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Pep Talk from Alaya Dawn Johnson

photo of Alaya Dawn Johnson

Dear Writer,

So you’ve been working intensely on your novel for the last couple weeks. You’ve probably got a lot of words on the page. Maybe you feel amazing, energized, ready to head into the second half of the month. But a lot of you probably feel like I so often do when I write: a mess. I have published six novels (and written a bunch more) and every single time I reach a point where I sit down and stare at my computer and wonder why I ever thought this was possible. Who ever told me I could write something as sprawling and complicated and unwieldy as a novel? What is my art worth in this blip of time allotted to me in an infinitely expanding universe?

But it’s precisely when I find myself looking at the totality of the work and its imperfect representation of my own imperfect existence that I’m getting somewhere. It’s during that dark night of the writer’s soul that I can make magic. Because I’m being honest. I’m struggling to be myself, to create the art that only I can create, and it is my awareness of its fragile, transitory, flawed beauty that scares me. If you think that writing is easy (and chances are, after two weeks of high word count days, you don’t think so), then you aren’t being honest enough.

You don’t do this kind of work without something deep inside of you that has stood up and demanded expression. Probably for a long time. Probably in the face of many people who have told you that your voice doesn’t matter, that your experiences don’t have value, that you’re only good for how well you can shut up and smile and buy what they’re selling you. And I know, I know: this world is deeply unjust, with huge barriers in place for the vast majority of humans striving on the planet. Telling stories can seem like not just a luxury, but an indulgence that’s shameful for you to even desire.

And yet, it is so important to respect that part of you, the storyteller who still, despite everything, decided to sit down and write this month. Respect your bravery for even starting. You’ve been working hard this November. You’ve been trying—and screw Yoda, trying is doing, it is the most fundamental action, because it acknowledges the possibility of failure. Believe in your deep, true voice and what you’re aiming for. And in order for you believe that, you have to stare into the mess. You have to acknowledge to yourself that you will fail—we all fail— and you will try again because you are the only person who can tell your own story. Maybe you haven’t reached your word count goals from the beginning of November. Maybe you’re dealing with shame on top of the self-doubt and confusion of drafting. But the writing is the thing. Write a novel in November, or write a novel in six months, or write it in six years. But write. Stare into the messiness and the loneliness and hold on to that part of you that will not stop demanding expression.

You are going to doubt yourself sometimes. You might even stare into an infinite universe and wonder how your stories could possibly be of value. But they’re of value to you. After all these years, that’s what I keep coming back to. Just look honestly at your beautiful, fleeting mess of a self, and take a deep breath, and write.  

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