On a television show I was recently watching, there was a curvy girl trying out for a ballet summer program. She got cut almost immediately. Her ballet teacher gave her a wig and told her to go audition again under another name. She got cut quickly again. Her ballet teacher sent her in again under a third name. Someone who was watching the repeated interchange said, “This is madness. They saw her, and she got cut.” The ballet teacher said, “They didn’t see her. She’s going in to audition with all these skinny girls and they see that she has the biggest thighs and the biggest hips and they cut her. They aren’t actually seeing her. Eventually, she’ll go in with a group of girls and someone else will have big thighs, then they will see her.”
Wow, what a thought. How many times have we been rejected from something, not based on talent but on some external prejudice beyond our control? And how many times have we taken that judgment to be a ruling on our talent (or lack thereof) rather than a prejudice against our being. It happens when you go out for writing fellowships–who knows what others are writing and how your work screams something different (not necessarily something less than). Who knows who is reviewing the work and what their personal opinions biases and preferences are.
The ballet teacher wasn’t pushing to have her student selected, she was pushing to have her student be seen. And isn’t that what we are all looking for?
At the same time, being seen can be an intensely uncomfortable sensation. As I age, I become more comfortable with being seen and with being seen as myself, not some mythologized version of myself.
As a younger writer, the idea of seeing my work–my raw, unpolished, quickly rendered work–was excruciating. I wouldn’t dare show the raggedness of my initial thoughts. I remember eleven years ago when a magazine a editor asked me to write an article on a specific topic. I told her I would be happy to, but I didn’t know where to begin. She told me to just write what I could off the top of my head and send it to her unedited. I looked at her like she was crazy. She, a writer and editor with many years under her belt said, “I know sharing your work at such a raw stage feels strange, but I think the first draft holds a power and I think if you gave that to me, I could tell you what I’m looking for.” It was painful for me to even consider turning over a first draft of anything. I did it, with MASSIVE reluctance, and it unfolded just as the editor said it would. She guided me as I completed the piece.
Fast forward to 2012. An editor has asked me to write a piece. I’m willing but busy. I told her I’d write it with no hesitation, though I thought to myself, “I have NO idea how this will turn out. I sat down and banged out a draft in two hours. I sent her the draft without reading over it even once. “I need to edit this piece,” I wrote, “but please review it and let me know if this is what you’re looking for.” I trusted that she could see the essence of what I was doing, she could read the bones and I could fill out the flesh later. She reviewed it and let me know that it was just what she was looking for. She gave me a deadline to turn in edits and it’s done.
I find it intriguing that when I was less developed as a writer I was more rigid and more controlling. Now, I’m happy to hear critique and feedback, to gain insight and suggestions, and I don’t mind sending out a raggedy first draft for feedback.
It occurs to me that more experience = more confidence. More confidence = less need for every single thing I do and say to be perfect (because I know my worth and if I turn in something that’s less than my worth it doesn’t devalue my entire self). Less need for perfection = more acceptance of myself. Acceptance means I can be imperfect and I’m still perfect to me. I accept my mistakes, I accept not crossing every “t” and dotting ever “i.” More self-acceptance = more willingness to try. The need for perfection stops people from just giving it a go, if you’re okay with making a mistake, you’ll learn the rhythm of the thing you’re attempting a lot easier. So more willingness to try = more progress. And more progress gives me what? More experience.
The question of writing a novel is now pushing me further in this conversation of being seen. At last night’s reading, in conversation with Moira Crone we came to the topic of novels. I had just finished talking about how much I enjoy following an idea into the unknown as I write short stories and discovering what the idea wants to be. The next second I was explaining that I think I’m afraid to venture into the unknown of novel writing. What I have seen of myself as a novel writer is a confused lost self. I have soldiered through, slogging through drafts, but still not succeeded at carrying through the thread of a novel-length tale.
Moira said she thinks short stories are part of the natural scope of how people think and feel and ingest information. They can spill out of a writer in a very natural way, whereas novels are like a set of instructions or directions. The writer has to follow a set of proscribed actions/structures/strictures for it to be complete.
Which is an interesting point b/c I don’t do restrictions and have-tos very well. I remember when I was getting my MFA and we had to write a paper in our second to last semester. I was annoyed because I had finally gotten flow with my novel. “I’m deep in my novel,” I told my adviser, “can’t I just write this paper later?” The program director got wind of it and told me I wouldn’t be able to proceed without writing the paper. My adviser, Chris Abani, referred me to the book 39 Microlectures: In Proximity of Performance. A poet and a novelist, I suppose Abani had an idea of what I was struggling with and knew exactly what to suggest for me to move through it. The author, Matthew Goulish, felt that presenting lectures was impossible until he decided to do them the length he was comfortable with. Working on that principle, I wrote my paper by doing a series of micro chapters which made it possible for me to produce the required length in short sections.
Process is so important to success. And success is gained by not being stopped by “I can’t.” If I can’t do something—for whatever reason—the only way I know of to succeed is to ask myself what I can do and go from there. I think the same goes with being seen. I think we don’t want to be seen because we think we don’t measure up, at the same time we want to be seen—we want the value and validation of being noticed, accepted and approved of. We have many distorted ideas about what people should see when they look at us. True power comes from accepting who and what we are and being willing and open to receiving the gaze of others.
It comes back to surrender, as it always seems to. And being able to see ourselves clearly and honestly. Regarding novels, I am still working on my “self-gaze.” In other areas as a writer, it feels great to be fully open to being seen.
Be well. Be love[d].
Kiini Ibura Salaam