Where’d I Put My Big Girl Pants?


When Peri invited me to contribute here, I was temporarily blinded by a vision of picnic tables. Picnic tables painted flat dark brown and plunked down in the middle of a cement courtyard, circa 1978 — junior high school in the suburbs. One of those tables was for the cool kids; the rest of us had to make do.

It’s not like the A-list kids wouldn’t speak to me. Sometimes they’d let me hang out with them in non-lunch venues or they’d invite me to one of their parties on a Friday night — but mostly I ghosted around the periphery of social acceptance, wanting desperately to belong but feeling somehow fatally unequipped to pull it off. I didn’t know any other kids who would take a notebook and sit alone in the downtown Denny’s, or get on any available public transit bus and ride it as far as possible for no real reason, obsessively making notes about everything that seemed wrong or right with the world and all the apparent troubles of being a person dropped into it. I felt out of step from the start.

There’s a similar feeling, showing up to write in this space — a reflexive fear of not being cool enough, not fitting in. A persistent sense that even though I’ve been word-obsessed since I was a child and any kind of living I have ever made has come through writing and helping others to write, I am still not a “real” writer. Maybe it’s the absence of prizes, an impressive sounding list of publications, or some great following, but I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, even among those of us who write every day and who are often paid to do it.

These shadowy beliefs that set us back can pop up at any time. Yesterday, I opened a book and flipped past the title page to be stopped short at the long list of other books written by the author. In this case, the list comprised 11 books of poetry, 15 novels, and four nonfiction books. Before I could intervene, the take-down voice in my head said, “That’s a writer. Not you.”

But, listen, you bad voices, now we’re going to take account to knock you back. Some of the things I’ve done with words: I had a full-time, 15-year long gig as an in-house legal writer and editor, where I wrote a few books of my own and shepherded into existence dozens of books by other writers. Over two decades, I’ve accepted an odd but constant assortment of freelance jobs, from editing academic dissertations to grant writing for nonprofits. There has also been a smattering of published poems, a creative nonfiction essay in a major newspaper, and for the past six years, a surprisingly successful blog. (“Successful,” at least, when measured by loyal readers, supportive community, and creative satisfaction. Monetization is something worth talking about another time.) And of course there are those hundred-or-so journals filled with notes about everything from stories overheard at Denny’s to some variation on the same desperate break-up story repeated at regular intervals over 20 years, until I finally figured out how to live my way into a happier ending.

Besides taking a moment to introduce myself, the point of all this is to say that it can take many years to cultivate an alert-but-gentle awareness of the voices that put us down and try to keep us away from both creative fulfillment and financial compensation for writing — and that, in truth, it really doesn’t matter how long it takes. If we want to be working writers, the only thing that really matters is that we keep showing up.

This post is its own example: If you’re invited to write, and if there’s the slightest glimmer within you that says “Yes, that’s a job I want,” do not let your psychic picnic tables pull you back in time. Just say thank you — then get to work.


About Shae Irving

Shae Irving’s first story was about a bird. Her second-grade teacher, Mrs. Purkey, made slick, blue copies on the ditto machine and handed it out for the class to read. Now, Shae writes a lot about fruit. In between, there’s been plenty of time to get a law degree, write and edit legal how-to books, work on poems and essays, keep a hundred journals, and get addicted to Instagram. Shae also helps nonprofits tell their stories and find their voice for social media. You can find her at shaeirving.com.


  1. Emily Esterson on February 22, 2013 at 7:05 am

    Thank you for this, Shae. I am one of those people who still doesn’t feel confident saying the words, “I am a writer,” even though I have written three books, and like you, have made my living for 30 years with words. I still hear the voice that says I’m not good enough, that someone will find out I’m an impostor. At the doorstep to 50, I’m on a mission to believe–really believe–two things about myself: 1) That I am a writer; and 2) That I am beautiful. And maybe someday (on the doorstep of 60?) I’ll believe that I am a beautiful writer.

    • Shae on February 23, 2013 at 7:10 am

      Emily, there must be something that happens to us at the doorstep of 50. I’m just about there, too, and I find that I’m just not willing to entertain those voices anymore. I mean, they still show up, but I won’t invite them to have a seat at the table. So let’s see where we are at 60! (And thanks for having your own “wordsmith” website. It gave me a little kick in my big girl pants to get on with making my own.)

  2. Bob Quinn on February 22, 2013 at 9:36 am

    Yes, the inner critic, we’ve all got one…”The Artist’s Way’ was really helpful especially when done with a group…My mission as an artist is too always say yes when in creative mode…the inner critic, at least for me…will never die, but I’ve learned to feel and understand his presence…so I just leave him at the doorstep, and don’t let him in.

    • Shae on February 23, 2013 at 7:22 am

      I still think about Julia Cameron’s “artist’s dates” and sometimes even let myself take one. There are so many good tools in her book. Here’s to more “yessing.”

  3. ARLINKA BLAIR on February 22, 2013 at 10:10 am


  4. Shae on February 23, 2013 at 7:25 am

    Arlinka, I love your ENTHUSIASM! Thank you. That photo isn’t mine; if you follow the link underneath it, you’ll see the Flickr photostream of the photographer who generously allows its use, along with more of her work.

  5. Gina Farr on February 27, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    Knickers on the line! It’s an exciting place to be :-) xox

  6. dario on August 10, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    Well, if I don’t continue then why did I start in the first place? (-:
    Time to get writing, thanks for your blog!

  7. dario on August 10, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    Oh yeah, and I do the same thing on the bus as well (:
    I dont know why I like it :b

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