The Velveteen Writer

Here comes another installment of the Resurrection of a Writer. I’ll continue these at intervals if there’s interest…and possibly if there isn’t. I find, rather to my surprise, that these posts have been amazingly cathartic, and I hope to be able to look back at them in a year or so as mileposts along the road to my recovery as a creative individual.

One of the best-known of Peanuts cartoons (I’ve seen it as a poster, greeting card, and assorted other items) involves Linus depressed because he had gotten a B on a report card, instead of the straight A’s that were expected of him. After listing the various people who were disappointed in him because he had such great potential, he cries aloud to the heavens: “There is no heavier burden than a great potential!”

Damned straight, kiddo. I don’t remember what age I was when I first saw that strip, but it immediately rang a whole carillon for me. In fact, I can still quote it word for word, but won’t due to unminor matters such as copy right.

I had great potential. I was assured of this, repeatedly, by a wide cast of characters. Even when I auditioned at Millikin University, my eventual alma mater, the head of the piano department said, “My dear, you have great potential.” (That was Dr. Elizabeth Travis, and some day I have to write a post about her. A great pianist, teacher, human.) But as Linus discovered, those killer B’s lie in wait. And yet worse things may jump out and clobber you. Even the greatest potential occasionally slips and lands face-first in the mud.

The biggest danger, though, isn’t the sporadic banana peel underfoot. It’s that enemy at the back of your own mind, the Nay-Sayer, the Mind Demon that is always more disappointed than any teacher or parent or coach or agent can be. It’s the lurking imposter, the one that accounts for Imposter Syndrome.

Now I know not everyone is prey to this particular Mind Demon, not even all writers. If you are one of the self-confident and assured, count your blessings and move on. But for those who labor under Linus’ Burden and who are convinced that they will always fall short of such potential, I have words of comfort and wisdom.

Not my own, of course. (You think I’m going to pretend to Wisdom?!?) But I recently had occasion to write to Esther Friesner. For those of you who don’t know her work, I suggest you go here immediately and find a bookstore where you can buy a bunch of Friesner. She is the Queen of Hamsters, founder of Cheeblecon, wondrously funny, and occasionally oracular. I soon hope to be able to post a story I wrote for one of her Chicks books, a top-selling series of anthologies filled with hysterical stories by some of the best fantasy and sf writers around having fun with the classic bad-movie image of a warrior woman in a chainmail bra.

Anyway, in the letter I told her about the major funk that has consumed too much of my recent years, and said that I’d even avoided other writers to a large degree because I felt like a phony. Her response, in part, said “Never tell yourself you are the Velveteeen Author (i.e. not real).” And it hit me: that’s the heart and soul of Imposter Syndrome! It’s that feeling, no matter how great your potential and no matter what you’ve already done, that you still somehow aren’t really Real enough. You are a Velveteen Rabbit. Or a Velveteen Pianist. Or a Velveteen Teacher. Or a Velveteen Writer.

(Disclaimer: I have never believed myself to be a small long-eared quadruped of any kind. I claim those others, though.)

The Velveteen Fate is what awaits Linus if he isn’t careful, because it’s WA-A-A-A-AY too easy to start believing that anything short of that potential (the potential everyone assured you that you had) means that you are, somehow, Not Real. Pretty soon you start thinking the potential everyone saw must have been an optical illusion, and you spiral down until you spend your days watching Buffy reruns and trying hard to ignore that word-processor icon on your computer desktop.

So. I now have it on the highest authority (i.e., Esther’s) that I am not a Velveteen Writer. That means that I am, in some fashion, a Real Writer. I guess the next thing I need to do is see if any of that potential’s still around.

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The Velveteen Writer — 5 Comments

  1. C’mere, I’ll poke you. Does it feel like polyester fiberfill? No? Then you are Real. If you stab us, do we not bleed?

  2. Thank YOU both. It’s like the reassurance I got from Esther. Brenda, even pokes are appreciated.

  3. Whooops! Brenda, I thought I’d put a grin-symbol on that last part, but I forgot that this is HTML and angle-brackets get treated as commands. So add a (grin!) above there. 🙂

    However, I did not bleed. That poke tickled.

  4. Kate —

    A wise friend once said to me about that nasty little voice?

    “The critic is never you.”

    It’s the summation of every discouraging, catty and downright ego-destroying thing that has ever happened or been said to you, coming back to ambush you on bad days.

    We are Real. What we have done is more than most people will ever do. And we will have more things to come.

    Believe it.