Once, when I still lived in New York City, I was invited to a dinner party where I wouldn’t know any of the other guests. It was on the Upper East Side or the Upper West Side, I can’t remember which now, though any New Yorker would tell you the distinction between the two is relevant. (If this were a short story, I would just pick one, and develop the characters from there.)
The important part is that it was far away from home, an hour on the subway at least from where I lived in Brooklyn. I barely even knew the person who had invited me, another writer who wrote all sorts of things, not just books, and who I thought might be a new friend. So I had to make the call - would the trip be worth it? I decided to do it. I had no idea what to expect, and I liked that. I crave surprises. I’ll read on the train to pass the time, I thought.
It ended up being a party of big presences. I met an actor, I met a famous journalist, I met a TV producer. They were all sort of glamorous and successful enough that I had either heard of them all before or they were just on the verge of being heard about soon enough. Everyone lived their life out loud. I was intimidated, though everyone was nice to me.
The other night I was talking about this dinner party to a close friend who loves me and knows me well. I didn’t tell my friend whether I’d had a good time or not (even now I can’t answer that question), but I did say it was not my scene. Because they were big presences. “So are you,” he said. Not that night. “I was a minor note,” I said. I didn’t think anyone would be interested in what I had to say.
I don’t know if we can entirely eliminate that question from inside of us. I guess the better question is: Why do you care about what you have to say? And do you love yourself enough to believe in yourself? Do you treasure your words and ideas? Do you gain pleasure or a sense of accomplishment from writing them down? Why would you let anyone take that way from you? And why would you take that away from yourself? Why stop yourself from succeeding before you even begin? Why stop yourself from having a nice time at the dinner party?
Everyone has that voice inside of them that questions their choices, and if they don’t, if their vision is smooth and unfettered, I’d argue the work might come out too neat and clean. What if, in fact, your job is to prove that voice wrong? What if the task is to deliberately write against that voice? What if whatever you are working on exists just to argue with that voice? What if that voice exists just so you can fight it in your work? How do you transform the dynamics of that conflict into something interesting and important and necessary? What if that voice that argues against you is actually your greatest weapon?
Here is what I love to read, what I crave. Debuts. God, I love a debut. I love reading someone who is totally original and raw and fresh on the scene. It’s like meeting someone new for the first time. It’s like going to a dinner party and not knowing what to expect. I never want to be so polished as a writer that I forget what that feels like, to introduce yourself to someone for the first time. I always want to write with that sense of urgency. I always want to be in the act of convincing the reader that what I think is important.
Who knows if I really was a minor note? Have you ever felt like a minor note? Do we turn down our own volumes on ourselves all the time?
That night, I did not think I had made much of an impression on anyone. (The novelist is so far down on the list in the creative hierarchy, I am sorry to tell you, aspiring writers.) I didn’t sweat it though. I took the long train home to Brooklyn, back to my stacks of books, my journals, the glowing screen. My voice being irrelevant in a room of people does not matter to me as long as my voice is relevant on the page. And I believe it is relevant. But why?
Because I do the work, I read, I think, I listen to my peers, I contemplate my intentions, I try to write from the truest of places inside of me, I practice my craft over and over again, and for all those reasons I believe that my work is worth reading. I cannot make anyone read it. But still: I believe it is worth reading.
The minor note in a sea of voices. Who cares? I can fucking sing!
When you hear that voice telling you you’re not important, play with it if you can, interrogate it, argue with it. And if that doesn’t work, drown it out with all the reasons your voice matters. Write it in a letter, write in a notebook, text it to your best writer friend. You control the argument. You decide your worth.
Because who cares? You can fucking sing, too!
You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to support 826 New Orleans.