A few years ago, during a writing workshop hosted by a very famous author from whose graces I have now irredeemably fallen, I was taught not to preface my writing with disclaimers. At the workshop, almost all of us 20+ young writers punctuated our sentences with caveats every time we read excerpts of our assignments. "This piece isn’t really finished ..." "I don’t know if this is any good ..." "I’m pretty sure I didn’t do this right ..."
We were young and uncertain of our abilities, all of us trying to be writers in a society that worships the holy trinity of Doctor-Lawyer-Engineer. We were talented, but not necessarily trained. We didn’t want to feel the sticky, throat-tightening creep of shame if everyone ended up actually hating our work. So every day, twice a day, we trotted out one variation or the other of "you’re about to be underwhelmed, I’m warning ya!", before reading our writing out loud. It protected us.
Then, three or four days into the workshop, one of the facilitators finally got sick of it. With all the gentleness of an eagle jostling its young into the open sky, he ordered us to give up the preemptive song-and-dance and just fucking read. This particular teacher looked a hell of a lot like the paintings of Jesus Christ from all of our childhoods so, naturally, we felt compelled to obey.
To underscore his point he wrote on the whiteboard, in a scraggly script that made me wonder about his credentials as a librarian: "Normal is good enough." That might seem like an absurdly obvious, almost banal thing to say, but it was the permission to just write that I didn’t know I needed. At that point in my life and career, I hadn’t received enough external validation to be able to show up and just do things without somehow apologising for being there.
Deep down, I’m Lisa Simpson
I joke often about being the stereotypical overachieving Nigerian child of difficult-to-impress Nigerian parents. Like all good jokes, it’s funny because it’s fundamentally true.
It’s been 13 years since I graduated secondary school (oh my God!), but my classmates still reminisce about my mother’s critical eye scanning my report card for a stray B or, heaven absolutely forbid, a C. With my A’s, she would scrutinise the numbers: 88 instead of 90? You scored 93 last term. Well done. Do better. She took it for granted that I would outperform everyone else, so she required me to consistently outperform myself.
My mother never told me what would happen if I let her down by bringing home a report card with "normal" grades, and luckily I never found out. Yet, even with the school system well behind me, I still have nightmares about exams to this day. (I also have nightmares about visa applications, but that’s a whole other story.)
This conditioning made it so that my sense of self remains unnervingly linked to my performance. Needless to say, I’m no fun to play board or card games with. For me, this way of being – being exceptional – is so ingrained that if there’s a chance that I won’t blow something out the ballpark, my overwhelming instinct is to just avoid it.
Lately, I’ve been avoiding writing because I don’t have any exceptional ideas for stories. And if it’s not exceptional, then I don’t want to share it with our members and readers. If you follow my beat, you may have noticed that my last "big story" was weeks ago. That’s because, between trying to stay afloat in these spectacularly difficult times, feeling frustrated with some members’ difficult responses to my publications, and trying to figure out how to say important things in insightful, collaborative and constructive ways, I have felt very unable to outperform myself. My mother’s end-of-term voice has become my inner writing voice. Well done. Now do better.
The place I’m in right now feels a bit like the struggle I had in my first weeks as the Othering Correspondent. When I applied for the role, it was because I felt confident that my values and talents were a good fit for the job. However, my learning curve at the beginning was very steep. Values and talents do not necessarily equate to skill.
Suddenly, I had to write and edit rigorous, revelatory essays on a schedule. I had to learn journalistic principles. I had to follow editorial processes, attend regular meetings, be accountable to a team ... Coming from the world of blogging and freelance commissions and basically being a lone ranger who did whatever she wanted whenever she wanted, I struggled. A lot.
Eventually, I found my rhythm. It no longer felt like I was swimming upstream. I was in my bag, as we say. The writing was happening and it was pretty amazing. I was serving, honey!
Until I started struggling again.
Full disclosure: I spent the entire day in front of my laptop, wondering what to put in this newsletter. I’m tired, I thought. And what I meant was I’m running on empty. Everything is shit. I’m going to deliver some C or even D-minus writing and my mother will roll over in her grave. I’ll probably get fired. Wow, what a mess.
Then, I remembered that in an emergency meeting of sorts just this week, our founding editor, Rob (who looks nothing like Jesus but has a messianic tendency to pontificate), basically told me to just shut up and fucking write. He didn’t say "it doesn’t have to be a magnum opus!," but I feel certain that he wanted to.
Just fucking write, my guy.
I keep forgetting that I’m allowed to not be astonishingly spectacular all the time. I don’t need to put myself under pressure to come up with groundbreaking things every single time I sit at my computer. Two white men have said it, so it must be true. Normal is good enough.
Till next time,