When I taught literature at SEMO University as an adjunct, my student read one of my short stories. It was published in Journey, SEMO’s literary magazine, while I was a grad student.
My first thought when he told me he read it: Aww that’s so nice and sweet.
My second, very overwhelming thought: OH MY GOD NOOOOOO.
This second thought was probably written on my face, too, because all my students sat back a little. I wondered if I might’ve screamed it out loud and not just in my head.
Although both thoughts were true – I did think it was nice of him to have taken the time to read my story – but the second thought was overpowering and sent me into a spiral. I taught the rest of the class frazzled and wide-eyed like I did when my TA supervisor would observe my classes during grad school.
In much the same way, I felt like I was on display while teaching that day. While that student watched my every move and tried to analyze my teaching ability based on what he knew about my writing ability.
That’s why I freaked.
I freaked out because my student read my writing while I was still his literature instructor, and I was mortified that he thought I was a fraud.
That he didn’t think I was a good writer, and I was teaching his class.
That he didn’t believe I was good enough to teach him anything literature-related.
I have a Master’s in Professional Writing, and with it, comes the expectation that I’m a magnificent writer. That I am a magnificent English scholar. Which is fine and reasonable, but what happens when people read my writing and don’t think I’m magnificent?
What if I’m not?
What if I am a fraud?
As long as people don’t read my writing, there’s no answer, and I can continue to exist in an ignorant state of bliss.
There’s an immense expectation that comes with having a title like a master’s that puts so much pressure on me as a writer and person.
So much pressure that I almost didn’t start this blog.
I tend to post pictures on Instagram and Snapchat of me writing – pictures of my laptop and a coffee mug with #currentwritingsituation or #writingfordays in the caption. It’s easy posting these because I’m not posting my actual writing. My whole laptop never even shows.
It’s just as easy to call myself a writer and have everyone believe it when they haven’t read anything by me.
It plants and raises the expectation that I’m a good writer, so when people actually read something by me, they have high expectations.
And I often feel that I disappoint when I share my work.
I almost didn’t start this blog because I thought people would think me a fraud – that I’ve been calling myself a writer and posting all the writing things, yet I can’t write. And writing this blog would show everyone that I can’t write.
The pressure from this unspoken expectation on me was like the pressure put on little girls in Toddlers and Tiaras. To walk and smile just right. To spin perfectly – not too quickly or too slowly. To do all these things on stage while everyone’s watching exactly as they’re taught – that’s a lot of pressure!
That’s how I feel about writing. I’ve been taught a lot, and I need to make that evident with every word I type.
It’s so suffocating that even when people do compliment me, I don’t believe them. I feel like they’re just saying that because of my master’s degree and because my social media posts say I’m a writer.
The student that read my story complimented my writing, but I didn’t believe him. I was convinced that he was lying and felt he had to compliment me because I was his teacher.
When I got home after that class, I thought about it over and over again until I finally figured out why it bothered me so much, beyond being worried that I was a let down.
The truth was that yes, I was worried I was a let down…but not that I was letting my student down.
I was worried that I let myself down.
That I didn’t reach my own expectations.
The story he read was not my best work. I submitted it on a whim because the deadline was approaching, and that was the only story I had finished at the time. I revised it between classes but didn’t put too much thought into it because I didn’t think it would get published – I didn’t think the story or the writing were strong enough.
I didn’t even know it had been chosen for publication until I was at my internship at the press on campus where they printed the journal, and the editor asked me to verify the spelling of my last name.
Immediately, my jaw dropped in horror that it was getting published. Because I didn’t think it was good or magnificent enough for print.
It wasn’t good enough for me, and I was embarrassed that others would agree with me once they saw it.
So I didn’t tell anyone but my mom, because duh – she likes everything I do. And my husband because he’s supportive, as I’ve said.
I hadn’t even thought about the story until my student brought it up and trudged up all my negative feelings associated with it.
I mulled it over, contemplating why I don’t let myself celebrate my successes, no matter how big or small. The story was published. I mean, someone liked it enough to think it should exist in print, never to be erased.
So I decided to embrace it. To accept that no, maybe it wasn’t my best work, but it was worthy. I repeated this over and over, along with my student’s kind words. I repeated them so that I might start to believe them for myself.
Because that’s the thing – it’s nice for people to expect good things from us and for them to compliment us, but we should believe those good things about ourselves. Yes I want others to think my writing is amazing, but none of the compliments I receive are going to matter if I don’t believe them for myself.
People can validate us all day long, and even though it’s nice to hear them say good things about us, it’s not enough if we don’t first accept them from within.
I’m still working on this – I have high expectations and goals for myself. I’m hard on myself by nature, especially when it comes to something I care about. And I care a lot about writing. I want to improve and be better, but I’m also starting to see the toll it takes to constantly cringe if I don’t meet expectations, from myself or others.
That’s when I take a deep breath and remind myself it’s all part of the process. Then I remind myself why I started writing in the first place – because it makes me happy. Period.
And I believe if anything, that’s what shows – regardless of any expectations or fears of not meeting them.