The Day I Met Leigh Bardugo

A couple weeks ago I had one of the best moments of my life: I got to meet Leigh Bardugo! She is on tour for her new book Ninth House, and I was able to make it to her Chicago stop. Now, this feels strange to say, but I’ve never been to a book signing before. Although I’ve been a reader my entire life and I’ve always wanted to be a writer, I still let myself shy away from meeting the people I look up to in person. But I wasn’t going to miss out this time.

I was actually really nervous beforehand. I went to the event by myself, and even though I’m used to doing things alone, I still get nervous about how everything will go. I didn’t know what it would be like inside (it was moved from the bookstore to a local theater), I didn’t know if I’d meet anyone to talk to, and I didn’t know what the process would be like. I always overthink things like that… but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from going.

I arrived at the theater pretty early, and there were already quite a few people there but no line had started yet. Eventually giant boxes full of books arrived, and they shuffled us all outside to line up while they prepared. It was windy and cold, but none of us cared because we were all too excited.

I was 6th in line and a few of us in the front got some Ninth House pins. Because I was alone, I was able to listen to everyone’s conversations around me. There was so much talk about young adult books, Etsy shops, bookstagram, and other signings people had been to. A LOT of talk about Harry Potter, which is sort of amazing to see a series retain its relevancy for so long and stretch across generations. 

Eventually they herded us into the theater and I got a seat in the middle of the second row. I couldn’t believe how close I was. They had a velvet maroon chair set up for her with a microphone. It was all about to happen!

Before I bought my ticket to the event, I read in Leigh’s newsletter that we would get our copy of Ninth House signed and we could also bring any personal item as a second thing to get signed. I really wanted her to sign my writing journal. I thought it would be so motivating for me to see the signature of someone I look up to every time I open it. But when I looked around the event, I saw other people had brought a copy of Six of Crows or something from the Shadow and Bone series. I got really worried that it was going to be rude of me to have her sign such a personal item instead of her other books (what do I know I’ve never been to a book signing before), so I asked the staff there if it was okay, they checked with Leigh’s people, and they said it would be totally fine. Another small thing I worried about for no reason.

Time passed quickly and pretty soon, Leigh Bardugo was out on stage right in front of us. Listen… I’m not even understating it when I say it was amazing. She was so funny and kind and honest and talked to us in a way that felt like she was really listening. She talked about the process of writing Ninth House and how the idea had initially come to her back in college, but it was never meant to be the first book she wrote. She had to work on her other ideas and learn more about her process before getting to this one.

After a few minutes of that, we were able to ask questions. My hand shot up like it was going to fly off my body (bit of a Hermione moment) and I asked her the question I’ve been struggling with for so long: How do you overcome self-doubt when you’re writing? Here’s what she said:

“I think we’ve been taught by culture that when we have those feelings of self-doubt, when we feel like we’re failing at the work we’re doing, that that’s somehow a sign that we’re on the wrong path. ‘Surely if I was doing this right, if I was doing what I was meant to be doing, this would be amazing. I would feel good about it.’

When we’re very young and we write, we do feel amazing. That part of our brain hasn’t engaged yet, and it’s a pleasure and a joy to write. Then there’s this other thing that takes over and says, ‘Everything you’re doing is wrong. Everything you’re doing is crap.’ And it’s very hard to shut down that voice.

But what I would say to you is, the bulk of writing a book is not days where you feel like a genius, and days where you feel like, ‘oh my gosh this is all good. This is all right. This story is exactly where I’m supposed to be.’ It is actually a series of days that feel like failure. And those days are NOT signs that you are on the wrong path. They are actually just signs that you’re trying to do something you’ve never done before. Something bigger and better and more challenging and more exciting than you’ve ever done before.

So the next time you feel that self-doubt kick in, I want you to engage with it and be like, ‘Oh thank you! Thank you for this horrible way you’re making me feel! Because this is a sign that I’m doing this right. Leigh told me I was doing this right. The worse I feel, the better I’m doing, so I’m just gonna keep going!’

You shut that voice down, and you keep going.”

Leigh Bardugo

See? I told you she was honest and real and funny and brilliant (I could go on and on). I kept an audio recording of her answer so I could always remind myself of this advice when I’m struggling because it’s so incredibly helpful to hear someone I respect and admire say that they have the same kinds of days I do. And the only way to climb over that hurdle of self-doubt is to acknowledge it’s there, shut it down, and keep going. Keep going, keep going, keep going. 

She answered other questions about partnering with both Netflix and Amazon, writing characters (she suggested building the character from what they want – side note: I’ve been working on characters in my current project, and I’m understanding this better. What the character wants and desires becomes the foundation for all of their actions), and more general writing advice.

Something else that really resonated with me is when she said there’s no expiration date on talent. There is no rush to get something out faster than the person next to you. It’s okay to take your time. It’s okay to focus on other aspects of your life, especially when you have responsibilities like bills, rent, loans, your family, school, etc. A lot of times, I can feel that hectic urgency inside of me. I want to hurry myself up and get the book done because look at all these other people my age (or YOUNGER) who are already published and established! But it’s never too late. There is no expiration date on writing, and I shouldn’t be so hard on myself about it.

Back at the event, it was time for the book signing to start. I was #162, so I had quite a while to wait. But I suddenly realized I hadn’t thought of anything to actually SAY to her when I got up there. My mind spun around and then just turned off. I couldn’t think of anything. I was still too nervous on top of my normally awkward self.

At last it was my turn. She asked me how to pronounce my name, and when she got to my writing journal, she flipped it open and asked me what it was and where I’d like her to sign. I said, “Anywhere!” probably louder than I intended to. I shrugged and stood there smiling like a dork as she wrote her name. She slid the two items back to me across the table and said, “Good luck with your writing!” I smiled and I think I said thank you? My brain hadn’t turned back on yet, so I’m not sure if I said anything at all. But I don’t care because it was still amazing. I did something I was nervous about, I met someone I truly look up to, and I got some writing advice that I will always carry with me.

Last week I tweeted about meeting her and thanked her for signing my copy of Ninth House and my writing journal. She liked the tweet, which somehow feels like the icing on top of an already exciting start to my own writing journey.

The Difficulty of Sharing

As a writer, the biggest problem I have is sharing my work. I’ve wasted a lot of time not letting anyone see it. In the past, I would never tell anybody what I was working on, let alone post it online or try and get it published. Instead, I would write a rough draft as quickly as possible, then stuff it away in a drawer without ever looking at it again. I got so used to hiding my writing from the world and even from myself… but why?

That’s where my problem with sharing connects to my problem with vulnerability. I’m currently reading Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. It’s showing me how much I hide in an effort to avoid being vulnerable and letting people really see me. I keep my writing tucked away, I never talk about it, and I never try to publish it because I’m too scared. I’m scared of not being good enough. I’m scared of failing. I’m scared of putting all of my honesty into my writing and letting strangers analyze, critique, and possibly tear me apart.

One of my favorite quotes in Daring Greatly is when Brené talks about how nervous she was to give her TED Talk. As she walked up to the stage to speak, she quietly said to herself, “Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen.”

That is the kind of courage I’m working on: to be seen. I never let anyone see anything – not my inner thoughts, my writing process, or even the pieces I’ve finished and am proud of. That’s the number one thing that has stopped me from improving as a writer.

Sharing your art and writing is one of the most difficult things because it’s so personal. Letting someone else see your work feels like you’re splitting yourself open and leaving yourself completely vulnerable to be attacked. But what progress can be made without vulnerability? How can you gain any rewards without taking any risks?

“To put our art, our writing, our photography, our ideas out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation – that’s also vulnerability.”

If you know me in person, then you know how much I love the podcast My Favorite Murder. I’ve been going through the catalogue and listening to earlier episodes when I was struck by a conversation in episode 78 “The Freshest Recording” where they talked about perfectionism. While listening, I had this sinking realization that this is another thing stopping me. Often times, the perfectionist in us drives our fear and stops us from not only improving, but connecting with others as well. I’ve been working on pushing myself to share more of my work, but I have stopped myself so many times because the poem or story isn’t “perfect” yet. I don’t want anyone else to see it until it’s completely “perfect.” But what does perfect even mean? How would I ever achieve that? Why am I setting such impossibly high standards for myself when I still have so much I want to learn and explore and try?

In that My Favorite Murder episode, Georgia says, “You don’t have to be perfect, just fucking do things.” And Karen adds on, “Just fucking do what you wanna do. You’ll improve later.” Perfection and fear of failing often stop us from ever finishing things, but actually finishing things is the most important part. The more we finish things and the more we share them, the more we can improve and learn about ourselves. Listening to that conversation felt like a groundbreaking moment for me, and I never expected it to come from a podcast about murder, but everything they said felt completely true and honest.

So I’m grateful I started this blog. Right now it feels like I’m the only person reading this, but it’s still a huge step for me. Sharing my work, improving, and not worrying about being perfect are all things that will make me a better writer.

I’ve also been sharing my poetry on my Instagram. I started doing this a few months ago, but in a moment of self-doubt, I deleted all of my posts and recently started over. This time I’m not going to delete anything. I’m going to share my writing (no matter what stage of development it’s in) and keep on trying to learn. Not everything I post will be my best work or “perfect,” but I need let go and put myself out there.

Perfection doesn’t matter; All that matters is that I’m doing it. Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen.