Len Kuntz

Essay – The Thing About Feeling Less Than

For most, if not all of my life, I’ve felt less than.  That I don’t measure up, or if I do, I’m an imposter.  Like, even if I have it all, I have nothing.  If things are going really well, I assume it’ll be fleeting.  Success, if it comes, seems like a clever hoax.

When I was a kid I was always taller than everyone.  Gangly, too, of course, but tall.  When you tower over your classmates, even if you’re coat rack-thin, people assume you play basketball.  They assume you’re good at it.  Following that thought process, I entered a summer league when I was fourteen even though my abilities at the sport were pretty shoddy.  I was tall.  I was supposed to play basketball.  I was supposed to be good.  True to form, in our very first game, I managed to score close to forty points.  For the life of me, I don’t know how I did it.  What I do remember is our coach asking me afterward, “Kuntz, was that a fluke, or are you really that good?”  I knew it was a fluke, but having him call me out like that felt like a hot iron on my face.  A scarlet letter.  An F for faker.  And since then, the brand on my face has morphed into an earworm that’s managed to burrow and set up shop in my psyche. 

As a writer, you live with rejection.  It’s similar to baseball, the sport that’s called “a game of failure.”  Even if you are batting a league best .333, you’re still striking out 2/3rds more than you’re hitting.  You’re losing 667 percent more than you’re winning.   And for me, it’s always the failures I dwell on.

When I started writing full-time around ten years ago, I entered a story contest for the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference mainly because by paying for the conference, contest entries fees were sliced in half.  Like most things I write, I whipped out the story (at 3,500 words, it was a long one for me) in a little over an hour.  I sent it out and forgot about it.  Months later when they called to tell me I was a finalist (one of six) and confirm that I was still planning on attending the conference, I honestly couldn’t remember the story or even what I’d titled it.  But I went and sat with the other finalists at a banquet table in a lavish ballroom.  It was an exhilarating experience.  For once, I felt special and more thanmore than I knew I really was.

It was a shock then, when they announced my story had won first place.  I thought I was being punked.  Someone had to nudge me to go up on stage.  One of the other finalists had finished second for four years running and looked like she wanted to stab me with an ice pick.  There were over 1,000 entries from all over the country as well as some from abroad, but somehow my story had won.  I received a check for $700 (a fortune in today’s writing world).  I got lauded and enjoyed an exclusive dinner with agents and editors.

That feeling of having won, of garnering success, was a brand new euphoria.  It validated my dream.  It solidified my confidence.  It said what I had always been too skittish to say to others—that I was a real writer.

And then, two days later, all of the elation vanished.  It wasn’t just gone, but somehow it had perversely transformed into a taunt.  That earworm in my mind started saying, Sure, you won, but there’s no way you should have.  What about that woman who took second place four years in a row?  She’s a real writer, not you.  Your winning was a fluke and you know it.

I never stopped hearing that voice, but I did go back to writing full-time.

When people ask you what you do (for a living), if you have the stones to say you’re a writer, two questions always follow. The first is: What do you write about?  The second is: Do you have a novel out?  I’ve tried my hand at writing novels, but my sweet spot is shorter fare—poetry, flash, etc.  When I reply that I write these, many people look at me as if I’m missing an eye or all my teeth, as if I’m a conman.  What they’re thinking is: A real writer writes novels that end up on bookstore shelves or on Amazon.  And so, without saying a word, these people help confirm what the earworm has assured me, that I am less than.

When you write full-time, six days a week, eight hours a day, you produce a lot of material.  And when you write fast, like I do, it’s even more.  Somewhere along the line, I developed a workmanlike approach.  I’d write and submit, write and submit.  Consequentially, I started getting published quite a bit.  It was thrilling, to say the least.

I’m a person who needs goals to keep myself accountable and the one outlandish objective I came up with was to get 1,000 pieces published.  To further keep myself accountable, I shared that goal with family and friends.  Sure enough, about three years ago, I had my 1,000th story/poem published.  It felt exhilarating.  It felt like I’d accomplished something important, though why that was I didn’t quite know.  I received praise, pats on the back and what not.  I was going to celebrate the achievement but then, a few days afterward, that effing voice came back.  The earworm saying, What’s it matter?  Who cares?  Where’s your novel?  You’re not a real writer.  And as stupid as it sounds, I believed the voice.  I kept writing, but I stopped submitting because What’s it matter?  1,000 pieces published?  It’s a fluke?  Those magazines were just desperate to fill up their issues.  Where’s your novel?

It’s two years removed now and I still hear that voice from time to time.  I know it stems from that basketball coach’s comment and from having a mother who never loved me (or my siblings) the way a mother should.  But I’m getting better at turning the volume down.  I don’t submit as often. But day by day, I write and feel so incredibly fortunate to be doing it.  I write what I want, and the way I think I was meant to write.  And each time I finish something, I grab a tweezer and pull that earworm out, inch by inch.  

Feeling less than.  It’s a psychological form of self-sabotage, and it’s a crafty enemy.  Even if it doesn’t create a self-fulfilling prophecy in reality, it does so in your mind.  The only way to fight it is to love what you do, and for that to be enough.