Most of us expect a lot of ourselves — at work, as a parent or spouse, with our creative projects. And we should. On the right day, expecting a lot can lead to accomplishing more than we might otherwise; we rise gracefully to the occasions of our sometimes-complicated lives. But on the wrong day, or during a challenging time, our attempts to rise fall flat, we fail at helping others, we say the wrong things, we don’t show up in the way we’d like. We are messy and human and imperfect. In this essay, writer Laura Didyk comes face-to-face with the challenge of her own expectations — and a whole lot of spiders.
Several years ago, I was awarded a month-long writing residency at an arts center in rural Virginia. My sole job while there was to make progress on the book I’d begun six months earlier at another residency. No one would be checking my work. I would not have to present evidence of my productivity. This is what residencies like this are for: with the gift of time, free of domestic distractions, and inspired by conversations with other writers and artists who are there to work on their own creative projects, you are supposed to make progress.
I’ve never been much of a goal-setter, so just how far along I’d get in Virginia at my residency was not something I’d discussed with myself. My internal sense of time and my predictions of what it will take — emotionally and psychologically — to accomplish any task, artistic or otherwise, rarely line up with reality anyway. So I just don’t bother.
As my residency month approached, I did, however, imagine a goal-oriented version of myself at the center: I am at my desk in my clean, light-filled studio, a room rich with the history of all the writers who have written in that very same space. My window looks out onto an idyllic pastoral scene of cows grazing on the green open land — just as it appears in a photo on the website. I am focused, free of self-doubt, full of inspiration. I am writing, writing, writing, enjoyment my middle name.
In other words, I would be an entirely different person in Virginia: Instead of the 45 minutes I could barely manage once a week at home, I’d write hours a day. And the more I wrote, the more momentum I’d have. I’d be an unstoppable creative force, with bionic writing powers and stamina like I’d never known.
When I got to the residency, I did have a big wooden desk, much like the one in my imagination. But instead of a light-filled studio, I’d been assigned one side of a duplex. It wasn’t very clean, and downstairs, where my desk was, had a sliding glass door that looked out onto the center’s parking lot. Instead of grass and cows, I saw concrete and cars. And each night I was visited by local wildlife: palm-sized spiders that crept into my studio space by way of the gap under the utility closet door — first one, then another, then another, and another, until there was a whole nuclear family, and then their relatives, whole generations gathering on the carpet on the edge of my studio — the brown funky rug camouflaging their brown, slightly furry bodies.
If the arachnid invasion wasn’t enough, my romantic relationship wasn’t going well, and the nightly calls with my boyfriend would leave me an emotional mess, requiring recovery time.
I did manage to write, which now seems commendable. I’d write two, sometimes three, hours a day. But I wrote mostly in small bursts, never all at once, so I couldn’t find my stride. I made little progress, it seemed, when it came to page count. I was not bionic, nor unstoppable. I was eating a lot of Milano cookies, had zero momentum, and enjoyment had fled the scene entirely. I was obsessed with the spiders and the fading boyfriend, when I should have been obsessed, I told myself, with my book, with what I came here to do. I felt tired, anxious, and completely unsure of my abilities. What was the matter with me?
My miniscule two- to three-hour writing days, made-up of drive-by writing sessions, paragraphs written on my way out the door to buy more cookies, were my little secret for the first couple of weeks. When a fellow resident would ask at lunch how my writing was going, I’d just nod and say “pretty good” or “fine” or “as good as expected.” Lies, all of them. Things were pretty bad, they were far from fine, and I had expected much much more of myself — too much, it turns out. I could feel the onset of that kind of disappointment that likes to set up camp in our souls, a homesteading kind that won’t permit us to wander very far from camp in the direction of what we want.
One evening, waiting for the dining room doors to open for dinner, and feeling the daily weight of not having accomplished much, a well-known writer who I’d been too intimidated to talk to asked how my time was going. How was I finding the residency?
It was a warmer question, more sincere and inclusive than the dreaded question about my writing. “I’m not finding it,” I heard myself say. “I’m not writing enough. I think I might be wasting my time.” I felt my throat start to close and stopped myself before I cried in front of this stranger whose work I admired.
“How much are you writing all told?” he asked. “By the end of each day, how much time have you spent at your desk?”
Surprising myself, I told him the truth.
He scoffed and half-laughed, “You’re upset about that?” he asked. “Who wants to write more than that? You write, and then you go live your life. You be a person.” As we walked through the open doors of the dining room, he shrugged his shoulders, and added, “Writing is not easy.”
As I reached for a plate and decided which greasy, southern fare I’d pile onto it, I felt the weight and dread leave my body with such suddenness — I hadn’t realized just how heavy it had been. The idea that writing was hard was of course not new, but I’d never let it apply to me. And at that moment, I did. Small doses of self-forgiveness could be a good thing.
Writing is hard. Believing in the narrative road you’ve chosen to go down, attempting on a daily basis to avert self-doubt, to write around it, write through it. To believe that what you’re doing is worth doing, that what you’re writing will, when it’s finished, be worth reading. It’s hard in the way that anything we care about is hard.
Our self-worth is unavoidably linked to these things — our work, our relationships, our children, our creative lives. And it’s especially difficult when we expect more of ourselves than is healthy … and most of us do.
Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between expecting a lot of ourselves and expecting too much. When we expect a lot of ourselves, we aim for a slightly higher than normal human amount of goodness, grace, or success, and we often achieve it. If we fall short, we carry on, we try again. When we expect too much, we aim for perfection and we always fall short. We can practically hear disappointment hammering the tent stakes in, firing up the camping stove, unfurling its ancient sleeping bag.
During the last two weeks of my residency, I didn’t magically transform. I was still messy and human and imperfect. I was still eating cookies. But I kept reminding myself that we all have moods, emotional highs and lows, and varying levels of energy and attention. Some of us have views of parking lots. I was able to orchestrate a small but perceptible shift, a softening in my attitude toward myself. When I’d feel the steely hand of expecting-too-much reach out, I’d replay the conversation I had with the well-known writer outside the dining room. I’d remember that writing is not easy. I left the residency with two and a half new chapters, and a failed relationship that desperately needed to end. Although it wasn’t what I’d expected or hoped, it was what happened. And it was enough.
Laura Didyk is a writer, editor, and illustrator — the image accompanying this essay is hers.