Five Ways to Conquer Crippling Self-Doubt and Get Writing

5 Ways to Conquer Self-Doubt

Sylvia Plath once wrote, “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” It’s a lesson all aspiring writers know to be true, and yet so many of us still struggle to apply that universal truth in our writing. For a long time, I’ve tried to figure out what it is about writing that feels so distinctly torturous. Even when the ideas are there, when a rough outline has been sketched, each word carefully typed on page feels like it’s being wrung out of you. Paralyzing self-doubt crawls out of whatever hellhole it’s been hiding in to sit firmly on your shoulders, whispering again and again, “not good enough.”

But here’s the thing about self-doubt—it’s not all bad. In fact, there’s a perfectly good reason why we’re all hardwired to doubt our decisions and actions once in a while. The truth is self-doubt is an integral part of self-preservation. Think about it. Our ancestors needed that nagging voice to remind them to be cautious when approaching large prey or sampling the surrounding foliage. Their very survival was hinged on equal parts of bravery and self-doubt. Today, in its simplest form, self-preservation may take the shape of something as rote and innocuous as making sure your car’s in tiptop shape before embarking on a long drive or doing a sniff test before consuming last week’s leftovers.

Self-doubt also pushes us to do better. It teaches us humility, and consequently, open-mindedness. Imagine if we were all gifted with supreme and unshakeable confidence that bumbled into arrogance. We’d all be convinced that we’re always right and experts at everything. It would be disastrous. We’d either be foolhardy daredevils putting ourselves and other people in constant danger with our reckless behavior, or we’d be argumentative fools furthering mediocrity with the belief that everything we do is nothing short of absolute perfection.

The truth is, people who think they’re the best hardly ever want to get better—and that’s a tragedy in itself. You may be the best at something now, but if you let your skills stagnate, someone willing to work harder or do better will eventually surpass you. This is why it’s important to maintain a modicum of self-doubt. It keeps us in check.

So, if a little self-doubt is good, why am I writing an entire post on how to vanquish it? Well, see, healthy self-doubt has an ugly, hyper-inbred cousin, that’s just as bad as supreme arrogance—Crippling Self-Doubt.  Self-doubt ceases to be healthy the minute it stops you from trying to achieve your dreams.

As Shakespeare puts it,

“Our doubts are traitorous and make us lose the good we might oft win by fearing to attempt.”

Crippling self-doubt is the windmill masquerading as a giant. Now is the time to unleash your inner Quixote and drive that lance into that monster’s heart. After all, some monsters may be invisible or even imaginary, but if they cause you visceral terror, then these monsters are worthy foes that must be crushed. That being said, here are five ways to finally conquer crippling self-doubt so you can get started on your writing.

1. Get in with the right crowd.

We all know that saying from Jim Rohn that “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Now, there’s a lot of debate online when it comes to the truthfulness of that statement. But I do think that at the core of things, Rohn did get it right. It is important that you surround yourself with people who can help make you better. People who you admire, people you can learn from, people you believe in and who believe in you in return—or, as Aristotle puts it, Friends of Virtue.

As a writer, it pays to have friends who are writers or creatives too. Since you’re embarking on the same journey, it makes it easier to learn from each other and help each other become better at your chosen craft. But beyond having friends with the same interests and goals, I can’t stress enough the importance of surrounding yourself with positive people who will inspire you to keep reaching for your dreams. You need to be around people who will uplift you during moments of debilitating self-doubt, but will also be honest enough to provide real and helpful feedback when it comes to your work.

2. See failure for what it is: an opportunity for growth and learning.

“The test of whether or not a writer has defined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.” – Truman Capote

There’s a gorgeous article from Buzzfeed called 20 Brilliant Authors Whose Work Was Initially Rejected. It’s a great read if you’re an aspiring writer struggling with fears of rejection. Without giving everything away, the list includes J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, rejected 12 times, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, shelved 26 times, Stephen King’s Carrie, turned down 30 times, and Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, given the ‘no thanks’ a whopping 121 times! Ouch!

Now, I recognize that there are two ways to take this information. If you’re prone to negative self-talk and catastrophizing (like me), then you can slide into a snowball of panic and say, “Shoot. If these literary giants couldn’t cut it, I have no chance in hell!” Cue the self-pity party for one.

But there’s another way to interpret that data, and that’s to see the one quality that binds these authors together. (I mean, aside from the fact that they’re all bona fide geniuses of the craft, of course.) Some call this quality, persistence. Others may call it grit. But I prefer the word faith. You need to have faith in your work and your ability, not just to write well but to adjust to rejection and see it as an opportunity to do better, try harder, or try elsewhere.

Rejection is a big part of the writer’s life. I honestly can’t think of a single famous writer who hasn’t struggled at least once in his/her career. Whether it’s agonizing over writing something of value or having trouble finding a publisher, it’s always going to be a harrowing and painful uphill climb. But you don’t become a writer just because you want the spoils that success will bring. I mean that’s a pretty hefty bonus, but that’s probably not the reason why you’re torturing yourself day-in and day-out trying to squeeze out one good page or a single great line.

You write because you have a story to tell. You write because there’s a voice inside you that won’t shut up until you put pen to paper and try to capture even the slightest glimmer in the treasure trove of ideas locked up in your head. You write because writing may feel like torture but it’s the one thing that you’d rather be doing for the rest of your life.

So have faith. Don’t let something as natural and paltry as rejection derail you from your life’s purpose. See rejection for what it is. A roadblock. A chance to recalibrate, to review, to revise, or to stand your ground and say, “My work is an orange, and if you don’t like it, I know somebody else will.”

3. Write in Solitude.

“Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.” – Jessamyn West

In an interview published in The Paris Review, Maya Angelou described her writing process, which was essentially checking into a hotel by herself and working for about six hours every day. J.K. Rowling is said to have written Harry Potter in various cafes in Edinburgh, with her baby sleeping beside her. Haruki Murakami, Stephen King, and Henry Miller meticulously set aside a chunk of their day for writing. Ernest Hemingway wrote early in the morning to avoid any and all distractions. He also wrote standing up, because, well, he’s Ernest Hemingway. And then there’s Jack Kerouac, who liked writing from midnight until dawn… by candlelight. Again, because Kerouac.

For the most part, it seems like all writers have their rituals. Some had very specific rituals like Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack Kerouac. Others, like J.K. Rowling were content with carving out some semi-quiet space in a coffeeshop.

As I’m writing this, my husband sits across from me, pen in hand with a notebook open. He’s coming up with ideas for his next social media campaign. And apart from the occasional smile from over my laptop, we’ve pretty much left each other to our own devices. See, writing is mostly a solitary craft. You need time alone and aplenty to get in the zone of writing. You need ample stillness to listen to your thoughts and to have that inner dialogue with yourself that will help you build your work, word per word.

But what about collaborations, you might ask. Well, even when collaborating with other writers, there’s always a period wherein you need to stay quiet and focus on your side of the work. I remember watching a video of Neil Gaiman talking about writing Good Omens with Sir Terry Pratchett. He talked about how they divvied up parts of the book based on the characters and how most of their planning was done via phone. And look how well that book had turned out. It probably would’ve been very difficult for them to create Good Omens if they were peering over each other’s shoulders the entire time.

4. Resist the urge to compare yourself to other writers.  

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” – either Dorothy Parker or Sid Ziff

Let me start this section off by saying there is absolutely nothing wrong with reading other writers’ works, especially if the end goal is enjoyment or to learn from their writings. Humility is an important part of the writing process—especially if you’re just starting out. Plus, there’s always something inspiring about really good prose. I’m sure you know what I mean—that energized feeling you get when you encounter a particularly great idea. You know, when you read something that is so moving that it becomes a fulcrum for your own writing. When you feel that way about other writers’ works, then it’s a win-win situation. The writer earns a fan and you get motivated enough to do something great too.

I suppose the problem starts when you read something and end up with a completely different takeaway. If the piece is so good it’s just too good, feelings of inadequacy may bubble up, tipping you over into the state of insecurity and self-pity. This happens to me quite a lot. In fact, one of my unhealthiest habits as an aspiring writer is to look up every author of every single book I love. That alone isn’t too bad, except I zero in on the writer’s age upon the book’s publication and if the writer happens to be younger than me, I agonize over this detail for a while. Oftentimes I end up on Google with the following search terms: “Is 33 too old to become a writer,” “writers who started in their 30s,” and “Is it too late to start over in your 30s.” I used to do this every single time and honestly, that little routine has done me no good whatsoever. It doesn’t inspire me to write. In fact, it does the complete opposite. I end up plagued by crippling self-doubt. Totally unproductive.

Another unhealthy takeaway you might have is jealousy. It’s when you read a bestseller that you think is so mediocre or so bad that you start thinking you can do better. Again, let me come clean. I get that sometimes especially when perusing the contemporary poetry section of the bookstore. But as soon as feelings of jealousy and resentment come bubbling up, so does a little bit of shame. Just because the book is not to my liking doesn’t mean it isn’t good or that I can’t learn from it. Here’s one way to reframe the entire experience: books we don’t like become bestsellers because the writers must’ve done something right. Whether the writers are excellent at marketing their work or they speak the voice of the current generation, there’s a lesson to be learned from these writers. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to improve your writing, or at the very least, your attitude.

5. Set aside your editing cap and write your sh*tty first draft. (SFD)

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.” – Anne Lamott

Two months ago, I was having lunch with one of my closest friends who also happens to be a really good writer. I was bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t get started on my writing because I couldn’t get past editing and revising the first line. I asked her what her secret was. How was she able to churn out so many articles so quickly? She laughed and told me, “The first five drafts are terrible. The sixth draft is okay, but I do most of my editing on the seventh draft.”

That was really reassuring to hear. It also presented a bit of a challenge. See, ever since I started writing, I’ve always been the type to edit as I go. That’s why I’ve always been a bit of a slow writer. I believe the record was 13 hours to write a 400-word press release. I would go back and forth, changing this, erasing that, hitting delete on an entire document, all the while thinking “This is crap.” And I don’t have to tell you how quickly “this is crap” can turn into “I am crap.” By the time I reach the final line, I’d be so sick of my writing and hating myself so much that I would give the article a once over, send it out, and never read it again.

But this is one lesson that I’m determined to learn, and hopefully it’s one that will help you out as well. Don’t be afraid to write a sh*tty first draft (SFD) or a couple or even seven bad drafts. As Anne Lamott said, almost all first drafts are terrible. Just for today, embrace the terrible and just get that page done. Have faith in your idea and trust your own skill to create something that can be made better later on.

Keep the writer and the editor in you separate. If you write in the morning, set aside an hour to go over your work in the afternoon or the evening, à la Maya Angelou and Joan Didion. Sure, you might have to scrap a sentence or even a page, but hey, you’ll be writing! And that’s a terrific start to getting things done.

Unfocused Reading: The Book Review List

During my year off from writing, I did try to keep up with my reading. One chapter or 25 pages a day, whichever felt easier at that particular moment. If writing is my passion, reading is the fuel that keeps that flame alive. I remember reading somewhere about the strong correlation between reading and one’s writing ability. And while I do strongly believe in that connection, I also believe that reading is the gateway to one’s emotional and mental expansion.

Reading, and specifically reading multiple forms and genres of literature, allows you to move between cultures, exercise your imagination, and cultivates empathy. It forces you into seeing things from another person’s, the author’s or the protagonist’s, perspective.

Now, I wasn’t always successful when it came to reading every day. I am, unfortunately, a creature of comfort—and comfortable reading means uninterrupted reading. Also, I have a tendency to read multiple books at the same time. I suppose it’s the very same lack of focus that’s hounded me from childhood and continues to affect me today. At the moment, I’m currently reading Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, Maria Arana’s and The Washington Post’s The Writing Life, Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. As for my active rereads, that would be Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes and Chris Bailey’s The Productivity Project.

Suffice to say, my unfinished stack of books is prominently bigger than the ‘done’ pile. Besides, a book review requires a thorough rereading. The first time I read a book, I read for pleasure. The second time, for insight. Now, I’ve met many people, very intelligent and voracious readers, who never reread their books. But for me, rereading is an oddly and immensely comforting activity. It’s like spending time with an old and trusty friend who rarely ever disappoints.

Obviously, I’ve gone way off track here. Let me rein this post back in. The following, in no particular order, is my current Book Review and To-Reread List.

  1. Mercedes by Stephen King
  2. The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey
  3. Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley
  4. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
  5. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
  6. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  8. The Devil Earl by Deborah Simmons
  9. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  10. A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare

I did enjoy those books a lot, so here’s to hoping the rereads will help yield decent reviews.

Cheers!

A Return to Writing

A friend once told me, “Going back to writing is like riding a bike, you never forget how to do it. Just get back on that seat and practice.” Interestingly enough, that’s what people tell me about driving too. Writing, driving, and riding a bike—the three activities that bring me the most dread these days.

See, at some point last year, I made the crazy decision to take a year-long hiatus from writing. It was roughly around the same time I stopped driving, learned how to ride a bike, and just as quickly unlearned that skill. I took a break from writing to put all my focus on planning my wedding. As for driving, well, stopping wasn’t a conscious choice. It just so happens that everything I need is within walking distance. Plus, I work from home. Taking all things into consideration, this place is the lazy man’s paradise or the consumerist’s version of heaven. You take your pick. And riding a bike? That’s always been more my husband’s interest than mine.

Now, out of those three life skills, writing was the one I felt I wouldn’t have problems going back to. See, I love writing. It’s something that comes naturally to me, or at least it used to. Writing was more than my bread and butter, it was the way I made sense of the world and everything going on around me. It allowed me to reexamine life and put words behind thoughts and emotions that I couldn’t readily express verbally.

To quote Anaïs Nin, “We write to taste life twice; in the moment and in retrospect.” And isn’t every experience bigger—whether for the worse or for the better—in retrospect? To put it in productivity terms, writing was my area and moment of “flow.” I was never a brilliant writer, but what I lacked in technical skill, I made up for in enthusiasm and drive. It’s the incessant pull of es muss sein that can’t be quieted until everything that needs to be written has been expunged. Writing was my lifeline. And for a very long time, Writer was the fulcrum of my identity.

So, as you can imagine, it came as a nasty surprise that returning to writing—especially for pleasure—wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it would be. I can’t seem to get through one sentence without self-doubt creeping in. Rust has settled in, crusting over that old enthusiasm I used to rely on. The interest is there, the pull is there, but the execution is proving to be agonizing and sloppy. But giving up is not an option. To stop writing forever? That would be my personal hell.

And so, here we are. Tabula rasa. I’ll write. I will chip away at the crust and the rust, fake that old fervor until the upswing of that fever comes to consume me. I will go wherever my writing takes me. And maybe, in conquering this fear of writing, the lever will pivot and I’ll also drive and ride a bike once more.

Featured Poem: Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton

In a world so determined to dictate its standards onto one’s person, it’s always refreshing to find literary works—essays, poems, short stories, and novels—that encourage the celebration of one’s individuality. And if said works could be both empowering and entertaining, then all the better.

For over a decade, my ‘feel-good poem’ has been Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman. It’s a poem that I like to write down in all my journals. That way, if I was having a lousy day and needed a quick pick-me-up, all I had to do was reach into my bag and give the piece a swift read. Instant mood and confidence boost! But now that my current journal is down to its final pages, I’m thinking that for my next one, Maya Angelou’s famous poem will have to learn to share the spotlight. See, I think I’ve found the perfect accompanying piece to Phenomenal Woman, and that’s Homage to My Hips by Lucille Clifton.

Homage to My Hips

By Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips.

they need space to

move around in.

they don’t fit into little

petty places. these hips

are free hips.

they don’t like to be held back.

these hips have never been enslaved,

they go where they want to go

they do what they want to do.

these hips are mighty hips.

i have known them

to put a spell on a man and

spin him like a top.

Just like Phenomenal Woman, Homage to My Hips is a poem that’s built to be said out loud in a tone oozing with sass, good humor, confidence, and cocksure conviction. It’s a piece that positively thrums with joy. Just watch how Lucille Clifton delivers it, and tell me that you didn’t crack at least one smile throughout her reading.

Much like Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman, Homage to My Hips is a celebration of womanhood. It is a poem that urges women to take ownership of their bodies—to love themselves, just as they are. Big hips and all.

Now, at first glance, the poem itself appears to be very straightforward. So straightforward, in fact, that Clifton cannot be bothered with capitalizations and multitudes of metaphors, flowery language and line breaks that are pregnant with meaning. The poet knows what she wants to say and says it directly to her audience. She leaves no room for argument or even the possibility of discussion. She says everything as fact—and rightfully so. Who better to know the effects of one’s body than its wearer?

Clifton starts the poem with the simple but effective declaration: these hips are big hips. Now, even in 1980, when the poem was published in Clifton’s award-winning book of poems, Two-Headed Woman, big hips weren’t exactly de rigueur. In fact, the body ideal during this period had just begun shifting from the soft and slight curves of the 1970s dancing queens to the leggy and athletic Amazonian proportions of the 1980s supermodels.

During that period, there was hardly any room for women with big, bold hips in fashion magazines. But that didn’t really matter to Clifton. See, her hips need space to move around in. Her hips don’t fit into little petty places. She wasn’t about to let anyone tell her that her how her body was supposed to look like, because her hips are free hips. Those are hips that were never enslaved by something as petty as convention or the standards of fashion. She didn’t care about measuring herself by anyone else’s specifications—and why would she, when she had her own yardstick to measure herself against. She knew perfectly well that her big hips were mighty and magical hips, powerful hips that have put a spell on a man and spin him like a top.

Now, it’s interesting to note how Clifton had zeroed in and written an homage about a very specific body part. It begs the question, (for this reader, at least), of Why the hips? If Clifton’s point was to urge women to celebrate their bodies as a way of celebrating their entire selves—for, really, try as we may to separate the physical from the spiritual/mental, our bodies are the tangible representations of our inner selves—why stop with that one bit? Why not talk about breasts, waists, hands, and so on and so forth?

For example, in Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou enumerated and exalted in the reach of her arms, the span of her hips, the bend of her hair, and even the curl of her hips. In doing so, Angelou had painted a complete portrait of a woman. You could imagine this phenomenal woman and slip into her shoes easily. And to be fair, the same could be said about Lucille Clifton’s big hips. Any woman could identify with, wear, and sashay in those hips. And I guess that’s what makes Homage to My Hips so amazing—and maybe that’s also the answer to my previous question.

Why the hips? It’s because much of a woman’s identity in history is actually tied to her hips. Maybe I’m over-reading or overreaching here, but the way I see it is that the hips are home to what a lot of writers like to refer to as the woman’s core. Personally, I think vagina works just fine, but potatoes, po-tah-tos. The hips are the center of a woman’s sexuality. And for a long time, what those hips could produce—a child!—was also seen as the largest measure of her worth and her identity. Why else would our ancestors be so obsessed with child-bearing hips?

And I’d like to believe that the poem, more than celebrating a woman’s form, whatever that form or shape may take, is also a way of urging women to take charge of their sexuality and their identity. Buck the body trends, and more importantly, create your own definition of who you are as a woman. Don’t let society impose its standards on your person. Instead, create, and more importantly, live your own story.

That, and of course, big hips (no matter their actual size) are fabulous and beautiful hips.

Choosing Happiness: Are You a Maximizer or a Satisficer?

A couple of months ago, I hit a slump—and I mean, I really hit it. Creatively, physically, socially, emotionally, financially, and mentally. Pretty much any other word you can append a –ly to. Ecumenically. As far as winters of discontent go, this one was admittedly pretty middling, but harsh enough to warrant a bit of sunshine. So, out went one of my favorite summer self-improvement reads, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

Now, one of the things I love about The Happiness Project is that despite having the word Happiness right-smack in the middle of its title, it’s not an overly sentimental, leap-of-faith, and hokey-ish kind of read. In fact, Rubin spends quite a lot of time citing different studies from psychologists, anthropologists, neurologists, philosophers, and other health and happiness experts. She looks at happiness as something attainable, something you can work towards through a series of actionable items. And I like that. During moments when it feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, I need to know that I can still bring my own lamp—light my own way.

So, while I’m in the process of sifting through muck, I wanted to share my thoughts about some of the ideas I’m currently reading about. For today, we’re taking a look at how a person’s decision-making process affects his or her happiness.

Maximizers and Satisficers: A Definition of Terms

One of my favorite ideas from The Happiness Project is something that Rubin picked up from the American psychologist, Barry Schwartz. In Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, he discusses how being faced with so many options can cause us anxiety, stress, and even analysis paralysis. He talks about two distinct types of shoppers—the maximizer and the satisficer.

Now, in the world of economics, it is assumed that buyers are geared towards availing of the best services and products available. Maximizers fit this assumption perfectly. The maximizer is the type of shopper who wants to make the best and the most informed decisions at all times. Even when faced with a product or service that ticks all the boxes, the maximizer won’t be able to make up his or her mind until all options have been examined or exhausted.

For the maximizer, there is always this nagging feeling that something better might be out there. In a way, you can say that maximizers are the consummate perfectionists of the buying world. The maximizer will not settle for anything less than the best. Now, according to an article from Psychology Today, the upside to not settling is that “overall, maximizers achieve better outcomes than satisficers.”

In a 2012 study from Swarthmore College, it was discovered that recent graduates with maximizing tendencies ended up accepting jobs with starting salaries that were up to 20% higher than their satisficing counterparts. However, despite earning more than their peers, the perfectionist aspect of the maximizers still had these graduates second-guessing their decisions. They were still asking themselves, “What if there’s a better option out there?” They were more prone to comparing themselves to others as a way of gauging whether or not they’ve ended up with the best possible outcome.

See, the main downside to being a maximizer is that you’re less certain about the choices you make. This makes a maximizing shopper more prone to disappointment and buyer’s remorse, which in turn lessens his or her happiness levels.

And happiness is where satisficers earn a leg up over their maximizing peers. See, unlike the maximizer and his/her sky-high expectations, satisficers tend to live by a more modest criteria. Don’t get me wrong, the satisficing customer isn’t about to settle for anything less than what he/she originally wanted, but once a product or a service meets the shopper’s requirements, he/she will have no qualms making a decision. And unlike the maximizer, the satisficer stops looking for other options, thereby inoculating him/her against buyer’s remorse.

This is the point that Barry Schwartz makes in The Paradox of Choice. Satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers because they’re perfectly content with “good enough.” They don’t agonize as much over their decisions; and if you think about it, that’s really not a bad way to go through life.

So, are you a Satisficer, a Maximizer, or are you a mix of both?

Now, the beauty of learning about these tendencies is that it lets us take a step back to evaluate what’s important to us and what works for us. Both shopping personalities offer great advantages. Some people are perfectly happy being maximizers, while others swear by their satisficing tendencies. Others still, are a mix of both. They’re maximizers when it comes to certain areas in their lives and satisficers in other areas.

So, which type are you? If you’re unsure about which category you fall under, here’s a Maximizer vs Satisficer Quiz from Psychologist World. Me, I’m 65% a satisficer and 35% a maximizer. How about you?

Quotes and Lessons from Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions

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Celebrated astrophysicist, cosmologist, astronomer, astrobiologist, Pulitzer-winning writer, and world-renowned scientific genius Carl Sagan was a man that wore a multitude of hats. And boy, how he wore each hat so well! Beyond being a highly lauded scientist, he was a pop culture icon that brought the most complex of scientific ideas into the everyday consciousness of the everyman.

In Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Sagan condenses a plethora of scientific learnings and juxtaposes them with his views on humanity’s role in preserving the Earth and all its lifeforms. To quote the great scientist,

“We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves…”

He teaches this essential lesson through a series of essays (and transcribed speeches) dealing with various and seemingly disparate topics. Some of the topics tackled in his essays include the power of exponential notation and growth, man’s quick but ultimately limited progress in exploring the mysteries of the universe, the importance of morality, the great debate on abortion, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, how man is destroying the world through global warming, and the razor-sharp and double-edged sword that comes with technological growth.

Now, if that last sentence reads like a mouthful, that’s only because the book itself is overflowing with information that spans, not just the scientific plane, but the moral, the political, and the philosophical arenas of thought as well. Mind-blowing is one of the quickest terms that come to mind when I think of Billions and Billions, but it is a word that still feels greatly lacking. I’ve been awestruck by truly great text before, by works like A Room of One’s Own, An Unquiet Mind, and Existentialism is a Humanism. But this is the first time I’ve been both awestruck and struck dumb by one book.

Carl Sagan was truly a man that was larger than life, and much of his learnings (both personal and academic) have been poured out into the essays in Billions and Billions. I feel that any attempt from my end to come up with a standard review for this book will only come out clumsy and wanting. So, in lieu of an actual review, let me instead present to you a list of my favorite quotes and lessons from Billions and Billions. (Sagan’s quotes are in italics.)

Read and enjoy.

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Playing Favorites: Rediscovering A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

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Author: Madeleine L’Engle
First Published: 1963
Genre: Fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Literature
Awards: Newberry Medal, Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and the Sequoyah Book Award
**A Wrinkle in Time is the first book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet Series**

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” – Marcel Proust

For the bookish child, there is at least one book that will ignite his/her lifelong passion for literature. This favorite book will speak to the child at the most fundamental level. In moments of crisis, it will lend him/her the strength of its protagonists. Between its covers lies a safe space where the child will feel understood and less alone. In some cases, the book may even open up a world of possibilities beyond what the imagination readily offers. It will be a solace to the child, an escape from the rigors and prison-like confines of real life.

In my case, my favorite childhood book is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. It was a book that served all the aforementioned purposes and more. Its protagonist, Meg Murry, with her social awkwardness, her struggles with conformity, and inability to fit in, reflected the same issues I had growing up. See, like Meg, I was a socially awkward kid. I was eager to please and painfully shy, which as I learned in adulthood is a terrible combo as far as developing your self-worth is concerned. Books, for me, provided the companionship I craved and a much-needed haven where I could be myself—oddities, queer habits, quirks, and all that.  Hey, I even liked Math and was pretty good at it, pre-algebra too, at least.

I remember the first time I read A Wrinkle in Time. I was about 9. It must have been a borrowed copy too, because I was extra-careful not to bend the spine. In lieu of dog ears, I’d slip scraps of paper between its leaves. Now, did I borrow it from the library? Did I borrow it from a friend? The memory is a tricky thing. Some details in life stand out starkly, but I suppose the details that do, do so because of how they made you feel—at least for me. I’ve always been pants at memorization.

Anyhow, in case you haven’t read Wrinkle, I’ve included a lengthy summary of its plot below. Summaries and synopsis are weak spots of mine, so I hope I can do Wrinkle some justice.

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry’s adventure starts with that ominous, if overused, first line. At the start of the book, the reader is introduced to the Murrys via Meg’s viewpoint. We learn that Meg is the eldest of the Murry children. Her mother is a beautiful and brilliant scientist with doctorate degrees in Biology and Bacteriology, while her father is a top-level government physicist. Mr. Murry mysteriously disappeared over a year ago while he was working on a top-secret government assignment involving fifth-dimensional space travel (a.k.a tesseract).

On top of missing her father and worrying about her mother, Meg is also riddled with insecurities. She considers herself the oddball and the disappointment in the family. Despite her high IQ, she is struggling in school and is unable to make friends. She is shown to be a loving and loyal daughter, albeit prone to moments of violence and volatility particularly when it comes to protecting her loved ones. Her three younger brothers include the ‘perfectly normal’ twins, Sandy and Dennys (aged 10), and her baby brother, Charles Wallace (aged 5).

Like Meg, outside the family, Charles Wallace is also shown to be very misunderstood. He is often referred to as her ‘dumb baby brother,’ mainly because despite his large vocabulary, he refuses to speak when other people are around. The reader also learns early on that Charles Wallace has telepathic abilities, which he uses almost exclusively to read Meg’s and their mother’s minds.

The plot really starts moving a few pages in when the Murrys admit a late night visitor into their house. Meg somewhat correctly assumes that it is the tramp she’s been hearing about—the one that stole their neighbor’s sheets. But Charles recognizes the visitor and introduces her to his mother and sister as Mrs. Whatsit. He claims to have met Mrs. Whatsit, along with her two companions, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, while he was out walking the family dog.

Now, Mrs. Whatsit may appear to be a tramp, but she’s actually a telepathic celestial being that knows far more about the universe than any of earth’s greatest minds. Testament to Mrs. Murry’s stellar character, she offers Mrs. Whatsit shelter from the raging storm, but Mrs. Whatsit insists on going her way.

“Wild nights are my glory,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “I just got caught in a down draft and blown off course.”

As she makes her way out of the Murry’s house, she tells Mrs. Murry that “there is such a thing as a tesseract.” Although the words initially mean nothing to both the children and the reader, they catch Mrs. Murry off-guard, leaving her upset and deep in thought. She later tells Meg that the tesseract is a concept that she and Meg’s father had been studying before his disappearance.

                “But you’re good at basketball and things,” Meg protested. “You’re good in school. Everybody likes you.”

“For all the most unimportant means,” Calvin said. “There hasn’t been anybody, anybody in the world I could talk to. Sure, I can function on the same level as everybody else, I can hold myself down, but it isn’t me.”

The next afternoon, Charles Wallace invites Meg for a walk and leads her to Mrs. Whatsit’s house. There, they meet Calvin O’Keefe—a kid two years above Meg’s grade. Calvin is a golden boy—a member of the basketball team and extraordinarily smart, to boot. But what really sets Calvin apart from his peers is his almost psychic intuitiveness about things. Throughout the book, he takes on the role of Meg’s protector and, spoiler alert, love interest. He accompanies Meg and Charles when they meet Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which—completing the book’s three Mrs. W’s.

The Mrs. W’s explain to the children that they know where Mr. Murry is and that the children are the only ones who can save him. They tell the children that Mr. Murry is being held captive by the Dark Thing, this malicious shadow that is the root of all evil in the universe. IT is a malevolent force that is threatening to engulf the entire universe in IT’s darkness. Despite the Dark Thing’s power, they assure the children that IT can be defeated—and is in fact being defeated time and again by good. On Earth, these heroes include the likes of Jesus, Einstein, and Da Vinci to name a few.

Using fifth-dimensional travel, or tesseract (illustrated in the diagram below), the Mrs. W’s whisk the children off into a grand adventure through space.

tesseract

(an illustration of how traveling through tesseract works.)

Their fight against IT culminates on the planet of Camazotz—a place, much like earth, with inhabitants that are much like humans. The inhabitants of the entire planet have been brainwashed by IT, an oversized, disembodied brain that forces everyone into conformity through IT’s hypnotic and rhythmic pulsing. Like a puppet master, IT possesses anyone who succumbs to IT’s power, including Camazotz puppet leader, the Man With Red Eyes. Through The Man With Red Eyes, IT tells the children:

“For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet. I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision.”

To save Mr. Murry, the children must steel themselves against IT’s powers of mind control. During one of their standoffs, Meg utters my favorite lines from A Wrinkle in Time. She realizes that multiplication tables and nursery rhymes are too rote, so she launches into an impassioned narration of the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident!” she shouted, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“But that’s exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.”

“No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all.”

-Meg deflecting IT’s attempts to slither into her mind

(Note: I’m sure you can guess how the novel ends, but I’ll leave some of the hows to your imagination.)

On Themes and the Value of Persistence

Now, before we proceed to the more personal part of my review, here are some interesting facts about this award-winning novel.

A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by at least 26 publishers before being snatched up by the American publishing company, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG).

Madeleine L’Engle may have finished writing Wrinkle at lightning speed in 1960, but finding a publisher for the novel turned out to be a slow and agonizing uphill battle that lasted three long years. According to L’Engle, she received no less than 26 rejection slips before the manuscript was picked up by John C. Farrar of FSG. L’Engle had submitted Wrinkle to Farrar at the insistence of one of her mother’s guests at a family tea party.

Wrinkle may actually be a political piece that mirrored America’s anti-Totalitarian sentiments.

In Anna Quindlen’s essay, “An Appreciation,” which appears as the introduction to the current issue of A Wrinkle in Time, the Pulitzer-winning journalist reflects on how the dark dictatorship of Camazotz echoed 1960s America’s fear of communism.

This sentiment is confirmed by what may be the ‘lost pages’ of A Wrinkle in Time. According to an article from Oregon Live, L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis discovered three pages that were cut from the original manuscript. In one of the pages, Mr. Murry warns Meg about the dangers of totalitarianism, mentioning the names of Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Castro, and Krushchev.

It is a book about the war between Good and Evil, the dangers of Conformity, and the importance of challenging the status quo for the good of all.

Throughout Wrinkle, we find countless allusions to God and his greatness. Whether it be from the heavenly songs of the celestial beings of Uriel or the quotes of the Mrs. Ws, the book is peppered with passages from the Bible. Now, I can’t comment about the rest of the time quintet—as I am actually yet to find and read them—but I can say that Wrinkle does show the depth of Madeleine L’Engle’s faith. The fact that the main theme of the book has to do with the good/light defeating evil/darkness can already be seen as a nod to her Christian background.

But the beauty of the book, particularly for the non-religious, is how it includes vastly universal themes that we all can identify with. Take, for example, the issue of conformity. In a world that is mistrustful of what is different or unknown, acceptance and security are hinged on a person’s ability to abide by the dictates of society.

You are allowed to be ‘different,’ so long as you’re not too ‘different.’ And this is a lesson that’s ingrained in us from childhood. I believe the phrase is “beaten into submission.” A strange child is seen as no better than a miscreant or a future hoodlum.

Naturally, what a lot of these conformity coaches don’t see is that a different viewpoint is necessary for change. And to better the status quo, citizens must have the capacity for critical and independent thinking. To thwart individuality is akin to thwarting progress. And sameness or blind acquiescence may offer the advantage of easy rule and surface-level order, but ultimately, these two ‘pros’ will only benefit the lucky few. And I’ve gone didactic on you. Apologies for that, dear reader.

On to the Rest of the Review

Reading A Wrinkle in Time at the cusp of prepubescence taught me countless life lessons. The book reaffirmed what I knew about the importance of family, love, and faith. But perhaps the best lesson of all was the importance of being yourself—regardless of who, what, or how you are. At 9 years of age, I learned that even socially awkward children (or adults) had the capacity to become the heroes of their own lives. Sure, we won’t all get the chance to save the world or experience interstellar travel, but we can make a difference in the lives of those around us by choosing to do what is good and brave instead of settling for what is easy and convenient.

Now, it’s been about two decades since I last revisited A Wrinkle in Time. I decided to reread this old favorite so I could give it a proper, and dare I say it, unbiased review. The way I saw it, twenty years was more than enough time to shake off sentimentality in favor of impartiality. I wanted to see if Wrinkle could still impart the same sense of magic it had offered me some 22 years ago—and obviously, I wasn’t disappointed.

Wrinkle is a book for people of all ages. It may be my favorite childhood book, but it also takes its place on my shelf of all-time literary greats.

 

Rating: 5/5