Earlier this year, I came across an article by Ta Nehisi-Coates called “A Quick Note on Getting Better at Difficult Things.” I excitedly clicked on it because I knew he was an amazing writer and because my Type-A brain was all, “Yes, a quick fix!”
Here’s what he had to say (motivating, yes, but a quick fix, no):
I have said this before, and will say it again: Studying French is like setting in a canoe from California to China. You arrive on the coast of Hawaii and think, ‘Wow that was really far.’ And then you realize that China is still so very far away. ‘Feelings’ come and go. Likely, someone will say something—in the next hour or so—which I do not understand and I will feel a little hopeless again. But right now, I feel high. And one must savor those moments of feeling high, because they are not the norm. The lows are the norm. The Struggle is the norm. May it ever be thus.
As a person who has repeatedly tried things, failed at them and subsequently given up—playing guitar, teaching myself a new language, conquering a recipe more complicated than classic lasagna—I’m always toggling between trying to improve myself by gaining new skills and quitting before I’ve mastered them because (shocker!) new skills take practice.
Back in college, I declared that my New Year’s resolutions would include learning French and how to play guitar. So, for Christmas, my boyfriend at the time got me a stack of French language how-to books, and my dad surprised me with my own acoustic guitar.
After a few feeble attempts, both sat for months largely untouched, gathering dust. I felt guilty for not following through with my resolutions, so a few months later, I unzipped the guitar from its nylon case. I signed up for weekly one-on-one lessons in a small room at the guitar shop down the street with a soft-spoken man in wire-rim glasses and a long gray ponytail.
Each time, he’d show me a chord progression or how to strum with a pick as a lefty, and each time I’d be counting down the minutes until it was over so I could go home and practice by myself.
This struggle never existed for me when it came to writing. Writing was something I’d always been told I excelled at. It came (relatively) naturally for me, ever since I was 10 years old and scribbling about my latest Girl Scouts meeting into my Lisa Frank journal.
So, when I tried to learn simple Modest Mouse and Letters to Cleo songs, I’d get stuck on the bar chord or my fingers would start to go numb, and I’d stop. I couldn’t stand not being immediately good, especially in front of other people. Practice makes perfect? No thanks! I eventually quit guitar lessons—actually, I was such a coward that I made my sister go and get the money back for the rest of my unused classes I’d paid for upfront. I sucked and I knew it, and I knew my teacher did too. And I hated that.
As I got older, I realized that the bulk of this struggle stemmed from a fear of rejection. And being in the real world, especially as a writer, comes with a slew of rejection. Rejected job applications, story ideas, romantic interests—it’s everywhere. But not putting myself out there ended up being worse than rejection, because I never even gave myself a chance.
Plus, as it turns out, rejection doesn’t kill you! Sure, it can bruise your ego and it’s difficult to not take it personally, but the more often it happens, the better you get at dealing with it. Here’s another quote, this one from NPR radio personality Ira Glass, that helped crystallize this for me:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
The truth is, sure, writing came naturally for me, but most of my journal entries (both online and handwritten) are highly cringe-worthy today, as are some of my early articles and essays. But I keep doing it, and I get better. The same is likely true for most people who create things and dare to put that piece of themselves out into the world—there is an inherent risk in that, but there’s a bravery in it too.
I still have that guitar and those language books, and I still have yet to master them. And with New Year’s Eve coming up, maybe it’s time to rehash some of those old resolutions once and for all.