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Accepting approval and acknowledging feedback

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This summer, I was verbally sucker punched by my friend Miranda: She told me that she had read my Grind articles. To be quite honest, I don’t know what surprised me more — the fact that she somehow stumbled onto my work when I made no effort to advertise it or that she took the time to read them in the midst of her exciting — at least, judging by her Snapchat — time abroad in South Africa. Fast forward to a few days ago when I got a surprise text from an old RA: I had recently written an article about my summers at Stanford, and fortuitously, it flew cross-country and made it to her social media feed in Chicago. Flattered as I was, it was yet another reminder that what I write here is indeed not just some isolated pseudo-diary detailing my stream of consciousness, but in fact a public record of my thoughts, simple and otherwise. Who knew?   

Both interactions were sobering in that for once, I felt the consequences of my creations. My current perception of my article pitches goes like this: I throw a random idea to the Managing Editor (ME) of the Grind, who (ideally) verifies it. I pussyfoot around actually writing the article until it burns a hole in my brain. I crank it out and ship it away to my Writer Folder in the Google Drive, only for me to forget it until my ME inevitably roasts me for my grammar and haphazard writing style. (To be fair, you can’t really blame her. Thanks for all your work, Jackie.)  

Sure, I see the article in print upon passing a stray newspaper stack, and I read my name on the website whenever procrastination leads me to check the day’s headlines, but the fact that my work is out there has never cemented itself in my mind — that is, until somebody mentions it to me in person. Despite their pleasant and approving nature, these verbal and written reminders rattle me a little, and what I find most worrying is the fact that I’m not sure why. This article addressing just that has been a long time coming, maybe because up until now, my self-reflection hadn’t been adequate enough. 

My introspection drove me to this question, one that undermines my previous works if an answer is nowhere to be found: Why bother writing, especially in such a public manner? 

Frankly, I’m not sure why I do. As a dedicated Stanford Daily reader (I actually kept a stack of nearly every edition from the 2017-2018 school year, which I later recycled — or Marie-Kondo’ed as the kids call it nowadays — for fear of being called a hoarder.

I write not because I want to read up about myself and disseminate whatever basic life lesson I manage to conjure up that week. If that were the case, you would see me proselytizing in the middle of White Plaza in an attempt to convert people to the Church of Justin. Call it cathartic, but my work is not nearly profound nor eloquent enough to act as a suitable therapy tool. Though, hell, I suppose anything is better than CAPS these days.

Alternatively, as a ChemE major, am I grasping, and oh-so-desperately at that, at some semblance of humanity in both senses of the word? Well, now I’m just thinking too hard. 

This simmered for a few days. I saw the downsides in this hobby of mine first. Writing is admittedly time-consuming. I am currently sandwiched between catching up on Biochem readings and CS 106B assignments, and yet I purposely lose sleep trying to parse through everything and somehow stitch my disjointed thoughts into something comprehensible. If I’m not so tired to the point of dozing off at the slightest pause during lecture, I hold myself to a decently high standard and write a longer, more structured piece; if I am, I’m far more prone to writing the mindless listicle or two, but I try to avoid this in favor of something more substantive. Perhaps that’s the reason for my writing: to let the most recent events re-process and extract some meaning out of them. Cool. Makes enough sense that I can sleep easier, but my apprehension has yet to be diagnosed. 

It wasn’t until later when it finally dawned on me — I had found the compliments far more disconcerting than the sudden spotlight. In my personal retelling of those moments, I forgot about the disclaimers that I usually tacked on in response. Qualifiers like “sorry you had to read that” flowed inevitably from my lips when anyone mentioned my published work. I wrote and wrote, but whenever I noticed any of my words seeing the light of day, I instinctively shriveled and winced. Maybe I failed to self-promote because on some unconscious level I wasn’t proud of what I had written. 

And then I started to wonder if I’ve always been like this. 

During high school, my parents and friends never knew of any of my jaunts. Band concerts, club tournaments and ceremonies went by before anyone not directly involved discovered that I, in fact, did something with my time instead of hunting game in the forests of good ol’ southern Maryland or whatever it is that the prototypical Mayland high-schooler does in his day-to-day. I’ve always been paranoid. It makes for being a decent enough student as I review even the most obscure topics, but it falls flat in regards to anything social. I didn’t want anyone rooting for me in any of my endeavors, lest something horribly awry occur. That way, I covered all my bases. If everything is peachy, I just said that I forgot about it; if things go south, well, it’s just that much easier for me to sweep it under the rug. 

Acknowledging this unfortunate tendency of mine changed the way I internalize a lot of my past. We like to remember everything as being our subjective experience in the moment but it’s difficult, impossible even, to see past events in their raw entirety. In this case, when I brush away the rose-colored tint, all I can see are the disclaimers, the sacrificed opportunities to revel in my triumphs and failures with my loved ones 

If I’m being honest, I don’t know if I feel calmer after putting my unease into words, but what I do know is what I can do to remedy it. I recalled all the conversations I’ve had about others’ discovery of my Grind articles and fully embraced all of their comments, both compliments on my insight and criticism of my boringness. Scanning through these comments in my mind led me to unearth an email I received last June. It was from a random reader who had called me “wise beyond [my] years.” For the first time after opening it, I finally cherished the multiple hoops – finding and reading my article, looking for my email and crafting a decently long message – this person had to get through to pass their kind words to me. In that moment, I went back in time and changed my recollection of that article itself, and for once I felt relief that my memory of it was not etched in stone. A quick revision of my internal perception of my work didn’t hurt me at all. 

However scary it is to revisit past actions, I discovered that finally recognizing and taking seriously other people’s appreciation of what I had accomplished made me appreciate my own work more. As simple as this process is, for someone who had no intention of my articles being discussed in any place other than the weekly Grind meetings, it was a major step. It’s not an easy fix, but it’s a fix nevertheless. 

At the very least, from here on out I’ll try my best not to recoil at feedback and to take comments as they come as earnestly as I can. 

Contact Justin Cortez at jcortez1 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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