“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”
~William Shakespeare, Hamlet
My parents weren’t into quoting Shakespeare when I was growing up, but the advice Polonius gave to Laertes is essentially the same advice they gave to me. I can think of dozens of examples in which their wisdom served me well over the years, but I haven’t always followed it to the T. Kids have to find their own way, right? Now that I’m an adult and I find myself giving the same advice to my own children, it’s hard not to think about the times I didn’t follow my heart.
The funny thing is, I was never a follower in school, so it’s not like I planned to let anyone else influence me in a negative way. I simply wanted to be a writer; a great writer. I was looking for a way to write better. When I first let someone else’s opinion shape me, I didn’t even realize it was happening. Maybe it was the first devastating review my book received or maybe it was someone giving me advice that would make me more marketable. I can’t remember, but I know I stepped just far enough away from my heart that I would regret it later.
Ignoring your compass in order to please others never ends up pleasing anyone. Accepting advice is one thing, but when you start bending your dreams to suit the definition that others give you, it still won’t make the others happy. Instead of respecting who you are, they will enthusiastically continue to refine their definition of you – and your work, if you are a creative person – until you no longer recognize yourself.
Even as I’ve tried to maintain the purity and passion of writing my heart, there was a time in my publication journey in which I wondered where I fit into the writing world. It didn’t help when I sat at writer’s conferences and heard things like, “literary writing equals no sales,” or “don’t write in first person.” Those kinds of statements were not directed at me, of course, but they attacked my writing style and my confidence. Once, when my second contracted novel was still being written, a freelance editor told me, “you have to be a really great writer to do that, so you can’t.” If you want to see a young novelist falter, those are the kinds of things you should say to them.
Thankfully, I’m not as young as I once was (Isn’t that a country song?). Maybe turning forty this year changed me, but in both writing and in life, I think I am finally comfortable being who I am. Perhaps where I fit in remains to be seen, but wherever I end up, I know I’m following my heart in my writing. I can’t write anyone else’s brand. I have to write my own. I’m writing what I want, loving what I’m writing, and feeling good about it. It’s amazing to feel the shackles break open with each realization that I only succeed at my writing, and everything else, when I’m true to the gifts God has given to me.
I wonder how many young novelists and aspiring writers out there are letting others hold them back. Some of you are probably reading this and thinking, “Yes, that’s me.” It is especially difficult when the people pushing you back are people you admire and people who are supposed to be teaching and mentoring you on your journey. Sometimes the solution is to find a new mentor or teacher, but all too often, the only person holding us back from being all we were created to be, is ourselves.
It might sound cliché, but do what you love, and you will love what you do. Of course, Shakespeare said it best, “Above all: To thine own self be true.”