I am not good at not being good at things.
This is a trait that gifted spin doctors would call “pursuit of excellence.” My 11th grade shrink, on the other hand, liked to call it “perfectionism” as she pointedly peered over her glasses.
As a child I wanted to accomplish many things (including becoming a veterinarian, an archaeologist, and an immortal magic ninja princess mermaid), but three career aspirations have always floated to the top: teaching, dancing, and writing.
In the interest of honesty, I initially wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to decorate a classroom. And while my unhealthy affection for school supplies still haunts me, it isn’t the reason I still covet slapping a “Ms.” in front of my name and getting paid to hang out with people younger than me. I’ve discovered how important and powerful it can be to teach something that really matters, that I actually enjoy doing my SED homework, that if I try to imagine my life unaffiliated with academia I break into hives.
More honesty: I fell in love with dance because of the aesthetics, and not in a “the human body in motion is so beautiful” sort of way. My blonde hair went past my butt as a kid and it made a pretty rad ballerina bun, and I loved my tutus more than anything else in the world. I have memories of my mother trying to bribe me into taking off the tulle just for a little while, please, so she could wash it. Years and years later, I love dance because I finally understand endorphins—that your body is this incredible instrument that, if you’re patient and persistent, you can coax into melodies even if your hip bones pop and you’ve spent twenty years bending your knees the wrong way.
And I cannot remember a moment in my life when I wasn’t putting pen to paper. From the lock-and-key unicorn diaries I once cherished to the yellow legal pads that now litter my bedroom, nothing ever felt so cathartic, so freeing, so natural as stringing one letter to another, again and again and again until I’d produced something that clicked.
But I’m really, really bad at giving my students wait time, and talking slowly enough that they understand me. My high school choreographer sat me down for a conversation in which she tried to dissuade me from dance by encouraging me to aggressively pursue something I was good at, like acting. And I was told and shown every single day for four months that my word choices didn’t matter, that my byline was interchangeable with someone else’s, and that a faceless editor in moose country’s preferences were paramount to the things that got my wheels turning.
For a very long time, being the best was my identifier. And now—as I receive constructive criticism from people I hope will one day hire me, as I fight back tears because my ankles aren’t yet strong enough to support the sashays I’m attempting over and over and over, as I close yet another word document without typing a single thing into it—it is not.
That’s someone else’s identifier: the sophomore in purple who can make her students laugh without trying too hard; the freshman in the teal t-shirt whose quads are clearly stronger than my own; other writers on this very blog whose cadence and imagery I want to savor like that last drop of well-brewed coffee. Sometimes I watch people who are better than me and I feel inspired. Sometimes I look at them and feel inadequate.
Writer Joy Williams had this to say about fellow writer Don DeLillo:
“At an awards ceremony for him at the Folger Library several years ago, I said that he was like a great shark moving hidden in our midst, beneath the din and wreck of the moment, at apocalyptic ease in the very elements of our psyche and times that are most troublesome to us, that we most fear…Why do I write? Because I wanna be a great shark too. Another shark. A different shark, in a different part of the ocean. The ocean is vast.”
More than platitudes or mantras or reblogged quotes ripe for embroidering on throw pillows, Williams’ words comfort me. I, too, wanna be a shark, and that’s something I can grab onto even in dark moments. If sharks aren’t afraid of the murky depths, I shouldn’t be either.