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I crushed self-doubt by crushing fear of failure

Every good story has a beginning, middle, and an end. Any story which doesn’t have all three is unfinished, unsatisfactory, an inappropriate cliffhanger – or all three at once. As a self-proclaimed poet, you would think that I’d be more familiar with these three steps, and yet, wracked by self-doubt, I still struggle with crafting the perfect ending.

I struggle with finding my place in the world. As much as I’d like to shout out my poetry at the top of my lungs, I feel as if my self-confidence is measurable in teaspoons. I tremble onstage, and I’m nervous all the time, whether it’s backstage or just at the idea of talking to people.

Ever since, I’ve been self-conscious about everything I created. I worried about relationships; I turned conversations around in my head for hours, and I rehearsed everything before saying it. It wasn’t until I tried poetry did I realize that self-doubt wasn’t so normal. In that community, I found people so proud of their poems, they wore their words on their sleeves. I, then, began to consciously confront my own self-doubt, without quite knowing how to deal with it.

The beginning of my journey of self-confidence starts with a pair of words: I want. This chapter began after the first spoken-word poetry slam I joined, as a 12-year old. I was disappointed by every poem I wrote. I couldn’t bear to perform a poem more than once; self-doubt would grip my throat each time. I hated watching videos of myself, and considered abandoning poetry all together. After all, what’s a spoken-word poet who refuses to speak? It didn’t help that poetry seemed to have stigma surrounding it. To some, it’s an ‘aesthetic trend’ born from ‘self-centered Instagram girls’. I became the subject of careless teasing and my obsession with poetry was the butt of many jokes.

I’ve recently tried my hand at many forms of poetry, from haiku to sonnets, but ultimately fell back in love with spoken word, poetry that demands to be witnessed in person, and to be performed out loud. The best gift you can give a spoken-word poet is a standing ovation. You’re giving them your approval of their ideas and prose. It’s proof that someone finds their poetry worth listening to.

Soon enough, the next chapter of my creative adventure would start with the words ‘I can’ while browsing YouTube. By then, I had soaked up hours of spoken-word from various artists. Watching only fanned the flames of my increasingly violent discomfort with my own writing and performances. But the first time I saw a poet mess up a performance was in a live show by Rudy Francisco – and it changed me. He seemed so comfortable onstage, and had the ability to move every crowd, despite stumbling over phrases and forgetting parts of his poems. I realized that if a world-class poet could get away with making mistakes and still make an impact on his audience, so could I.

My second turning point came in the form of a check for RM1000, and the very first slam I had ever won. That one event acted as a catapult, winning me acres of progress when previously, I had stunted my own growth. I began to perform my poetry with new found enthusiasm and confidence. I woke up one day, no longer having the urge to burn every piece of poetry I wrote. That was the moment I realized I could do whatever I wanted with my poetry, and no one could stop me, except for myself.

The last piece of the puzzle is the words ‘I will.’ They came in my willingness to continually take part in slams despite my anxieties, to the fact that I can’t seem to stop writing poetry. To me, this is the step that seems so natural to me and readily consistent.

I’ve found that the fear of failure and judgement played a key role in my self-confidence. The most obvious solution to me, has been to “just do it.” But for the longest time, I was content to stay in my comfort zone, never trying to be braver than I was. The fact that I was doubtful at all, is proof that I wanted to achieve something, and was fearful of what would happen if I didn’t. If ‘I want’ is strong enough, it is natural that the second and third step will follow.

It took two years for me to go from a stuttering and nervous wreck, to being able to enjoy spoken-word poetry without unbearable self-doubt. Despite that, I don’t think I’ve reached the end of my story yet, and I wonder if I ever will. I’m still only fourteen. I’ve got six more years of being a teenager left, and decades and decades to go. I hope to make a home for myself on the stage of an open mic, or a slam, or a recital.

I know I’m improving steadily, and excessive pressure to mend the holes of my self-esteem would only lead to disaster. Part of me wants to sprint as fast as I can to the finish line, curious about how far I can go before I collapse from exhaustion. But I don’t think putting unnecessary pressure on myself will do anything but inspire even more fear of judgement. A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and I’m not sure which part of my story I’m at, but I do know one thing: a good poem cannot be rushed. Neither can I.

Nuan Ning is a science geek by day and a self-proclaimed spoken word poet by night. She writes about all things related to being fourteen, and a lover of all things sugary, like marshmallows and cotton candy. Her fashion sense can be measured out in teaspoons; she’s still learning what it means to be a baby poet, and how to dress like one. 

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