On Validation

Sunday Letter | #334

Tree trunks, only the shadows of branches, cutting across a boardwalk on dirt and brown grass, green color cast from the expired film.
Gordon Park, Detroit, MI (Expired Fujicolor C200)

Finished re-reading the previous draft this week. And recently I reactivated my New York Times Crossword account (Julia and I watched – she for the first time – the documentary Wordplay, which was even more charming than when I first saw it a decade ago).

Reviewing the draft and looking through my archived crossword stats both stirred up the same feeling: that the past version of me, the person who wrote that draft and solved (or attempted to solve) those puzzles wasn’t as incompetent as I’d expected. There’s relief here: the big emotional movements in the story feel right or almost right, even if scenes need to be nudged one way or another; I don’t have as much work ahead as I thought I’d have.

But with relief comes a dose of humility, too. Having less work ahead also means that Present Jack hasn’t grown and improved that much over Past Jack; he’s only shaving seconds off his old crossword solve times, finishing only one or two more Saturday/Sunday puzzles a month than before.

A humblebrag in a couple of different ways, I guess.


Reader (and writer) Naveen asked:

Where do you get your sense of validation as a writer? Is this the same now as it was when you were getting started? How would you counsel early-stage writers for whom rejection has become routine, and that first breakthrough remains elusive? Do you remember any seminal moment where you recall feeling like the world had opened its arms to accept your calling as a writer?

I feel the need to parse validation into external and internal here. With external validation, the trick, for me, is to alchemize it into feedback. Remember: it’s not you, it’s the writing. When you detach criticism and rejection from your identity and self-worth as a writer, you make more space for the internal sources of validation.

That’s not to say I don’t still reel from getting feedback on drafts and stories. Or getting rejected by a fellowship or residency application. I’d like to think I just bounce back quicker. Success, I should mention, is just the other edge of the same sword. The publication of See You in the Cosmos was absolutely a seminal moment for me, and I celebrated it; but I don’t know if I saw this as an acceptance of my calling moreso than a confirmation that I’d written a decent book. The work was good; I was more or less the same.

As for internal validation, that can come from the joy in the process itself, the sense of growth and progress I mention throughout this letter. But related to growth is a word I come back again and again: presence. It’s the ability to “enter into that line-by-line world, where there is very little judgement, just you and the mechanics of the systems, systems that become increasingly beautiful the more time you spend with them,” as Craig says beautifully about code – but is very much applicable to any art.

Maybe the better adjective here isn’t “internal” but eternal, in that this kind of validation just is. You don’t attain it so much as enter it, immerse yourself in it, and find, upon returning after some time away, it to be just a little more beautiful than before.