But if I were supposed to be a writer I would be writing, and if I were a good writer somebody would have published my stuff, and I’m so embarrassed that I’m still writing this same shit after all these years.”
Oh, scintillating stuff.
It had to be because I was lazy, right?
Other people could go to medical school all day (damn you Ethan Canin) and then pop out a couple of award-winning short stories. Glennon Doyle poured out her heart in a blog and rocketed to major stardom. My classmates were winning fellowships, grants, landing agents, winning awards. But not me…. I guess because I was lazy.
I’d wake up on a Saturday morning, not a thing stopping me from writing. No kids, no job, just my own tiny crappy Tokyo studio apartment that no one but me cared if it was clean or tidy– no social obligations for another twelve hours– and did I sit down and pound out the great American novel?
Instead, I’d lie there and stare at the ceiling. Sometimes I’d get up and start typing things, but they were so appallingly bad that I’d delete them, or save them with a confusing file name (in case I died and someone went through my laptop) so no one could ever read my horrifying mortifying appallingly bad efforts. Then I’d cry. And berate myself.
Then I’d look at my day– entirely unproductive again– and sigh.
Look how lazy.
Over and over.
It would be kind of funny if it hadn’t hurt so badly.
It was agonizing.
It took me the longest, most circuitous route to connect with my creativity. I wrote book reviews, and acted, and translated scripts, and edited other people’s work, and started 74 side careers because I couldn’t figure out how to dive into what I really wanted. There was a membrane separating me from my own work.
But that membrane wasn’t laziness.
It was fear.
I was terrified.
I was terrified of being awful. Being embarrassing.
Ten years later, I was 36. It was harder to believe the story any more that I was lazy, because I was a single mom and pretty much never stopped working. It had finally occurred to me that I wasn’t actually lazy, but afraid. That’s okay, I knew how to be brave. Single parenting will do that for you.
So I was!
I was very, very brave.
I put up a Christmas tree on my own. (Crooked.) I started a business. I went to the DMV, people.
Meanwhile, I saw story after story of people who were also afraid, but did the brave thing, and n0w– look!!!– they’re in Modern Love!
But me? I’d been turned down by Modern Love again and again.
I saw colleague after colleague who landed an agent and a big publishing deal, but even when I wrote my scariest bravest truest truths— and I made it as good as I could– I still couldn’t get an agent.
So I had reason to be terrified. Because on the other side of taking the risk of being creative and brave was a TON of pain. A heap of rejection. A quiver of arrows of shame and mortification.
I had been so terrified that I would try and fail.
And depending on how you look at things, that is exactly what happened.
But what I didn’t know then that I know at 46–
well so many things.
But I didn’t know that the pain of being rejected by others was NOTHING compared to the pain of rejecting my own yearning.
I didn’t know that the pain of mortification was NOTHING compared to the pain of bottling up what wanted to be shared.
I didn’t know that the satisfaction of being loyal to myself– in my case, by writing the book that burned in my soul– was so deep that it would change my very spiritual DNA.
I know this sounds dramatic, but I went from torment to peace.
(I mean not about everything. I’m still tormented by taxes and paperwork and bureaucracy and online passwords and other people’s great book deals.)
But there was AGONY in my spirit that came from not creating, because I was being deeply disloyal to myself.
And I don’t feel that any more.
Where there was fire and brimstone, now there is cool water. Where there was gnashing of teeth and sobbing, there is the sound of flowers growing. Where there was unbearable panicked cacophony, now it is quiet and green.
This is so much better than a book deal.
(Also, very important: everywhere I said “writing” and “book deal,” please insert that secret thing you long to do if only it were possible and not ludicrous and terrifying.)
Because if you can’t seem to make that particular thing happen but you can do 97 loads of laundry and pick up your great aunt for every appointment and make 29 powerpoints and type up a masterpiece of a strategic marketing plan– then it isn’t because you’re lazy. Or maybe even scared.
It’s because most of us are never given permission to be deeply loyal to something that pulses just inside us. Which is ludicrous when it seems to me that those tiny singular longings are the most precious, rare flutters of possibility in the whole universe.
So I hope, dear kindred spirit, that you will consider this your permission slip.
What would happen if you were loyal…to yourself?