Breaking Free of the Approval Trap

My little girls and I stood under the red and orange trees and tried to catch the leaves that were falling. A breeze would sweep over branches far above our heads and we’d see color released like a slow burst of confetti. Sometimes a wind current would retrieve the swell and send it higher, carrying it like a lost kite far from where our outstretched arms were waiting. But now and then, leaves would float gently down and we would leap and try to catch them as they came spinning.

Lately, the words have been coming to me just like autumn leaves. It’s rare that I catch them in their falling. Often, I see the wind shake loose the colors of life, stories spinning in the air, and then they get carried away in the currents of a busy life.

And, I find myself torn between just letting them go and chasing them down.

For a while now, I’ve thought of myself as a writer.

In college, I walked beside a professor in the spring sunshine and I asked him, “What should I do?” And he said, “You know how to capture the poetic. Keep writing, Lara. Publish a book.”

And at twenty-two years old I envisioned a book of poetry by the time I was twenty-five. And when I was twenty-five I held another newborn baby and I said, “Forget it. I’m just going to write poetry on the souls of my children.” And, we looked together for the poetic in blocks and Play-Doh and bugs in the grass. And these children, seven of them in just over eleven years, with their refining chaos and fresh eyes for beauty, wrote poetry in me as well.

It was only while I was snuggling close my last baby that I felt a resurgence of that drive toward written words, pushing me toward pen and paper. Once again, a notebook was placed on my nightstand and another beside the kitchen stove.  And, I’ve felt like a writer again.

That first summer, after the resurgence, my family took me to Liberty Tool Company on my thirty-sixth birthday. We meandered through three floors of used tools, antiques and random treasures; the kids were each allowed to spend two dollars. A daughter found a tarnished silver spoon and a little boy found a screwdriver that would fit in his pocket. Finally, making our way to the third floor, we were surrounded by shelf after shelf of old books. One by one, I would pull an old hardcover off the shelf and blow away the dust that had collected on top of the pages. On each cover was a name. I thought about the dream contained in the book I was holding. The author was a writer. He or she had felt the angst of the words pressing to be written and had experienced the absolute satisfaction and joy of holding in their hands a published work with their name on it. They had achieved what had started rising again as an aspiration in my own mind.

And, suddenly, as I looked at the thousands of dusty hardcovers with long forgotten titles, I saw a desperate futility in that sort of dream.

When I walked with my professor that long ago spring day, I had asked him another question. It had burned in me throughout the entire semester of Poetry 308. With hope and angst I had asked him, “Do you think I’m any good?” And, standing in Liberty Tool, I realized that my dream of a published book was a longing to have that question answered, “Yes, you are good! You are a worthwhile human being! People are going to love you, girl!”

There’s something in me that craves approval from others. That craving can become intense and I can become wildly insecure when I pour my heart and mind into a piece of writing and share it. When I see that ambition in me, to win the love of others by an extraordinary writing performance, I know it’s like trying to draw water from a dry well. No matter how beautiful my words or how many books I publish, that thirst would never actually be satiated. Our souls weren’t meant to be fed with the praise of other human beings.

The knowledge of this unhealthy craving inside makes me want to go to another extreme and not share my work at all. It makes me ashamed of my pride and embarrassed by my neediness. I fear rejection because of how crushing it would be given my insecurity. I decide that I should keep my words close and private. Friends also, hoping to help me to be less inhibited, have encouraged me to just write like no one will ever see the words. I’ve tried. The result is that  I sit at my desk and picture myself like Emily Dickinson, a recluse in my lonely little cabin in the woods, filling a chest with secret poems not to be seen until I’m buried deep in the ground. And, I want to cry for the loneliness of it all.

Slowly, I’m learning that writing must be both not about other people and also deeply about connection to other people.

This last month, a renewed connection has helped me to push through the angst I’ve lately felt about writing.

Carolyn Locke was my very first creative writing teacher. She was a writer herself, pursuing poetry while teaching English to high school students. She managed to pour herself into her students and also her family and friends, all while balancing this internal push to write. She never taught us that the goal and proof of being a writer was in having a book published. She made us a community of writers right then and there. She brought in authors who shared their stories with us like we were peers. She read to us her own poetry and listened intently to ours. And, before the class was over she held a poetry reading to which our loved ones were all invited. She knew that it wasn’t just in publishing, but before we could experience the fullness of our work, it needed to be shared. Words are meant to go out from us into another place. Words are meant to connect.

Recently, I shared with her The Wave Song and told her how much the memory of her tears when I read a poem in high school had meant to me. Remembering the connection people can have over words helped me to start writing and sharing again. The poem that connected us then was about how I felt sitting between a boy I was dating and his mother.  I laughed when in our reminiscing I sent her a copy and remarked that I could easily be brought to tears myself by the subject matter now that I have boys of my own.

Her reply surprised me. As she remembers it, her tears weren’t over the subject matter (as I have always thought), she was moved because of what she saw in me. It was my compassion for the mother in my poem that made her cry.

When I read her words and for the first time saw that experience differently, it was like being washed over with all of my conflicting emotions about sharing my writing. I long to be seen and yet I want to run to the hills and hide away, never to be seen. Because the reality is that I know what is inside of myself.

C.S. Lewis wrote ‘The Silver Chair’ in which Aslan, the great lion, admonishes Prince Caspian for his disappointment over being merely human. “‘You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,’ said Aslan. ‘And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.'”

I know that honor and that shame. I feel it in myself.

But Aslan went on to say, “Be content.”

In order to write, and share, I must come to a place of contentment with myself. Not because I’m perfect but because I’m not. Not because I lack motivation to grow and to do better but because in order to grow I need to be free to fail and to have that failure exposed. Isn’t this also the gospel? Jesus took the shame of being human and gave us the honor, freely. I can come out of the bushes and face exposure because I have been made secure. I can ‘be content’ to be and to be seen. I can be content when I’m pretty and content when I’m ugly. I can be content when I’m right and content when I’m wrong. My value is intrinsic and secure, separate from my performance.

My once-again teacher, Carolyn, recently shared this quote:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. . . It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to stay open and aware to the urges that motivate you.” Martha Graham

This frees me. It’s not my business to determine how good my expression is nor how it compares with others’. With abandon, I can go chasing and leaping after those stories falling like autumn leaves.

When I was a little girl I could sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ like it was nobody’s business. I would gather an audience but I wouldn’t worry about what they were thinking. I just wanted my sisters and parents and grandparents to experience with me the absolute joy of the song. I was content. It wasn’t until I got older, while enjoying my own children, that I realized how special and beautiful is the self-forgetfulness of childhood. And, how worthy of a thing it is to strive to recapture. Maybe this is even a reason why God made me a writer; He knows it will draw me to the true answer, to the well of living water that is His love. And content in that, I’ll truly be able to write and sing again like it’s nobody’s business.

~ Lara

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~My little sister, a couple of brave neighbor boys and self-forgetful me~

Did you enjoy reading about my first and most inspiring creative writing teacher? To enjoy some of her beautiful poetry, check out Carolyn Locke’s books, available from her website at carolynlocke.com. 🙂

10 thoughts on “Breaking Free of the Approval Trap

  1. Thank you for sharing. It is important to remember that some of what is inside of us is unique. Also, that motherhood, though amazing, does not encompass all of who you are. I smile to think that I knew you so long ago and did NOT know of this yearning to express yourself through writing! Love, Helen

    • Thank you, Helen! I so agree with you about motherhood. And, I’m not surprised that you didn’t know about that desire to write! I don’t think anyone did as I would have been too embarrassed to admit it! 🙂

  2. I am so grateful that even in the midst of your extremely busy role as parent to these seven children, you have still been inspired to write and have the self-discipline to make the space in your life for this gift.

    I am not sure why we feel a need for approval from others, but I do recall that as a child you were always theatrical. Life was a Big Show and we were always genuinely and full-heartedly appreciative of the shows you put on for us, your family. We certainly became characters in your dramatizations. We were all it together- the actress and the audience!

    • Thank you, Mom!! I’m so glad you took pictures, like the one in this post, to remind me of that self-forgetfulness! You have always encouraged me to write and take risks.. thank you! I was also remembering as I wrote this post how you and Danny created space in your lives to create. There was always music being recorded in Danny’s music studio and there were always your paintings and sculptures in progress and filling the house, making things more beautiful. You guys were great examples of this!

  3. Lara, Bobbi and Al go to my church and after all this time we just realized I had been your college roommate. I miss you. I too am an aspiring writer. Sometimes I write short stories and share them in front of my church. I also write poetry. Hope to see you sometimes. My pastor, his wife and their 7 children live a few houses up from Liberty tool on Main st.

    Love, Becky Slaughter, aka Goggins

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