By Sophie Hayssen, Collage by Megan Fox
He was backstage at the school talent show, but by the time the show broke for intermission he had moved out to the gym floor, mingling with the parents, teachers, and students who had come to watch. I was there as an audience member, and during the break I was loosely conscious of his presence and where he stood in relation to me. I wanted to be the type of person who could go up to him and start making conversation; someone who didn’t need a pretense or excuse to turn on their charm. I gravitated toward my friends instead, the girls I’d known forever, the people that didn’t make my shoulders tense or my throat feel dry. Inside, however, I was begging the universe for opportunity to talk to him, to say hi, to even make brief eye contact. None came. Intermission ended, and I went back to my seat, kicking myself. For the rest of the show and the shadowy car ride home I felt a strange longing. I’d spent far too many days dwelling on this boy, and I was frustrated at our lack of direct contact.
Back home, in the warm light of my room, I lay out on my hard, uncarpeted floor and opened up the journal that my Poetry teacher insisted we keep to jot down everything from random musings to homework assignments. In a flurry of rough scratches, I began to write down everything I was feeling in poem form, attempting to capture all the frustration of liking someone but having no idea if he feels the same way. When I’d finished I crossed out what I wrote and started again, and again, and again, until I hit a standstill. I was reading Just Kids by Patti Smith at the time and the language of the poem was in that vein, descriptive and sentimental. Ultimately, I thought the poem, called “Crushed,” was okay but didn’t resemble my original vision at all. My main problem was that I failed to capture exactly what I was feeling. Nevertheless, a couple weeks later during my poetry workshop, I decided to read the poem aloud when it was my turn. The reaction was completely unexpected. Every kid in my class, including the teacher, seemed to love it. Afterward, a girl came up to me and asked me to send it to her because she wanted to read it again in her spare time. I left the class, cheeks flushed, and grinning from ear to ear. When I reread the poem in bed that night, I found that after hearing my classmates praise I started to look at the poem differently. It might not have been what I originally wanted it to be, but it was actually pretty good. Later that year I submitted it for a writing competition and it received an award.
My 10th grade self was used to getting criticism and rejection when it came to my writing. “Crushed” was the first time I had ever seen a glimmer of what it meant to be successful, writing something that seemed completely, empirically good. As a chronic perfectionist in all aspects of my life, I assumed the quality of my work would progress in an ever increasing upward trend. When my next poem was due for class I opened my journal, telling myself, that since “Crushed” had received so much praise, it was time for me to write an even better poem. After several attempts I came to find that this was impossible. Everything I wrote was garbage, my words shrinking in the shadow of “Crushed.” Back at school, friends would come up to me, saying excitedly that they couldn’t wait to hear my work in class, and how good a writer I was. It shocked me that these compliments I’d been waiting for my whole life, were now responsible for making me feel so inadequate. I appreciated their intentions, understood that they only meant to make me feel good, yet I couldn’t help but think they were making a mistake. I wasn’t a good writer, I told myself. How could I be a good writer if I had no ideas? If I was unable to harness the inspiration which I seemed to have forgotten as quickly as a dream?
My experience writing “Crushed” and witnessing people’s response to it served as my introduction to the workings of the creative psyche. While I already understood that I would have to deal with criticism, I never expected that success would be something for me to deal with as well. One of the main differences in the way you deal with these two states, is that failure is often dealt with in the moment, as you’re experiencing it, whereas dealing with success comes afterward, when the glow of praise fades and you start to believe that everyone expects you to do it again. As someone who is still learning how to be creative and still discovering who I am as a writer, my main consolation for the fear and pressures I feel does not come from myself as much as from the writers I admire. Knowing that creative giants, succeeding in ways beyond my wildest fantasies are still subject to the same creative frustrations I suffer from is one of the most important reminders I can give myself to keep moving forward.
When I find myself stuck coping with success or failure, I rewatch author Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk Success, Failure and the Drive to Keep Creating in which she discusses how she handled the pressure to follow up her best selling novel Eat, Pray, Love, by realizing that she “will always be safe from the random hurricanes of outcome as long as [she] never [forgets] where [she] rightfully lives” in her writing. Sometimes I catch myself stressing over the long time I take to finish essays or short stories, making myself feel like my slow process undermines my creativity. However, I remind myself that, while it may take me six months to feel proud of a personal essay, Adele took four years to make 25, Bo Burnham took 3 years to make is comedy special what, and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche took 5 years to write Americanah. Instead of forcing themselves to create work they knew was not good for the sake of demand, all these artists decided to wait. Perhaps, because though they are amazing and talented, like you and me they are humans, in need of time to get their work right.
Sophie is a first year college student and an aspiring writer. When she’s not writing for Pop Culture Puke, Sophie enjoys discovering herself through BuzzFeed quizzes. You can read more of her writing here!
Megan Fox is a vintage enthusiast living in Minneapolis, hugging kittens and stomping on the patriarchy in big black boots. Check out her music projects here and here, and check out her Instagram here.