Are You Finished?

At the beginning of this summer I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Ireland as part of my master’s program. I spent most of those two weeks in writing classes, learning about the craft and business of being a writer.

Each day for two hours or so, I sat down with a little group of fellow students and our mentor, and we workshopped each other’s writing. Workshopping, for writers, is always an inspirational and terrifying experience. It usually consists of sharing a story or a piece of one, and giving your colleagues free reign to say whatever they think of it. Thankfully, my classmates are kind people, but it’s still a fragile experience. While you end up learning a lot about what works and what doesn’t work in your writing, you are putting a piece of your life on a literal table to be dissected. Hours spent thinking, feeling, remembering, and writing are all boiled down to a few sheets of paper that can be marked up and crossed out, and it’s easy to feel judged as a person when the work is the actual thing being judged.

Workshopping, though, is a part of being a writer. Even if you never have a formal sit-down in a room somewhere on the campus of an Irish university (though I definitely recommend it), every writer has to send their work to someone at some point. It might be a friend, a teacher, an editor, or a publisher. In all of these situations, the work will be judged, and you have to learn to chant I’mnotbeingjudged I’mnotbeingjudged in your head the whole time.

For most creative pursuits, the principle is the same: the artist must separate herself from the work in order to take constructive criticism, and to offer constructive criticism herself. You can only grow as a writer if you learn to look at your work objectively.

When the day came for me to share my short story with the workshop, I selected a piece that was several years in the making, and had been written and re-written a few times. I liked the story; I felt confident about it, and that’s really rare for me, let me tell you. The workshop went well, with some good discussions and suggestions from the class, and afterward we had a coffee break.

Usually after a workshop, I stuff all the copies of my work, copies with the scrawled notes and opinions of other people, the teacher, and myself, into a folder. I forget about them for a few months, until I feel strong enough to look back and start working on the errors.

During the coffee break, our mentor, a celebrated Irish writer in her sixties, took me aside. She had a few thoughts about our workshop, and we chatted. Then she asked me,

“Now tell me, is the story finished?”

I felt ill-equipped to answer. “What?”

“Do you feel satisfied that the story is finished?”

“Um…” The truth was, I did. Despite some minor things the class had pointed out, I felt like the story was finished. But I didn’t feel like I had the right to say such a thing. Please tell me, celebrated Irish writer; you’re the expert.

But I answered truthfully. “Yes, I do.”

“Ah, good.” She smiled, satisfied, and we finished our coffee break.

It was a simple question, but it turned my perception on writing and workshopping and the endless cycles of editing on its head. So often in my experience as a writer, I’ve turned to whatever workshop I’m dealing with (formal or informal) to validate whether I’m a good writer or not. I come prepared to feel the burn of judgement, to feel foolish for saying this or that. The little morsels of “I really liked this part” and “you did that well” give me comfort. But at the end I still stuff my work in a folder, feeling rather inadequate, promising myself I’ll work on it later, when I’m ready.

Sometimes, yes, the work is trash. Sometimes other people are smarter than me, and find things to improve in my work. More often than not, actually. But the fact remains that I am still the writer, and as the writer I retain the right to be finished. I retain the right to open the door for suggestions, let a few in, and then shut the door and say, “The discussion has been closed. Thank you for your comments; your insight is very important to us.”

This is a tricky balance, because you don’t want to be too puffed up with the pride of creativity. You don’t want to be that person in a workshop that says, “Well joke’s on you idiots; this here is a finished story! Suck it!” But you don’t want to be a fearful quivering sap either.

I’m learning to go with my gut on these things. I can usually tell I need to pay attention to a constructive criticism when it stings, when it resonates with some deep sense inside of me that says, “Yes, they’re right; that was a bad idea.” Sometimes whole stories feel that way.

But there are times when a suggestion is made for my work, and a very tiny, calm voice in my head says, “No. I disagree.” This voice has thought about it, and is making a level-headed decision, with no hysterics or emotional pain. That’s the voice of the authority-bearing artist, and that’s the voice I can trust.

So for the aforementioned story, I made a few minor changes, and then I put it in a new folder on my computer: “Finished Work.” It was weird to see it so blatantly put. It seemed audacious.

But it also felt good to tell myself I had finished something, to tell myself and the rest of the world that I had worked hard and done well and would work no further. It felt good to think that no matter how ill-received the story might be in the future, that going back and changing it was not an option. From now on, if people didn’t like it, it was a matter of their opinion, and not of my own shortcomings as an artist.

I’m still getting used to this feeling. It’s still frighteningly presumptuous to me. But that artist’s voice still rings in my heart, the one that politely disagrees with my doubts and tells me, “This is finished.”

 

 

Good Enough

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I’m graduating this weekend.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. I’ve been done with college for months now. I have my diploma. I just finished my first semester of grad school.

But I’m still going to walk across a stage in a cap and gown and throw a little party with my family. My best friend says she’ll get emotional. And knowing me, I probably will too. But I smile and roll my eyes at her a little bit, because while I’m sure I’ll enjoy the day’s festivities, right now my graduation feels more like a formality than a milestone.

When I sit at commencement and hear the speaker they brought in from Scotland talk about God’s plans for the rest of our lives, I’ll probably smirk a little. Not because I don’t believe God has plans, and not because I don’t like Scottish people, but because in many ways I feel like I’ve already moved on. The graduate glow has already faded from me. Now I’m just a little nonplussed. A little disillusioned. A little scared.

I graduated in December with a lot of wild plans of hitting the ground running, being a go-getter, and starting my writing career with a precocious flourish. Goodbye menial, part-time, minimum wage jobs! I’ve moved on! I’m good enough to go pro!

But now it’s May, and I didn’t do any of that. I was too busy living, I guess. Too busy taking care of other things.

I wasn’t good enough.

My biggest fear is that I’m not good enough. It’s been my fear for a while. The fear waits for the perfect moment to whisper to me, and it knocks me down every time. Friendships dissolve? You weren’t good enough. Arguing with the husband? You aren’t good enough. Didn’t finish a project? You weren’t good enough. Can’t find a job? You aren’t good enough.

The worst thing is, a small part of this is true. I can always be better and do better. And because I know this about myself, I will believe the fear every time.

Yesterday I went to the store to find a dress for graduation. Five years ago, when I graduated from high school, I got a beautiful, silky dress with a smocked waist and bateau neckline and full skirt. It was white with pink flowers, and it made me feel like Jackie Kennedy. Every time I wore it I felt perfect and beautiful and… good enough.

But this time, there was no magic Jackie Kennedy dress. Just a bunch of weird limp things with no lining and odd cutouts and garish prints. (My mom will be at this graduation, guys. I can’t wear stuff like this.) I did not feel perfect. I did not feel beautiful. I didn’t feel happy at all.

I drove home in tears. “God, this is a really stupid thing for me to be upset about,” I said. “Like, talk about first world problems. I feel bad even talking to you about it. I do have clothes. I will be wearing something under my graduation gown.”

And then my fear whispered to me: “There was nothing wrong with the dresses; it was youYou weren’t good enough.”

So of course I cried more. Because I know, I know, I know I’m not good enough. I will never be 100% good enough. I will always have shortcomings and faults and bad habits. I will always have parts of me that I regret and hide and smooth over.

I will always despise myself just a little bit, cringe at myself just a little bit. I will always feel guilty for asking people to stand in the gap for me, for asking God to stand in the gap for me.

“I know I’m not good enough,” I said. Got it, duly noted. “But what can I do about it?”

The fear didn’t really have an answer to that. And honestly, neither do I. I still don’t know the balance between getting better and being okay with never being good enough. I’m a little depressed that I couldn’t just pray about it and suddenly have an epiphany (or at least find the perfect graduation dress).

But I do know this: there is life beyond not being good enough. I haven’t reached it yet, but I know it’s there. I am told that God’s grace meets my weakness and makes me not just good enough, but perfect. That Jesus stands in the gap, and that He chose to do so even before I knew I needed him to. I am clad in righteousness even if I never find another Jackie Kennedy dress.

I poured out my clothing woes to my husband, who, even if he doesn’t fully identify with my struggle, still tries to understand.

“Wear that green dress you wore the other night,” he said. “It’s you. It looks great. You look beautiful.”

“I don’t think it’s good enough,” I said. I really meant I didn’t thinkwas.

“Who cares what other people think? It’s you. It’s perfect.”

To those who love me, I am loved. To those who love me, I am good enough.

And that’s good enough.

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