On Seeking External Validation
By Terese Mason Pierre
In 2003, my parents moved us from our relatively comfortable lives in Mississauga to Grenada for my father’s job with the Caribbean bank. It was a world that was supposed to be familiar (my parents are Grenadian), but wasn’t. It was here that I started writing, at the age of eight. My stories were handwritten in a spiral-bound notebook with ever-decreasing pages. They were somewhat autobiographical: I would write about little girls moving to new countries and trying to fit in at new schools. However, these were always heavily fictionalized. The little girls moved from places like Paris and Romania, to the USA, or Western Canada, places I’d never been. There were also no Black characters, and other people of colour made brief appearances to give directions or guide the white lead. At the back of my mind, even before I knew it, I felt like no one would really want to read about me. I had to think about what the audience would want, even though I had no audience, and write that.
When I turned thirteen, I got more serious about writing and realized that it was something I was good at because my teachers and friends told me so. I abandoned my other hobbies of drawing and, to some extent, reading, to write more. While I did care about what I wrote, and wanted to make my work engaging, I also wanted, more than anything, for other people to enjoy my writing.
I have always written for others. I hold the audience as a nebulous entity in my brain and think about what it would find funny, insightful, or moving. I learned at a young age to distance myself from my writing. I don’t write about anything personal because I believed that should be for my eyes only, never to share, or publicize— what would I show others? Nobody cared about my personal life. It was boring, so I didn’t write about it. I have no qualms about others heavily editing my work, and I experience no deep cuts about rejections from magazines.
My work has never been tethered to my spirit in any way— it’s like it was mass-produced, cut off from me at the outset. But with writing for others, I developed a strong and persistent desire for external validation. I needed and still need others to tell me if my work is good (or good enough), or how else would I know? Because I never wrote for myself, I’d never developed an internal locus of appreciation for my writing.
These days, this need for external validation has extended further from my writing to the way I conduct myself in public. How do I become a person that others, writers, would find funny, insightful, moving? I attend many literary events around Toronto, where I live, in an effort to support up-and-coming writers I don’t know, cheer on my friends whom I love, and see those I admire. I also go out— sometimes five nights a week, or even two events in a night— in order to cultivate an outward image around being involved with the literary community. This doesn’t mean my involvement, or the care and energy I devote insincere, but I do consider it work. If I am involved, and involved in a positive way, maybe I will be liked. Maybe I will be good (or good enough). Maybe people will validate me. If they like me, maybe they will like my work.
If I’m being honest, I can ask myself: when will I feel validated enough to become confident? But because I have a background in philosophy, I busy myself with picking apart the question to avoid answering it. I am comfortable enough to admit that I constantly place barriers in front of my work and worth to prevent them from being good (or good enough) to me. I won’t be good enough until I’m published in a well-known CanLit magazine. I won’t be good enough until I have a chapbook. I won’t be good enough until I have two chapbooks, or a full-length book of poetry, or a novel, or win an award. I won’t be good enough until I make money from my writing, until my family is proud of me, and on, and on. I tell myself that this narrative will keep me striving, to never get comfortable to mediocrity, but, in reality, this has developed an inability to take time to congratulate myself on my achievements. My first chapbook, “Surface Area”, was released last month, and already I am thinking about the second one, where I will send it, whom I might owe. It sinks in deep and spreads out like a fungus.
Another question I ask myself is why I rely on external validation at all. Perhaps it’s because having been steeped in academia, I believe in the epistemic authority of experts. When it comes to writing, there are those whose expressions and opinions I will accept, established writers who have consistently proven their knowledge when it comes to writing, industry and the cultures therein, who are celebrated as experts from within and outside the writing community. Despite all this, I know— having been steeped in academia— that there are those who rely a little too much on their authority, who lounge on the pedestal, who sometimes use their power to harm, to unfairly shuffle the deck. Are they still experts? Do I still care about what these kinds of people think? A good question. I think it’s sort of my responsibility to better spend my energy with good people, who truly care about the wellbeing of others, and of the community.
Nonetheless, a part of me believed that if experts gave me positive feedback on my work— especially if they told me my work is good (or good enough)— then this is a great thing, and, therefore, something to be sought.
But that doesn’t really answer the question. I rely on this kind of validation because I feel I might learn to see it as something to depend on when I am too wrapped up in my own anxiety to see that I have done something excellent, that I have made some positive change within myself and the community. If I have other people’s validation saved up in the bank— especially those of experts— I can pull this out once in a while to remind myself that I have done a good thing. I believe this is wishful thinking, but this idea persists.
Who am I trying to impress? Other writers, I suppose. Those who have things I do not have, those whose lives I want to emulate, those who I believe can help me, as I already make myself available to others— people who I think are special, who are “above me.” There is a contradiction in believing in the idea of the established writer, though. I know these people, these authors I laud, are regular people with regular lives and jobs. I know this because I follow a lot of them on social media, and I see the anxieties, anger, pettiness and joy that makes them human, interesting, and normal. They are like me. But they are not like me.
Everyone speaks about impostor syndrome, all the time, over and over. I have created a strange rationale to explain why it is necessary that I have impostor syndrome, why I should feel like an impostor traipsing about with established writers. I compare myself to the experts, even though I know I shouldn’t, and I know that if I should compare, it would not only be to people at my stage, but to myself. I think about how much confidence I should have relative to where I am on my writing journey, how I should carry myself, how I should let others see and speak about me. Exactly three people have called me ‘inspirational,’ and I swiftly cut them down. I cannot be a source of inspiration— not yet. I can’t be too satisfied at this point, I remind myself. I don’t have a book. I don’t deserve to glide around with a light in my chest.
I know very well what the solutions are, as told to me by experts: there is no rush, people will wait, I should take my time as I want my writing to be good. None of this extra stuff, like prize culture or grant collecting, or invitations to awards and galas, really matters; it’s better to be a good person, to help others, to make space. But I tend to view this advice as rich people saying that money doesn’t buy happiness. At the same time, I promote the importance of mentorship, of established people telling emerging writers that we don’t need to freak out about everything. But knowing all of this doesn’t fix the roiling in my stomach, the feeling that at any moment it could all vanish, and I would never be satisfied because it was never for myself anyway. A question here could be: Well, why do I write at all? Another good question.
I try very hard to view myself the way I view other writers around me. I try to show up to support myself, to cheer myself on with love. If I start thinking, “I hope I get to a stage where I…” I let that thought go. No stages. Just here, just now.
I tell myself, with some element of the fantastic, that one day I’ll go back to Grenada and sit at Grand Anse and write. Maybe, in the writing, I will add more I’s, and it will all reset like waking from a dream. Maybe then I will be good enough. Maybe, then, I will be good.
Terese Mason Pierre is a poet and writer whose work has appeared in The Temz Review, Bad Nudes, and Canthius, among others. She is the poetry editor of Augur magazine and volunteers with Shab’e She’r reading series. Her first chapbook was published with Anstruther Press in Fall 2019. She lives and works in Toronto.