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I often wonder why I'm not THERE yet and I'm afraid: I know now why.
On facing bullies, inner critics and your own ambition | Spring Awakening – A Series of Small Attempts to Change No. 6
In the last week’s I wrote about a lot of big changes: I learned how to recognise a toxic friend and know when it’s time to end a friendship, I accepted to do nothing, I embraced chaotic energy and found my edge aka started to set healthier boundaries. This one is about facing a bully and pre-success-mode.
10 years ago I was living in Hildesheim, a small city in the north of Germany. I was doing a master’s degree I didn’t particularly care for in the realm of theatre and performance. Something close to what I wanted to do but not quite it. I didn’t care about theory and abstract talk, I wanted to make theatre, I wanted to write. I wanted to be an artist not a scholar.
So I tried to squeeze out any opportunity to visit the creative writing workshops that were offered by the literary department and sometimes allowed students that were not in the course to take part. Eventually I applied for the playwriting and dramaturgy course Szenisches Schreiben at the University of Arts in Berlin and luckily got in.
For years I had dreamed of studying THERE and I remember promising to myself that when I got THERE, to absolutely not take it for granted, to make the most of it, to cherish it, now that I was finally HERE.
– Of course I didn’t.
I’d love to say that I kept that promise but the story of climbing up a mountain and spotting a higher peak is unfortunately very true. It’s this thing that ambitious people have, a force sometimes hard to handle. So naturally after a few weeks of getting used to HERE it changed to not THERE again.
But this essay is not about that. At least not for the most part. Because this is not so much about appreciating the HERE or going towards THERE. This is not about success and being grateful. And the slow burn. This is about figuring out why the fuck it is taking so long.
And I’m afraid, after taking a long hard look at myself: I know now why.
The other day I received a mean comment. I had run an AD on Instagram to gain more followers, to promote my book. I hadn’t done that in over two years basically since the last launch of my first book Things I Have Noticed. I don’t exactly remember why I stopped running ADs, as they proved to be successful, but for some reason I just couldn’t be bothered to continue.
(Well, actually I do remember, it had to do with the biggest financial mistake I have ever made in my entire publishing career but that is a whole other can of worms. I might write about that at another point.)
Anyway, I rarely get mean comments, I never been properly trolled, unlike other people online especially those ones who are queer & feminist & a minority and advocating for these topics frequently. At most I get a confused DM by a reader about when they can expect their book order or how to attend the writing classes I’m offering.
Which to a large degree has to do with the fact that compared to bigger accounts, most people who do follow me, actually like my content, not hate-watching it, there here for the reason to be inspired, to learn, to be entertained and if that’s not the case any more they don’t feel the need to tell me (rightly so) they just unfollow. As is their right and I’m happy for it. I have no clout that demands attention, nothing that I do needs to be critisised and I don’t mean that I don’t want or take or need critique, this is just a way to say: I’m not relevant enough to make people feel so angry that they have to have a vocal opinion about me or what I say.
I’m underground, subversive at best, indie, small. And I’m also non-threatening, I’m not taking up a lot of space, I’m not demanding the mic. I’m self-made, there’s no big platform or some other endorsement. I have dabbled with established forms of success hence the creative writing degree, some literary prizes, I had a podcast on audible in Germany, worked for the queer-feminist German YouTube show Auf Klo – but none of it ever really launched into anything bigger.
I have a substantial readership on Instagram and here which I love and am so grateful for. BUT I’m still also sort of unknown and have been in this sort of pre-success state for a while now which is quite frankly starting to feel icky. I know this because everybody else that sort of started with me, or even after me has had their book(s) published by major publishers, TV shows, podcasts, something BIG happened and is happening for them – plus they all gained a huge following.
Having 10K followers on Instagram was on my list for 8 years now! And I am still not there! It’s almost ridiculous at this point, and also I do feel stupid to hang myself up on a number, but jfc: what is the deal?
Am I too niche? – I don’t think so. Perhaps that’s another problem. Not actually knowing what my brand is. Because maybe I am reluctant to the idea. A friend of mine once said: Yeah but you’re never going to have a huge audience, you’re not mainstream enough. That’s not what you want. Which I’m still not sure how to take that. Is that even a good friend advice? Let’s tackle that another time.
Anyway it bothers me. And what bothers me the most is that apart from luck and timing, I think a huge part of why I haven’t made it BIG yet is: me.
And I think in many ways, it is a common problem many creatives face in their careers. This harrowing question: why have I not made it BIG yet? Especially when it’s not because you’re just starting out. When you’ve been doing this for a while, over a decade to be precise, and you see everyone else just growing and growing while it feels like you are slowly moving forward but barely catching up.
Probably at this point I need to say that: i’m not fishing for compliments here or need comfort. This is not a pity party, to the contrary. I know I am doing fine. I know better slowly forward then quickly backwards. And in many ways I am thriving. In fact I haven’t been this successful ever. I know that. And I love everyone who has made this possible so far. It’s just so slooooow. Slow in a way that feels unnatural to me. And I think I know now who is pulling the brakes.
There’s a scene in the Simpsons that I think about sometimes, when Lisa after jumping a class ahead, realises that she isn’t the smartest kid in class any longer, stripped of her identity, a teacher asks her: Would you rather like to be a small fish in the big sea? Or a big fish in a small pond?
Which she sheepishly replies to: Big fish in a small pond!
And I think for the longest time, that has been my mantra, too. I feel safe in my little body of water, with my little friends, the greatest readership of all, people who see me and understand what I’m doing. Who write these lovely messages after finishing my book. We’re a little cult here. It’s cute. It’s soft. Nobody ever gets hurt.
But I also feel like: I wanna be where the people are! I’m tired of my small pond. I’m tired of not being a part of the great wide ocean. Yet I’m also really afraid of being seen in it. Of not being liked. Of not being understood. Of being critisised for things I didn’t even mean. Hence my subconscious saboteur who decides to not continue things that would pave the way into the sea, like stopping the ADs campaign two years ago for no apparent reason and thus new people being exposed to my work.
Every time I see a writer or a creative person being ostracised for something they wrote or said or thought at some point in time, I lean back into my comforting pool where only the ones who like me are allowed to swim in. At least I don’t have to deal with that, with the cruelty of the wider world where taking up space is also always a bit of an act of war.
I relished being unnoticed by sharks, too small to be food for anyone really.
My fear of a potential shit storm, a flood of people noticing my work and disliking it does make me want to vomit. Particularly because I’m an artist who is so vulnerable and open about their life and the way I write. I know that up until now, this was good for me. That this was a part of my protection. But this form of protection eventually is just another form of entrapment, of things I don’t allow myself to be.
When I got that shitty comment I was at a bar, attending a farewell party for a friend. I sat on the toilet, skimming it briefly, taking a screenshot and deleting it immediately; turning off all comments on the post, in panic of more potential negative ones coming in. The next morning I felt terrible, ruminating why someone would do such a thing and decided to message that person. Looking at her public profile, it felt strange, as far as I could see she wasn’t someone who was a professional troll, not even someone that wasn’t into art or writing. It actually looked like someone that could have been a friend of mine. Some artsy architectural photo’s. Nothing personal, a quite standard minimal insta aesthetic.
I messaged her not to fight back or attack her, but basically trying to understand and make this harrowing experience somewhat meaningful or productive. After all she had wanted me to know her feedback, so I had some questions about it.
“I don’t understand why you care what one person on the internet thinks about you?” she wrote, seemingly amused and surprised that I texted her. Which is funny right? Because: “I don’t care what you think.” I wrote. “But you commented publicly and wanted me and everyone else to know. That’s okay. It’s just that you’re bully and I want to know why?”
There’s something about facing a bully. About letting them know, that you see them and address what they’re doing. Not letting them off the hook. Not for revenge but to say: here’s the line. And don’t fucking cross it again.
It made me realise something. In that moment of telling her and not shying away from confrontation.
I’m ready to swim in the big sea. It is well over-time but behind my milky teeth I have grown another jaw. Some extra teeth.
Please click the heart button to “like” or the “share” and “comment” button. The big sharks at substack might take notice. So I can finally swim with the big fishies!
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A two-day writing workshop to explore the immense depths of writing about your own life.
16.04.23 & 30.04.23 10AM-12PM (online)
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23.04.23 / 14.05.23 / 28.05.23 10AM- 1PM (online)
A two day writing workshop exploring how to write about romantic feelings/relationships in a compelling way.
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In this hands-on creative writing workshop, I will give a short introduction on the basics of writing a short story. We will look at some succesful examples and explore why they work.
The main part of the workshop will be prompts to spark your imagination to leave you with a draft that you can later hopefully turn into a short story.
16.05.23 / 06.06.23 7PM-8.30PM (online)
A two-day writing workshop to explore the immense depths of writing about your own life.
04.06.23 & 18.06.23 10AM-12PM (online)
If "Things I Have Noticed" was about growing up and finding yourself "Things I Have Loved" is about the things that were gained/missed/lost along the way.
Told through objects Hembeck has loved, she is weaving a narrative that examines the themes of love, longing and self-worth.