I can remember the exact moment I decided to be a writer. I was eight years old and madly in love with Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Reading was all I wanted to do and there weren’t enough books in the world to keep me satisfied (but thanks to my parents for trying!). At some point, someone gave me a hardcover activity book for as a gift. Inside were prompts like, draw your family and write down what you want to be when you grow up. In the biggest, boldest and most confident handwriting I could muster, I wrote down: to be an author. In the very back of the book were empty pages and that’s where I wrote my first story ideas down at eight years old.
That was almost 17 years ago and I still have this activity book. It’s hidden underneath piles of my old high school and college writings, inside an old beat up shoe box, in the darkest corner possible of my basement.
There are times when I’ll go into the basement and I’ll glance over at the box it is in. I know it’s there and sometimes thinking of it makes me feel anxious. I imagine eight year old Chelsea asking me why I haven’t finished that first novel yet and did I want to borrow any of her ideas. At eight there was no one on this planet that could convince me that being a writer wasn’t going to work out. I knew it was going to happen. It was a certainty that I clung to while rereading my favorite stories over and over again.
The truth is, years later, that sense of certainty became plagued by a strong sense of self doubt.
I can remember when I decided to become a writer and I can also remember the moment that dream started to scare me.
In my freshman year of college, I started to think what would happen if I couldn’t succeed as a writer. I had already made one of my biggest life decisions (deciding to pursue an English and writing degree) based on becoming a writer. Yet, I was constantly being hit with the statistics of how often writers fail and hearing experts claim the traditional book industry was slowly dying. People were telling me I should focus less on creative writing and more on finding a teaching job. It reached a point where sitting down to write was a stressful experience and I avoided it as much as possible. I stopped carrying a journal around and I packed up the typewriter I used on occasion.
Self doubt paralyzed me and so I hid from myself. I buried the dream and with it that strong sense of self and certainty I carried as a child.
After giving up on my writing goals and graduating college (with a degree I suddenly felt less passionate about), I did what any sane person does, and started to pursue my other creative passion: art.
I look back now and I laugh a little, because in reality I exchanged one uncertain creative future for another. There was no guarantee I’d succeed any better at being an artist than a writer. In fact, my odds were probably worse as an artist at that point because I had next to zero formal training. And yet, I think it is one of the best decisions I ever made for myself. In the first year after leaving undergraduate school, I pursued art while also dabbling in social media and marketing. I took odd jobs and tried to make use of the degree I was in over my head with debt for. I moved into a wonderful home with my now husband and was feeling generally pretty happy. Most importantly, I didn’t stop going after my art dreams. It was in large part because my husband refused to let me and also because having walked away from writing, I knew I couldn’t walk away from this too.
Still, when I’d go into the basement and I’d see that old shoe box, there would be a small pang in my heart.
It was probably over six months after graduating that I started to really think about writing again. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an author, but I found I wasn’t passionate about marketing and it drained me creatively. So I looked at Master’s programs for creative writing, started secretly writing poems again and felt my sense of self growing more. It is important to note this is a period when my art started to improve greatly as well.
I found myself, a year after leaving undergraduate school, letting myself dream a little bit again of novels. I was hella rusty as a writer and so with the love and support of my husband, I enrolled in a Master’s program for English and Creative Writing. It was an exhilarating, terrifying and tremendously important decision I made without hesitation. Afterwards there was this moment, sitting at my desk with an art project on one side and novel notes on the other, that I wondered how I managed to get there. How had I, in a year, gone from never believing in myself to fighting for both my creative dreams?
The answer is that, somewhere along the line, as I pushed harder and harder to succeed as an artist, I learned to also push back my self doubt like eight year old Chelsea did.
I won’t say that I don’t ever have moments of self doubt. There are still days where I question whether or not I made the right decisions and lots of times I wish I could go back and attend art school instead of pursuing English and writing. Some days I don’t want to pick up a paintbrush or my laptop and I still haven’t convinced myself to drag that old shoe box out of the basement permanently.
Sylvia Plath wrote, “The worst enemy of creativity is self doubt,” and that is one of the truest statements and it is a constant battle.
At eight years old, I wasn’t a “traditionally” successful writer or artist, but to me I was because I believed in myself. So when I see that shoe box of dreams and goals sitting in my basement, and I feel a little anxious, I tell myself: don’t give up. Self doubt is a constant battle and I don’t know a single creative person who doesn’t struggle with it. So if you’re reading this and you’re thinking of the creative passion (or really any passion, doesn’t have to be creative) that you walked away from I encourage you to go back to it.
As of now, I’ve written countless poems, short stories and almost a complete novel since deciding to try writing again. I’ve completed my MA degree and I’ve submitted tons of things to be published. Although that last part hasn’t happened yet, I remind myself that a few years ago I wasn’t selling any art. And ultimately, it isn’t about the sales or the prestige of being published. It’s about the act of overcoming fear and self doubt to create. It’s about all the days I’ve put in at the desk bettering my skills.
It’s about seeing eight year old Chelsea in my heart and knowing that I haven’t let her down, because what kept her sense of self going was telling herself she’d never give up.