After all, when you're a perfectionist, you always expect more. You drive harder. Your disappointment settles deeper. Go. Go. Go. Onto the next goal.
I challenge myself to stop. Just for a second.
I was a solid competitor -- a gamer, I'd even say -- up until my first year competing Level 9. Sure, I'd had occasional bad meets with multi-fall beam routines (what's a greater rite of passage than falling four times and wiping out on your dismount?). Yet I'd also had plenty of success; although I'd started gymnastics at the relatively ancient age of eleven, I'd blown through the levels thanks to coaches who believed in me and judges who rewarded my clean execution.
But Level 9, man. Talk about culture shock. Instead of lighting up under pressure, I could be counted on to fall on multiple events, run into the vault, knock over my coach, and crash on floor. Just for starters. Couple that with the fact that I was also a junior in high school with the "what does my future hold?" fear kicking in, and it was the perfect storm of self-doubt.
"You can't compare yourself to those other girls," my coach said after a practice where I fought back tears. "They've been doing this since they were four. You've been doing this for six years."
I understood the logic, but at the same time, it didn't sink in. It didn't make me say, Hey, you're doing okay for yourself. I wanted to be neck-and-neck with my competitors instead taking myself out of contention. I wanted to blast through my fears that instead took so freakin' long to tiptoe through.
Was I really cut out for this?
The one thing I'd always known for certain about my future was that it would involve writing.
Like a true rebellious teen, I'd sneak downstairs at night to write on the family desktop. I made it through senior year of college with thinly-veiled pieces of memoir and flash fiction. I continued to splash around in grad school in poetry, screenwriting, novel writing.
I would get published one day. I didn't know what the process entailed, or whether it'd be fiction or nonfiction, but I was certain I could do it. More than that, I wanted it.
Here's what I didn't count on in a post-book deal world: the debilitating fear that settled in and hasn't given up residency in the past couple of years. You'll never finish anything else. You're not cut out for fiction. Nobody cares what you have to say.
I started a new book. Scrapped it. Started something else and picked at it slowly, in bursts followed by silence.
Just finish this and you can retire, I began telling myself this summer. You don't have to write another book.
Was I really cut out for this?
The worst thing happened that season: I didn't qualify to States.
While my other teammates prepared, I quietly took a day or two off. And then I was back at practice, going about my business. I still had another year before college, and there was no way I was graduating without competing at States.
Then, when senior year rolled around, I was the last gymnast left standing.
The teammates who were my age had all quit or switched gyms. Suddenly, I was the oldest in the gym and the highest level, with my fellow Level 9s several years younger than me.
Slowly, I began settling into my skills. Sure, I still had some solid crashes. At my first meet of the season, though, something was missing: the I'm-going-to-puke nerves. The nerves that had helped me to some of my best performances (and my worst). I no longer felt completely terrified. I was simply going to do what I could do and try to enjoy it as best as I could.
And when I competed my final routine at States and wiped out on my bars dismount, I stood up, saluted to the judges, and laughed.
This August, everything came to a head -- the perfect collision of artistic frustration and matters completely out of my control. Before I said anything about it, I sat down as the sun began to set and opened, for the first time, my NaNoWriMo project from 2012.
Let's call this beast "bro comedy meets Game of Thrones." It's unfinished; although it clocks in at 50K, there's still more story to tell. In fact, it had been so long since I'd actively thought about it that I was genuinely surprised by several twists in the plot. It was my first real attempt at writing high fantasy, and it was really fun.
Then there's NaNo project 2011, which I love. Then I turned to NaNo project 2013 -- what the heck was that? Accidental magical realism?
Regardless, where had that writer gone? The one whose blog was her lifeline in college? The one who could write something that was kind of a mess but laugh along the way? The one who, at other times, could set it down once and get it just right?
I pulled back to examine everything that was happening -- what I could control and what I couldn't. Then I asked myself, "So what?"
What's the worst thing that can happen?
I let the catastrophes cascade, rolling faster and faster, until I reached the end of the "so whats" and found me there at the finish, writing stories as the night grows long. Stories for no one. Stories for obscure websites. Stories for maybe, for possibility.
I am more than just this book. And the next one. And the next.
And that audacious girl who wrote fearlessly and laughed at her mistakes instead of sinking under them -- I'd like to find her again this year.