As I return to writing, I still hear the voice of trepidation, doubt, and fear. The voice that says: the last time you tried this, you failed.
But still, I write.
For as long as I can remember, I have known that I was born to write. It came primary and above all else, and has been the only activity that has given me deep comfort, especially in times of anguish. Yet, each time I have turned to publicly share my work, I face obstacles, which I dramatize into defeat. This is my story of failure and what I have learned from those experiences.
The First Knockout
The first time I faced rejection as a writer was especially painful. I was 14 years old, just starting high school, when my former principal shared an opportunity to perform one of my poems at a city competition. She was one of a few people who knew that I had been writing poetry since I discovered it a few years earlier. She was so excited and sure that I would win. Engulfed in her excitement, I chose my most heartfelt piece to share with the judges. I revised and polished it, then practiced it incessantly, until contest day.
The response: the judges looked at me with disgust in their eyes. Then, they took turns asking me questions about certain parts of the poem, then rhetorically asked why I was so angry. Finally, they said my poem was too angry, too personal, and about race.
I stood silent, swallowing tears the entire time, ashamed that I could think to write such a piece. I am not sure if I told my former principal who was at the competition about it. But I stopped writing for 6 years after that experience.
The Second Knockout
The second knockout occurred during my junior year of college. I was struggling with some of the concepts and ideas I was being introduced to in my sophomore African history classes. I began sharing these thoughts on Facebook notes, which was popular then, and annoying now (haha). Soon, my pieces gained appeal and one of my poems about race and identity was shared in the school's literary magazine. My confidence soared.
But then, it happened.
I submitted a final paper in my urban education class to my college professor who had returned it in a sea of red. I went to see her and she mentioned that though the ideas were sound, there were too many grammatical errors.
She explained that because English is not my native language (which it is), she could understand why I had such poor grammar.
I passed the class with an A but still felt hurt and disrespected. So I stopped writing for another 2 years.
The Third Knockout
This time, I had returned to writing a few months after graduating college because I was depressed. I went to one of the most progressive schools in the world and left completely disillusioned about whether I could make a contribution to this deeply complex and troubling world. Writing brought me so much perspective and optimism in that time. Writing on my blog soon morphed into writing on some notable platforms, then eventually a job as an editor at a leading online magazine for African women in business.
I was ecstatic! I could finally write about the issues I cared about with a community I believed would understand it, until I realized that I couldn't. There is something about working for a platform that is different from writing on them - you cannot write what and when you please.
This Is What I Now Know To Be True
The gift that is truly yours will be the one you return to consistently, and especially in times of distress. In the case of the third knockout, disappointed for not being able to make the position work, and ashamed that I publicly made a ruckus about the position but did not follow through, I stopped writing for another year. I only returned to writing earlier this year when things turned on its head. Sad and alone, I picked up my pen to write again.
I also know that the gift that is truly yours will also be the one you face some kind of resistance to, whether internally or externally, especially if it is a creative gift. It may be resistance from your parents, friends, and your own analysis of how things should be.
Finally, the gift that is yours can't be the one you take as a knockout each time you face adversity. Each year I took away from writing took me further away from finding my voice, and also improving my grammar (haha). Every knock down should not be a knock out, as least not for too long. I have taken shorter periods to recover with each public rejection; eventually, I hope I do not need the time.
Do It Anyway
With a broken heart
With the pain of misplaced words thrashing in your chest
And the heaviness of sudden tears blinding your sight
With hands bloodied from defeat
You alone in the hot seat
Trust that which only calls you by your name
The thing that will not let you go
That continues to whisper in the key hole between your minds eye and your heart's ear
Incessantly, softly, each and everyday
But louder when the world turns away
Do that thing anyway.
PS. People want to know the poem that made the judges so upset. It is here, wrote about it five years ago. Unfortunately I do not have the paper that made my professor question my native tongue.