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To succeed, you may first need to grieve

I’ve noticed this pattern in my own creative life that maybe you’ll recognize : Every time I get close to finishing a creative project, I’m swallowed whole by self-doubt and self-recrimination.

How can you call yourself a writer? You’re really too old to be fooling around with this creative project. And on and on.

Then, I get busy making career plans and/or self-improvement regimes. I'll become a yoga teacher, I’ll get a master’s in public health, I’ll find a real job, and on and on.

It’s curious that this intense self-doubt comes when things should be looking up. So, I wondered: What if this pattern has nothing to do with self-improvement? What if it’s a way to distract myself from some kind of grief?

What don’t I want to grieve?

It’s sad when a project nears completion because you see it for what it is. You realize this was the best you could do. When it was just an idea in your head, it was perfect. But now here it is, in all its misshapen beauty.

I'm sorry for all the time I wasted. I was the girl who in 11th grade spent the whole class period during a music theory quiz passing the answers to a boy, David Alpert, who was a senior and who I loved. So, he got an A and I got a C.

The more I grieve for the girl I was, the calmer I become. And the self-recrimination drops away.

The more I acknowledge the grief for what was lost, the more power rises in me that keeps me sitting in the chair, working on this revision to my memoir. I can’t control who likes this story, who reviews it, how big or small a splash it makes. But I can control right now how much I sweat, how hard I work, to make this manuscript good.

In finishing this project, I’m outrunning my mother, I'm telling the family secrets, I'm helping myself as much as I would help someone else.

When the thoughts start: You’re no good. How come you’re not a famous writer yet, what’s the matter with you? You had so much promise.


I remember the girl who helped the boy she liked but not herself.

I feel sad for the mother I had who could not help me the way I needed to be helped.

I discover that grief is very grounding. I feel the grief and I actually feel better. Good enough that I can get back to work.

Because working on this memoir is success, nearing completion is success, telling the truth is success. To succeed you may first need to grieve, to feel bereft for everything that’s lost. To succeed, maybe you must admit what wasn’t good and in that is the goodness.  

Photo by Pete Nowicki