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On never being good enough

All my life, for no good reason at all, I’ve striven to “show them.” I wish I could tell you who they are. In my immature emotional sensitivity—a trait which I still possess—I’ve always sought to blame someone for my problems. There must be a source of doubt, derision, and discouragement.

Ghouls of doubt have haunted my adult life. Sometimes I heard it. My creative-writing professor in college said to me once, “You might want to take up a trade.” Granted, I was a poor student. I was often drunk and wrote shoddy stories the night before assignments were due. I didn’t know how to pursue the life of a writer and I wouldn’t take direction. But when someone you admire says something like that it’s crushing.

After that experience, I just had to show him—and all the other people who doubted I could ever be a writer.

I once had a girlfriend who derided my taste in music, art, and writing. I worked hard to please her. I took to all kinds of new artistic and literary endeavor to prove myself to her. There must have been something to her criticism, I thought, because the fires of love burned so deeply. Fortunately, my efforts to cultivate an artistic approach to life outlived that ill-fated relationship, which lasted a few short months. But it was years before I ceased thinking she gazed over my shoulder with disapproval.

When I was growing up, all I ever wanted to do was write. I wrote my first book in a Big Chief tablet in the second grade. From that moment forward, family, friends, and acquaintances discouraged my efforts. I believed them when they said, “You will never compete,” “Writers can’t make a living,” and “That’s not the kind of thing people like us do.”

So, I mostly didn’t write. Sure, I scribbled in journals and produced what I thought was brilliant work. But on those rare occasions when I timidly put my writing out for scrutiny, I withdrew again as editors rightly turned my work away. I didn’t realize at the time that writing is a life of rejection. It took a long time for me to understand that writing is a solitary struggle against which I will forever leverage my intestinal fortitude—the one thing that I have plenty of.

I’ll never forget when I wrote and rewrote a story, a travel memoir, and sent it off to the editors of Granta, a journal I admired. I put it in a large envelope with International Postal Union return postage and went to the Post office. I thought it would be weeks before I heard anything. But a week later, the editors returned my manuscript with a tiny slip of paper saying, essentially, “Don’t bother us again.”

It was a miraculous moment that changed my life. Without even a conscious thought, I went in the house and found an old manila folder and put that yellow note in it. That one rejection solidified my “I’ll show them” chip on my shoulder. From that moment on, I began sending stories to all sorts of journals and magazines. One rejection after another arrived in the mailbox. I put them all in that folder.

Then, I received an acceptance note. I can’t even remember where or who decided to publish the story “Sea Robin, I had sent out so many different stories and copies of stories. But I do recall thinking, well, shit, it’s about time. I deserve to be published.

I forged ahead. My rejection folder grew, and the more it grew, the more stories I had published. If the folder wasn’t increasing in size, then I wasn’t doing the work.

I’ve since lost track of the Rejection File. I wish I still had it. I wish I could frame that rejection Granta sent me.

That bully-headed approach to rejection got me into grad school. I applied to 21 graduate schools and went to the one that made me the best offer. Tuition, teaching position, stipend that kept me alive for two years.

Being stubborn and determined landed me my first job as a writer. I decided to take a long walk, 1,450 miles, to have something to write about. One-hundred-four queries to write notes from the road got me three responses, one I never heard from again. Two with local papers. One offered me $25 for 250 words and a photograph every other week. The other wanted 900 words and a photograph for $25. Since I like to write, I took the 900-word offer.

That gig turned into a freelance job that wound up as a full-time position. It was a dream come true. I was making a living writing, and I did it for as long as the publication remained proprietary and local. When the owner sold the paper and the job became corporate, I discovered I’m just not a corporate kind of guy.

Perseverance and the chip on my shoulder got my books published. When I received the contract, I was struck by lightning, high as the moon. I did it. I did what they always told me I couldn’t. Then, I did it again. And now, I’ve done it again.

Showing them made me a book editor, ironworker, and, now, letter carrier.

I show them yet.

I’ve learned that determination makes up where talent leaves off. Talent is something I have little of. I wasn’t the best book editor, fastest ironworker, or even, today, a decent letter carrier. But when I put my head into something, I either succeed or continue until I get the ultimate rejection. Then, it’s on to something else I’ll learn, practice, and one day be good at—or, at least, proficient.

I started this essay saying I always wanted to show them. As I sit here, I remember what I wrote in my second book:

“Finally, I thank all the people who discouraged me or reviled my work. For nearly five decades, teachers, family members, strangers, as well as my fellow students, writers, and poets worked doggedly to convince me I could not write. I needed ‘to show them’ until I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, anymore.”

It turns out that now, almost seven years later, I realize the one person I always had to prove myself to was me. The psychopathology of that process mystifies me. I just understand that I’ve never been good enough. That delusion plagues me.

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