When I was seven or so I took a creative writing class at a summer day camp, and while helping my parents clean out their house last year, I happened to find the storybook I wrote for the class. Though I hadn’t thought about the class in years, it is still vivid in my mind.
Everyone was tasked with writing a complete story by the end of the class. We were allowed to illustrate it if we wanted to. At the end the teacher printed and bound the stories into little cardboard-cover books. My friend wrote a mystery story about the Titanic. Another student wrote a family memoir. And then there’s me.
I wouldn’t have admitted this at the time (and I wouldn’t have been able to articulate my reasoning either), but I didn’t try. I drew a bunch of pictures of houses and labeled them: “This is an igloo. This is a mansion.” It wasn’t really a story at all. It wasn’t even totally finished when I turned it in. Worst of all, I had hundreds of crazy ideas stored in my brain that I could have written but didn’t.
Don’t try to tell me I’m being hard on myself because I remember my young self and the weird and wonderful ideas that I dreamed up on a daily basis. I could have written about the American revolution, traveling to the moon, or hobbits, but I deliberately created something that did not reflect my talents or interests. When the time came to present our projects, I refused to read mine. As the teacher read the book to the class, I remember feeling sick to my stomach and wishing I had written something else. Anything else! I was ashamed of that book. I knew I could do better and deliberately didn’t.
I’m thirty years old, and I still do this.
I would rather avoid, quit, or deliberately sabotage my own work than complete a project to the very best of my ability and find out it isn’t any good. The more important something is to me, the more likely I am to procrastinate or quit because I am terrified of failing.
I have spent the last year trying to come to terms with this fear. If I give my absolute best on my novel, it might not be enough. Failing on something that matters so much could honestly break me. I’ve realized this is why five unfinished novels sit on a flashdrive in my desk. As long as they are incomplete, no one can read them and tell me I’m a failure. I know many people will say that not finishing is a failure in itself, but I would rather never know whether I’m bad or good than know that I’m not good enough.
I have creative ways of justifying this bizarre self-destruction. I said the storybook was for my baby sister. I say the plot has a massive hole in it. I complain that I don’t know enough about forensics. I claim I don’t have enough time. The truth is it all amounts to a mental gymnastics routine on the level of Cirque du Soleil.
I need to learn how to fail without dying a little inside, but I haven’t the slightest idea how to do that. So here I sit, facing down an empty page as one would a firing squad, and that little storybook hovers over my shoulder, simultaneously mocking my paralysis and reminding me I can always give up like every chance I’ve had before.
I desperately want to prove myself wrong.