There’s an episode of 30 Rock where protagonist Liz Lemon prepares to host her own TV show for the first time. When word gets out that she’s about to make her TV debut, one friend eyes her closely and says, “TV? Are you sure you didn’t mean radio?” Another frowns and says, “Well, your hair is…fine.”
Even though I’ll most likely never have my own TV show, this week I found myself relating to Liz Lemon for more reasons than just our mutual love of cheese. Like the brave Tina Fey in that 30 Rock episode, I’ve been preparing to put myself out there in a big way: finishing my book proposal materials and submitting them to editors and literary agents for the first time.
Though I’ve submitted shorter pieces of writing to editors in the past (and received plenty of rejections for every one piece accepted), I’ve never done something like this. Sending out the proposal for my book—my first book—puts so much on the line. This project is the culmination of countless hours of thinking, drafting, revising, revising, and more revising—and an even greater level of emotional and intellectual investment.
Now, I’ve started the process of putting the book out there. I’m actively inviting the judgment and evaluation of complete strangers. In short, I’ve essentially just given everyone the right to comment on my hair.
And comment, people do! In the last week, I’ve been in several social settings where someone tells someone I don’t know that I’m a writer or that I have a book in process. Usually, the remarks of random strangers don’t affect me much, but when you’re most vulnerable, every last insignificant comment about your writer identity or writing projects can come across as an evaluation. Regarding my day job at a publisher, where my title is “staff writer,” a woman I met last weekend frowned and said, “A writer? You’re lucky to even have a job!” When a friend of a friend heard that I write creative nonfiction, she said, “Nonfiction? Are you even old enough to write nonfiction?”
I know rationally that most people mean no harm with such comments, but this week, I found that almost no one could make an acceptable comment about my writing—at least one that felt acceptable to me. Because the closer I approached the moment of clicking “send” on the first query for my book—the more self-doubt welled up inside me, the more undeserving of being published my book seemed to become, and the heavier the quick judgments of complete strangers began to weigh.
This is the part where, if I were Liz Lemon, I’d freak out and go get three haircuts in a row. The outcome of each would be more unfortunate than the last—the final result far worse than the hairstyle that sparked all the comments in the first place.
I didn’t realize how vulnerable I had really become until a recent phone call with a friend, also a writer. When she asked me about writing, the floodgates opened. Only when I heard myself vocalize every last anecdote of people making trivial comments about my writing did I recognize how unwarranted and downright juvenile my insecurities must sound.
I realized that my self-doubt this week had rendered me capable of responding to writing comments in one of only two extreme ways:
- Either slink into passive timidity, in which I downplay my writer identity and apologize for the extent of my writing goals,
- Or become stiffly defensive, in which I try to confirm my credibility as a writer by mentioning a degree or publication, but probably actually just come across as a deluded egotist.
I hate the way I sound when I react in either way.
“Develop a thick skin.” It’s the first thing anyone tells you when you reveal your creative goals, especially writing ones. Everyone will have an opinion of your work, and quite frankly, many don’t matter. You have to develop selective listening skills, heeding criticism only from the sources you trust. Otherwise you’ll drive yourself crazy with self-doubt—or a series of increasingly bad haircuts.
I can’t say that I’m over all my insecurities—will any person putting herself out there, making herself vulnerable through the creative process, ever be?—but as one writer friend observed, at least now I’m much more aware of the self-doubt demon.
The big news at the end of this tale is that I’ve finally clicked “send.” I’ve taken the first step of putting my book out there. I know I’ll be rejected, probably many times, but I submit in the hope that once, maybe, I won’t be.
And I hope that maybe this process will help thicken my skin, help me feel less wobbly, keep me from again teetering between only two extreme reactions of insecurity, apologies or defensiveness. I hope that maybe this process will let me someday feel solid ground beneath me when I say, “I hope to publish my book,” or simply, “I am a writer.”
The next time I feel especially vulnerable, I guess I just need to remember that, whatever happens, my hair looks…fine. Really.