Three months ago I sat in a conference with my nonfiction writing professor. She said that there seemed to be a lot that I was not saying in my writing. I told her that I didn’t feel like there was much I could say because there was no longer very much I knew to be true. Good writers write with authority which was something that I was, at that moment, unable to do because I simply felt that I had none. I told her that while I had heard of people going through periods in their life in which they had trouble trusting others, I was having trouble trusting myself. And if I couldn’t trust myself, how could I write as if a reader should believe what I was saying?
I had lost the admittedly youthful conviction that I understood how the world works. I had lost all conviction whatsoever in my favorite part of the world and my favorite thing to write about: love. And, moreover, I had been stripped of the very writerly delusion that because I could put a feeling into words, the words alone would make it permanent. Just because I could write a scene and then write what it meant, didn’t mean that the meaning itself wasn’t – in fact and in real life – up for interpretation.
As much as I had enjoyed studying literature that used multiple points of view to tell a story and in which the conflict of the plot often lay not in the actions but in the misunderstanding that one character would have of another, I had never enjoyed – or even been able – to view life that way. Because I could write about my life, I seemed to think that that made my interpretation of it right. Thus, my trust in myself and my authority as a writer relied mainly on the fact that I believed myself to be right. However, the truth of the matter is that trusting oneself, or even writing with authority, is better done by admitting that one can’t possibly know for sure.
It’s like religion. Blind faith that relies solely on the naïve insistence that god is absolutely, without a doubt, there isn’t very good faith at all. A better faith to have is the kind that is resilient in the face of doubt, the kind that acknowledges room for error - or even the possibility of being all together wrong - but chooses to believe anyways.
However, I didn’t realize this then, when I sat in the conference with my professor. What I told her was, in short, that because I had believed in love and in a person, only to have been proven wrong, I didn’t feel that I could write about the subject with any bit of authority. And because I had trusted my own interpretation of almost four years worth of events in my life only to have had my interpretation proven inaccurate, I no longer viewed myself as trustworthy.
I couldn’t write well because I couldn’t live well. In my daily life I couldn’t trust myself to know what I wanted, what I thought, or who I was. So I tried out what I could tell others around me wanted, I listened to what my friends thought, and I acted like who everyone around me thought I might be. I made mindless small talk with strangers in bars and I did shots and I dated a man who my friends thought would be perfect for me. I thought I might like someone else – that I might even love that someone – but I left it alone for fear of being wrong. I smiled pretty and kissed men simply because I could tell they wanted to kiss me. And while I didn’t think I liked them, I didn’t trust myself enough to know for sure, so I assumed I might be wrong and that they might be right and I gave them a try.
Both myself and my writing suffered because of this. I tired of hearing my own voice coming up off the page, just as I tired of being around myself.
In the end, it was my writing that improved first.
I was in a bar being someone my friends liked me to be when I ran into a girl from my writing class. She was in the process of writing a bravely intimate true story about her life and I asked her how she did it. She told me that in her daily life she lied to most people but that because she respected the people in our writing class (myself included) she was forcing herself to write the truth. She said that she felt she owed it to us – her classmates and fellow writers – because we sat there every week, sharing our deepest truths, our realest selves. She told me that on the top of every page she wrote, “YOU RESPECT THESE PEOPLE; YOU OWE THEM THE TRUTH.”
I respected her for that. And, just like her, I respected our classmates. I too owed them the truth. So that night I went home and I wrote on the top of my notebook page, “YOU RESPECT THESE PEOPLE; YOU OWE THEM THE TRUTH.” And with that I wrote a story. The story was my way of telling them the only truth I knew: who I had been. I told them what had hurt me, what I had lived through, how I had broken and I how I had survived. I told them the moments of my life I was most ashamed of and I told them about the person I would be proud to be. I never told them what it all meant. I didn’t need to. I trusted them to understand. And they did.
They understood what it meant because they trusted me even when I was unable to trust myself. They trusted the person that came up off the pages, out from between the lines of typed black ink. They trusted what I had written, what I had said had happened to me, and what reading the story had made them feel.
They didn’t just trust me, they respected me.
And that’s how I began to learn to trust myself again.
In time I changed the phrase. “You respect these people; you owe them the truth” became “You respect yourself; you owe yourself the truth.” And in order to be able to tell myself the truth I had to be able to trust myself to know what it was.
I came to learn that being able to trust myself isn’t a matter of being able to correctly interpret a person, a moment, or a feeling. It’s a matter of respecting myself enough to have faith in what I believe to be right, even though I acknowledge it could be wrong.
I learned how to say “No” to men I didn’t like, even when they professed their love to me. I learned how to choose to spend a Saturday night with my pen and paper, even if my friends think that pretty girls like me should be out doing shots. I learned to ask for what I want, not because I can guarantee being given it but because I owe it to myself to try. I learned how to tell someone I could love them, not because I knew they’d say it back, but because I owed it to myself to say how I felt.
I learned how to like myself. And now I am what I put my faith in. There may not be much in this world that I can know for sure, but I will enjoy getting to know myself more and more with every passing day.