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What We (Really) Need to Hear

keep going [1]

I’ve got bunion-clad old lady feet. I’d take a picture and post it so you could see exactly what I’m talking about, but you may be eating breakfast, and needless to say, Bunions + Special K = Ick.

Just last week at the gym, however, something magical happened. I was doing a barefooted class, and this (gorgeous and close-to-my-age) woman came up to me. She pointed to her feet. “Look,” she said. “I have them too. Aren’t they horrible? Don’t you hate them? And yours are so much smaller than mine!”

Maybe mine were about .02% less bunion-y than hers, but still, shoeless in that gym class, I had found a sole mate. We prattled on about how difficult it is to find cute shoes. How embarrassing it is to wear sandals in the summer. How we were both far too young to have old lady feet. How I dated a guy in college who took one look at my feet and said, “What IS that?!?” How she used to be a foot model, for crying out loud!

In those few moments of chit-chat and empathy, I found someone who a) understood, and b) knew just the right thing to say to make me feel less weird and lonely. It’s important to surround ourselves with people who do both. And as writers (which, face it, is a weird and lonely profession), we need at least one someone who knows exactly what to say when we are experiencing writer-bunions.

What are writer-bunions, you ask? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure they don’t feel good, and I’m very sure they don’t make us happy. But because all of us writers, all of us, go through periods where we feel pretty dang lousy about our lack of talent, luck, and success, we all need someone who knows what to say when we’re feeling low.

Because it will happen.

No matter where we are in our writer’s journey, it will happen. Even (and maybe especially) after we are published. Just last week, one of my writing partners–a lovely and gifted writer with a memoir published by Simon and Schuster and many, many published magazine articles–left this message on my voicemail: Hey. It’s me. I’m calling to tell you that I’m not going to be a writer anymore. It’s just not working out. So that’s all. OK, talk to you later.

She is not a drama queen. She was not fishing for compliments. She truly and honestly felt like it was a better idea to stop writing. And as my writing partner, she was calling to give notice.

Before I returned her phone call, I thought about what she needed in this moment . . . which forced me to think about what I need in these moments where I decide it was a 100% stupid idea to be a writer. What I need to hear when I am feeling low and ridiculous, when I feel like the target of a heat-seeking aspiring-author-seeking missile, when I wish I had never told a single person about my writerly ambitions.

I realized this: I don’t really want to hear, “You’re a good writer.” Sure, it’s nice to hear, but when I know I’ve spent an entire day puking drivel on to a computer screen, pages and pages of the carpiest of carp, words as lyrical and masterful and Pulitzer-worthy as Dick and Jane primers, I know that the words, “you are a good writer” are a carpcart of hoo-ha.

So then, what do I need to hear?

1. I need someone to remind me that every writer feels this way. Every writer. Ergo, I am normal.

2. I need that someone to tell me to keep going.

The script looks a little something like this: Writing partner/spouse/best friend/cat/UPS Guy [rests hand on Sarah’s shoulder]: Yes, Sarah, writing is really hard. In fact, you’d be weird if you didn’t think it was hard. But shut up and buck up. And keep going.

It’s that last part, the “keep going” mandate, that’s most helpful to me. So when my talented writing partner was wandering, lost and alone in the Valley of Bunions, I used my script on her. “Keep going,” I said. “Just keep going.” I also told her how excited I am about her WIP, how far she has come in figuring out her narrative voice, how excited I am about her story. “OK? Keep going.”

I was surprised by how empty those words sounded. How unhelpful.

But a few days later, she sent an email, the subject heading of which was, “My crappity-crap Chapter Two.” And an attachment.

Let me tell you, there was absolutely nothing crappity-crap about her attached chapter. It was lyrical and lovely, witty and bright. Why? Because she works hard, because she’s got natural talent AND because she pushed herself through the treacherous Desert of Bunions. She kept going. Such a simple thing, but, at times, it’s really the most difficult of tasks.

Keep Going. Write that statement on a piece of paper and duct tape it to your computer screen. Get a Keep Going tattoo on the back of your hand. Legally change your name to Keep Going. If you surround yourself with that message, chances are good you’ll do just that: Keep Going.

Those are the two words I need to hear, but what about you? What specific words of inspiration do you need to hear when you are feeling low? Conversely, are there words you find surprisingly unhelpful? Do you need bunion empathy? Please share!


Photo compliments of Flickr’s Rightee [2].

About Sarah Callender [3]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.