This past spring, I taught a creative writing class at the University of California, Irvine, geared towards helping students approach contemporary American poetry and fiction as writers themselves. I knew we would discuss great readings and write good essays analysing authorial craft. But I also wanted to tackle something that was harder to define, a broad category I called becoming a writer: all the stuff I’d spent years trying to figure out on my own because it hadn’t been part of any of the many writing classes I’d taken. I think becoming a writer means asking yourself again and again why you write, how to keep coming up with new ideas, how to trust yourself more, and how to keep falling in love with writing. These were the kinds of questions I hoped we would explore in our ten weeks together and beyond.
Something that really helped us was the book Write No Matter What by media studies professor Joli Jensen. While the book primarily addresses writing in academia, it really speaks to any writer who faces struggles within themselves that translate into struggles with their writing – or what a student of mine elegantly called Writer Psychology 101. For example, several chapters insightfully uncover common “myths” that writers unconsciously believe. These include the magnum opus myth (my next piece of writing has to be the greatest of all time), the hostile reader (my writing must be amazing enough to win over my harshest critics), the impostor myth (I’m not a real writer), the compared-to-X myth (my writing isn’t as good as someone else’s), and the cleared-deck dream (I can’t start writing until I’ve done everything else). Jensen jokes that rather than trying to ignore or fight these deep, pervasive myths, we should “invite our demons in to tea”. In other words, we should converse with them, listen to what they’re trying to tell us, and ultimately, speak truth back to them. When we’re able to consciously challenge our internal narratives as the myths they are, these demons lose their power over us.
After we read these chapters together, I asked my students to write about their own writing-related myths, and to share a drawing of one of them in our next Zoom class. The drawings were supposed to be cartoons, meant to help us visualize our myths and laugh at them a little. And we did laugh – but that class was also unexpectedly heartbreaking. I was taken aback by what these bright young students shared about the ways they perceived themselves. They were enthusiastic, committed, creative writers, but for the most part they saw themselves as dismal failures. Many could recite the exact words they’d heard from other people that had made them doubt their writing, their ability to be in college, and most of all, themselves.
I was astonished by the amount of heavy, hurtful baggage these young writers carried around. At the same time, these invisible weights were very familiar to me. They were the same voices I had heard in my own head for years, and which had convinced me – just as they’d convinced my students—that I was the only one who felt that way.
Since then, I’ve continued searching for more myths, and the language to uncover them. Recently, I came across a big one in The Power of the Other by Dr. Henry Cloud: the myth that something dysfunctional is necessary for success. A domineering boss mistreats their employees, but justifies it as all part of getting ahead. Or a leader continues suffering from an obsessive anxiety disorder because they believe it makes them good at what they do.
I see the same pattern all the time with writers. We hold on to something unhealthy because we’re afraid we won’t be able to write without it, even as it slowly destroys us over time. Whether that’s alcoholism or workaholism, self-doubt or untreated mental illness, the result is the same: we hurt ourselves by putting ourselves in harm’s way. We imagine our ability to write exists because of those bad habits, rather than despite them. I used to think I just had to grit my teeth and push through whatever I was feeling, in the hopes that the payoff would be worth it. Now I see pain can be a signal that something is wrong. Pain can tell me if I’ve sprained my ankle or taken a wound somewhere inside myself where my writing germinates. Most importantly, pain lets me know when I need to change what I’m doing in order to heal.
In these last few months, Covid-19 has profoundly disrupted every aspect of our lives globally. My family and friends in Singapore went into Circuit Breakers around the time California moved to shelter in place. We stayed at home, read the news, and tried to adjust to our strange new ways of living. It’s been a time to grieve real losses, especially for students who missed end-of-year dances, field trips, and graduation ceremonies. But it’s also been a time to question many aspects of our lives that we assumed couldn’t be done any other way.
There are so many things I’ve missed. I see their value more than ever, and I literally dream about having them back – hugs and handshakes, the physical classroom, restaurants, my local game store, and being with family and friends in person. But many other things are being revealed as more dysfunctional – and less necessary – than we thought. As we continue reopening, I hope we’ll emerge stronger on the other side, with more courage to talk to our demons and let them go.
Inez Tan is the author of This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone: Stories (Epigram Books), which was a national bestseller in Singapore. Her writing has won the Academy of American Poets Prize, and has been featured in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Softblow, Letters Journal of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, Rattle, and the anthology A Luxury We Must Afford. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan, and is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of California, Irvine. Find her online at ineztan.com.