On Validation

When I was fresh out of college, I began applying for writing jobs around my hometown before I realized, especially in our current economy, that I really should have applied for everything and jumped on the first position willing to pay me, even if I was working as a cashier or a fry cook. There’s nothing wrong with either of those jobs or the people that have them, of course, but having a degree from a four-year college isn’t exactly the selling point that it once was, especially for aspiring writer types, and I should have been a little less proud. In any case, I applied for a number of local newspapers and magazines and dealt with the barrage of “You won’t be able to get a job doing that, journalism is dying!” comments with as much grace and optimism as I could. Sadly, the naysayers were right in that I never did get a writing job, so I branched out. I applied for a few retail and production jobs as well as every position labeled “administrative assistant” that came into my radar, which I figured would allow me to have a “day job” and still get some writing done, and I also looked into freelance options that went beyond blogging (which I wouldn’t start for a few years anyway) and novel-writing.

Enter my brief foray into freelance editing. My attempted foray, I guess would be more appropriate. I tried to join a freelance editing service that would hire me on as an editor as long as I was able to pass a basic grammar test and demonstrate proficiency in the then-current version of the Chicago Manual of Style. Being an English major and philosophy minor, I had more practical experience with the Modern Language Association’s way of doing things, but having worked as a writing tutor with my college I had quite a bit of practice with everything from Chicago to APA. That, and I had graduated from college within a few months of taking this test with a degree in writing, for which I had been drilled on these concepts in one way or another for four years and graduated cum laude. It was a multiple-choice online test that I was breezing through that had the kind of answers that were obviously right and obviously wrong. I was sure I had this in the bag.

I was immediately rejected by a computer because my score wasn’t high enough.

It crushed me. I was so sure I had done everything well. I’d just learned it. I’d taken tests almost exactly like this for four years. What good was my degree if it wasn’t enough to help me pass a basic grammar test in the real world? How did I even get my job as a tutor (or even get a recommendation for the position) if I was that bad at grammar? I was a disgrace to my college and its English department. No platitudes from my peers or family about how “They just had too many people and rejected you because of that” could persuade me otherwise: I simply didn’t deserve my degree and didn’t deserve to call myself a writer.

A few jobs, both freelance and office, a wedding, a move, a lot of writing, and several years later, and I’m a little closer to being a “writer.” I’ve even had a lot of writing rejected (or never read, in the case of some beta readers) and been able to take it in stride most days: sure, I’d rather get accepted than not, but sometimes keeping your expectations low means that you’ll never be disappointed, especially in a business where, statistically, you’re going to fail. At this stage, life seems to be repeating itself: I’m sending out writing and getting rejections rather than advances, so I’m once again looking for day jobs (but I’ll spare you those details) and exploring freelance options while writing my own content.

About a month ago, I went through the process to join a very popular site for freelance creators and the companies and people who hire them to produce content. It had “essay mill” tendencies, but once the writer friend of mine that recommended it weeded out the more obvious of those examples she found that it was quite lucrative—not enough to live on completely, this being writing and all, but definitely more money than I’d made to this point. So I spent an entire day working on my profile: finding the perfect profile picture, filling out all of my contact information, my education and work history, writing an interesting bio (which is without a doubt the worst part of creating any kind of online profile, let’s be honest), doing the research to determine how much per project I should charge, and going through samples of my work from college until now and composing small write-ups about them. I knew that there was a vetting process to go through and that I might need to do a little more work after this, but I was excited to finally have an actual shot at making money writing.

Another immediate rejection, and I do mean “immediate” because seconds had elapsed between me clicking on “submit for approval” and receiving the email notification. This time, my computerized rejection was because I didn’t have the skills or experience necessary to qualify as a writer. Until I somehow got more skills or experience, but not through them, my account was disabled and I couldn’t use the site for anything else.

This hurt even worse than the editing gig. Honestly, it still sort of does, although the worst of the pain is gone. Getting rejected from jobs, if you ever hear from them at all, is par for the course, and the same is even truer of submitting writing. But getting told after chasing a lifelong goal, getting a four-year degree in it, getting a blog up and running, building a social media following, and writing until you cause yourself physical pain and frustration that you lack the “skills and experience”? Sure, I might not be an editor—every writing advice piece I’ve ever read says that writers can’t be editors, especially for their own work—but not a writer? I’m under no illusions that this is an easy path, or even that I’m entitled to anything at this point, but is it wrong to want to be thrown a bone once in a while? To be recognized for the work you did other than a “Keep trying, you’ll get a break eventually”?

I’ve expressed my frustrations to this effect to a lot of people, and bless every one of their souls: that writer friend I mentioned a bit earlier got a good deal of the aftermath following the freelance site debacle, but generally my go-to people for venting are my mother and my husband, the latter more now that I live with him. We had one of our Serious Business Talks the other day, which basically involved me having a lot of strong feelings about something and him weathering them and also talking about potential solutions in a calm, rational way (he’s a very good rock like that). In this particular discussion, he brought up an interesting point that I’ve been thinking about since: Is it possible to have a healthy need for validation?

He’s of the opinion that a psychological need for validation is unhealthy. He understands that in the writing world, whether you succeed or not depends on people liking a very personal project that you’ve spent sometimes years working on, but as a life rule he thinks that living totally independent of what other people think of you is the only way to stay sane and happy. In theory, I like the idea, and I can see the merits, but I just don’t think it’s possible—not just for me, and not just for artists for whom outside validation is necessary in order to succeed, but for humans as a whole. We’re social creatures that need to feel like we belong and are loved. Nothing in life comes unless people like you or you fit in, no matter if you’re on a playground or in an office.

Sure, writing and life aren’t about conforming. In fact, Americans seem to frown on that kind of thing, which is why I see accusations of being “sheeple” thrown around online discussions so often. So maybe it’s a cultural thing and my non-U.S. readers don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. But with so much pressure to succeed in ways that involve other people in unavoidable ways—being a demonstrably kind and philanthropic person, getting the corner office, getting the book deal, owning a home, making your first million—it just seems odd to me that conforming to expectations is seen as somehow cowardly or wrong. Even in writing, when there’s a lot of pressure to have an original idea and be the next bestseller, you still need to tailor it to fit your audience, regardless of how you’re publishing it. As much as we’d like to be people who don’t need anyone’s help to succeed at life and to be the intrepid few that blaze their own trails, there are times when you need to conform, and you need to be cognizant of what other people are thinking of you. And it’s nice to be rewarded when it happens.

True, we don’t go into writing because we know we’re going to make millions of dollars or have adoring fans swarm us in public. It’s commonly accepted that writing itself should be enough, that you could be happy writing even if what you penned never saw the light of day, let alone the eyes of a reader. And while I do find the act of creation fulfilling in itself, I’m driven not just to write the stories, but to tell them: these stories need to be shared with an audience. I want and arguably need to see other people’s reactions to my words: I love when people tell me that I had them scared or laughing out loud, or they sighed with relief after a denouement, or that they considered my words a gift, or that they loved or hated a particular character.

Because if I don’t care about what other people think, I can’t care about them enough to give them the stories they deserve.