I’m Not a Writer, THAT’S a Writer

2020, the year the world saw a pandemic, a nationwide racial injustice uprising, wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes. And the year I started couple’s counseling with my creativity.

^^ Art by Hannah Pahl whose entire collection is *chef’s kiss*. ^^

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The act of writing. How I love you with all of my soul and also, due to perfectionist tendencies and a lot of creativity myths perpetuated by society — if I were to take a guess, will be intimidated to start over and over and over again. I’ll avoid it, put everything from dishes to reading 600 pages book in front of it, telling myself this just isn’t “the perfect moment.”

Take this blog post for example, I’ve wanted to write about the topic of letting go of creative comparison for the last year. But I find that sometimes the more something means to me, the harder it is to put it down on paper because … what if it’s awful? What if I have nothing original to say? What if, what if, what if? It’s a perfectionist tendency and Perfectionism mixed with its dear friend Comparison is a cocktail guaranteed to sink my creativity in 60 seconds or less — guaranteed!

For me, creative comparison isn’t just one thing. For years, the emotion was mainly driven by a creative comparison to my past self who was in many ways the most success of all the Carlys by traditional journalism standards. Her byline count was high and I won’t lie, I love having a byline. For years I would hold myself up to this 2016 version of myself, setting the same strict schedule of producing numerous stories and pitches a month, but still feeling so behind seeing all the articles my friends or writers I looked up to were producing on what felt like a daily basis. THAT is a real writer, I would think to myself as I scrolled through my friend’s feeds or looked through features written for magazines. A real writer, who is that anyways?

If you would have asked me three years ago I would have said it was someone who went on assignments around the world, produced consistent articles for major magazines, and always had their ideas picked up. It was the New York Times magazine writers, it was my journalism teacher who I so deeply admire, it was my fellow journalism classmates who went into reporting, then editing, and who frequently appear in New York Magazine or Catapult or National Geographic or the L.A. Times. It was a writer always on the go, producing, producing, producing, and only getting better with time.

While in the beginning, writing felt like a form of self expression whose only purpose was to make me happy, it naturally over the years became less about me and more about meeting others’ standards. Unfortunately others’ expectations are part of the journalism world because landing a story is dependent on the changing needs or tastes of editors. By the end of a year, with 40 rejected or unanswered pitches under my belt, it began feel hard not to take it personally and to not believe that it was a sign that my work isn’t good. So I started looking to others to see the paths that brought them success, thinking in some way those proven avenues might also be just right for me.

As much as they tried, they were not, and that is okay.

At the start of the pandemic, I spent time writing an editorial strategy and business plan for this blog. That led to me building a larger map of what my storytelling goals were in general because the more I kept writing, the more I realized I wasn’t clear on what success actually meant for me. What were my writing north stars?

Less and less any byline feels like it will do, any story feels worth pursuing. I’ve learned I don’t enjoy news reporting, but I love writing about psychology. I don’t need a huge blog following (though it is exciting when people read my words), but I do want this blog to be holding worthwhile, thought-provoking, and diverse content — and I need to learn that those pieces take time to write. It’s been through this process of asking the big questions that I’ve started to realize just how broken my relationship with my creativity had become.

^^ One of my favorite accounts, Inspired to Write, is run my writer Amie McNee who is debunking creativity myths that keep us from showing up and making art daily. ^^

At the height of our most toxic interactions in 2016, when I had placed myself into such a writing pressure cooker I didn’t even take the time to enjoy a feature in a real-life print magazine, I had fallen into the habit of navigating my passion out of fear. I pushed myself to extreme productivity limits because I had been tricked into thinking if I slowed down I would lose all my experience, that I wouldn’t be considered a real writer. And this fear-based mindset lasted for years as I’d fill up my planner with unrealistic deadlines that had me stressing through the entire writing process instead of enjoying the simple act of putting words onto the page. This relationship only started to change when I began untying the knots I’d tied so tightly between my sense of self and my productivity.

This year, it’s really required taking steps back and doing the unglamorous, behind the scenes work of finding my north creativity stars to begin moving forward again, in many ways more slowly this time but with a foundation that allows me to make decisions from a place of excitement and love rather than fear. And most of all, it’s started me repairing my relationship with my creativity whose trust I’ve broken over and over and over again through all the times I didn’t show up at my desk when I said I would.

I think it’s really important we as creatives talk about our relationships with our creativity because there are so many misconceptions about being a writer that are helping absolutely NO ONE. We often only see the end product of the byline or the published book or the mentions, and compare ourselves to that instead of seeing just how much work, and just how long the process, was to get there. All the rejected pitch letters. All the reroutes and misroutes and missed connections.

^^ Art by Alessandra Olanow. ^^

There is still a lot I’m learning when it comes to dealing with creative comparison but I wanted to share five habits that have helped me greatly recenter during this time and helped me focus on looking inward, rather than outward, for validation of my art. Because I truly believe the best is yet to come — maybe just in a different form than I would have originally expected.

5 Habits Helping to Shrink My Habit of Creative Comparison

Reframing jealous or comparative thoughts. Jealousy is a natural human emotion and usually boils down to two things: A signal that I also want something someone else has or has done, or a fear that I won’t be able to find the same feeling of success they have. So instead of letting it fester, I’ve learned to identify what is driving the jealous thought (Oh, I would also like to write a piece on Puddles the Clown!) and asking some followup questions: Do I also want this thing in my life and in so, how do I work to achieve it?

Taking time to figure out my creative center. I’ve been doing this by working through a passion starter workbook my friend Zabie recommended to me years ago because how can I know my goals if I don’t know myself? The book is called The Firestarter Starter Series: A Soulful Guide to Creating Success on Your Own Terms and it’s been amazing in identifying the north stars I want to guide both my personal and creative journeys.

Join a community of people in the trenches also in the earlier phase of their work. This is what I’ve loved most about Amie McNee’s podcast and Instagram is having connections with others also in the midst of pursuing their dreams instead of just seeing all the finished products. One thing I’m challenging myself to is finding a writing group in New York in the next year because I think having yet another community of creatives to chat and be inspired by would be really helpful.

Doing the work. At the end of the day, showing up consistently and doing the work is what this entire thing is about and the surest way to build a confidence in your own ability. When I am really immersed in my own work, I’m often too busy to even think about looking over at my neighbor’s desk.

Make bad art. We have to stop being afraid of making bad art because in the process of showing up everyday, this is going to happen. It should be happening! Embrace it! Because bad art means you are experimenting and taking risks, Bad art is what leads to good art and then someday, great art. One cannot exist without the other and expecting perfect creations every time is only going to make this process harder, more painful, or stop it all together. Instead, let’s take five minutes today and challenge ourselves to create without expectation. The good, the bad, or the ugly, it’s all a part of the process.