Don’t Obsess About Your Work Being “Legitimate”

I have a friend who’s working on a novel in her spare time.  It’s an ongoing project that she devotes an hour to every so often in the evening or on a weekend, and she has a lot of fun working on it when she can.

Sometimes the two of us discuss writing and she talks about her novel in a passionate, excited way that makes me excited too.  Other times she’ll talk about problems she’s been having or her slow writing pace, sometimes in an embarrassed way.  “It’s different than the writing you’re doing,” she’ll say to me with a casual shrug.  “It’s nothing serious.”

Stop right there—WHAT??!!!!!?!?!?!?!

Why do we feel the need to act humble about our creative work by comparing it to others whose work we view as somehow more serious?  All it does is make us feel bad when instead we should be getting excited about the things that drive us.

In reality, the world’s a big place with room for lots of creative work (with the internet making it absurdly easy to share stuff), whether that work is ridiculously large, or just you and your friends.  Just because something only reaches a few people doesn’t mean it’s less meaningful than a Hollywood blockbuster that reaches 900 million people—it just means it’s smaller.  Even the work we never share with anyone can hold a tremendous amount of importance, like this guy who spends 30 minutes a day doing creative work that’s only for himself.

 

I Always Use “Legitimate” in Quotes

Here’s a second story: a while ago I was texting with a different friend who was trying to get more of his work out into the world and had just scored a pretty substantial success.  I congratulated him, of course (both on the success, and because the piece itself was really good) and he confessed that the acceptance meant a lot to him because it made him feel like he’d finally achieved something important. Here’s what he said:

 

I’ve always been worried about being seen as

“legitimate” by people I respect.

 

Even my friend, who’d just achieved something pretty significant, felt like it had “legitimized” him (I use the word in quotes to denote heavy sarcasm) in some way, like all the art he’d been doing before that was for nothing, but that the big success had suddenly moved him to the other side of an invisible line where the work done by people on his side mattered and the work done by people on the other side didn’t.  And even though he knew that wasn’t really true and was stupid, he felt that way anyway.

Truth is, that’s not the way life works.  Sure, success and reaching more people are great and important and make us feel good, but they’re not really a measure of how worthwhile we are.  Very rarely do individual victories push us to the point of magically being accepted as professionals in the creative world.

The danger in seeing certain kinds of work as having more (shudder) “legitimacy” than others is that it downgrades the work on the other side of the invisible legitimacy line.  It’s like saying that the work done by millions of writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians, actors, and a bunch of other creative people I can’t think of right now doesn’t matter because they haven’t overcome the ill-defined legitimacy hurdle.

 

“Legitimacy” Lines Aren’t Cool

To dissect this thing even further—where do we draw the invisible legitimacy line?  Am I legitimate because I have this blog, and because people read it?  Or am I not legitimate because my Facebook page has less than 1,000 Likes? (Man, that’d be nice….)  Am I not legitimate because I don’t have an actual novel published?  Even if I did, would I then only be legitimate if it was with a large press or if it sold more than 1,000 copies or 10,000 copies or 100,000 copies, or if I was interviewed by a national news outlet? Maybe I couldn’t really be legitimate at all until I had seventeen books published and a National Book Award and recognition from a bunch of writer’s societies, and even then I bet the people who have all these things look at writers who’ve won the Nobel Prize and think “Man, that guy’s the real deal while I’m just a hack.”

We have to stop endlessly comparing ourselves to others.  Not only is it lame and stupid, but it doesn’t help anyone and only causes weird rivalries that discourage us.

 

Don’t Let Fear of “Legitimacy” Stop You From Doing Things

One more story that shouldn’t have happened but did: I knew a guy in grad school who did painting in addition to his scholarly grad school work, and I finally found this out after we’d had several drinks at a party.  I was amazed because he’d NEVER MENTIONED THIS BEFORE and I asked why he didn’t tell more people or show any of his work or even try to integrate it with his grad school stuff, because that would have rocked pretty hard.

He got kind of embarrassed when I suggested this and said that he didn’t think his department would be interested, and that his painting was “just a hobby” (quotes mine, again to indicate disdain).  He may have even used the word “legitimate” in a disparaging tone, because his tone carried that same morose lack of belief in what he was doing.

The truth is that we all choose how far we want to take our creative work based on our priorities, how busy we are, and how much we really want to develop it.  No one should be forced to push their work farther if they don’t want to (like my first friend who’s writing the novel), but the real tragedy comes when people do want to go farther but get discouraged because they don’t think they could ever (ugh…) “make it,” or don’t think their work could ever reach the point where people—even a small group—would appreciate it.

Making judgements like this sucks and we should just plain stop doing it.  That’s easier said than done of course, but as a start, I try to treat any project that anyone I know is working on with the same respect I’d treat the blockbuster Hollywood movie with the super-wide reach.  How I talk about my own work is the one thing I can control, so I always try to treat it with respect and confidence because that’s the way I want other people to treat it too, invisible legitimacy lines be damned.

Maybe that’s really the secret of finding confidence in your work: if we believe in it ourselves, everyone else will too.

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