Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 30, 2023

What if I’m actually bad at this?

By ALIZA LI | April 4, 2023



Li considers the daunting task of dealing with the uncertainty of one’s artistic talent.

At some point in every Writing Seminars class I’ve taken at Hopkins, the same thought has crossed my mind: What if I’m actually bad at this?

Faced with the enormous talent of my fellow classmates, some of whom are not even Writing Seminars majors, I can’t help but feel the weight of my inadequacy. No semester is complete without at least one occasion where I find myself wondering if I should rethink my plans to pursue writing. 

These occasions of doubt often follow a workshop reading of a particularly good piece from another student because, like most people, I find it difficult not to fall into the trap of comparison, especially when it’s so readily available to me. Workshops aren’t just places for writers to receive critiques; they almost function like public showings. I put my best work out before a workshop and hope that I don’t completely embarrass myself.

Like any art, writing exists within a frustratingly ambiguous space of evaluation, one where I’m afforded a very tangible product for comparison but lack any metric concrete enough to conclusively determine my skill level. I’m left constantly second guessing myself as I wonder if I’m good or bad or simply misjudging my own work.

It’s why I’ve already reached out to two different professors in the department, setting up meeting times to discuss my portfolio and, more importantly, drop the embarrassingly self-conscious question: Hey, is my writing any good? Even with how kind these professors have been, I know at the back of my mind that every compliment must be taken with a grain of salt; the social etiquette preventing people from being point-blank honest can be both comforting and unhelpful.

I’m particularly self-conscious about my work because it’s so often publicized; as one of The News-Letter’s editors and writers, I sometimes feel like I’m under a microscope. Just as much as people have reached out to me to offer encouragement about my work, I wonder about all the times people have read my pieces and hated them.

Not to mention, I’ve chosen — perhaps unwisely — to center my column around writing, which sets my writing up for even more scrutiny. It’s a lot harder to write about my creative journey knowing that my articles themselves could cast doubt on the very success of this journey.

Last year, in the midst of a particularly potent period of self-searching and uncertainty, I watched Denis Villeneuve’s movie adaptation of Dune and began reading the first novel in the book series by Frank Herbert. Inspired by the vivid worldbuilding and complex political intrigue of Herbert’s universe, I wrote a short science fiction story.

For the first time in a while, I found myself putting pen to paper in an uncharacteristically self-assured way. I didn’t think about whether people would read the piece, which magazines might possibly accept it or how my professor would react. Instead, I thought about the vast universe, intergalactic travel, politics across planets and alien species — all good concerns for a rich science fiction epic.

I came out of that writing process with two considerations in my mind.

One, pursuing writing as a career requires a critical view of my craft and a focus on improvement. Two, writing should come out of a love for the craft rather than a desire for particular results.

These two considerations often seem at odds with each other. A large part of my journey as a writer has been finding the middle ground.

Completing the science fiction story last year, I realized how much my habits of comparison actually hamper my growth. Obsessed with perfection, I not only stifle my own creativity, but I discourage myself from writing at a more frequent rate. Writing — and art, in general — takes consistent practice.

A well-known parable about pottery making discusses the merits of molding 100 mediocre ceramic pots or one amazing pot. At the end of the day, molding 100 pots — even if they start off really bad — produces overall better work through consistent practice and experience. Practice is a lot more about quantity than it is about quality, a fact which has freed me a great deal and allowed me to write more.

I ask myself frequently: What if I’m actually bad at this? And, honestly, I very well may be absolutely terrible, or even just mediocre, at writing. However, the more concerned I am with my present state of mediocrity, the more I keep myself from ever reaching a place where I can feel good and confident in my work.

Aliza Li is a junior from Houston, Texas studying Writing Seminars. She is the Voices Editor for The News-Letter. Her column discusses her journey as a writer and how words have transformed her life.

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