Inspiration: Why I Needed an Eighth Grader to Remind Me About the Importance of Fearlessness by Nikki Van Noy


It’s never a fun thing to admit, but the truth is that I’ve been in a creative funk recently. Inspiration is one of those things that—in my experience, at least—comes when it comes. Like any other relationship, the more desperate you are for Inspiration to show its face, the less likely it is to want to hang out.  

For me, the feeling of wanting inspiration so badly only to be met with radio silence is kind of depressing and exhausting. Or maybe it’s the brain spiral that comes along with it that’s depressing and exhausting. In either case, I was feeling both of those things yesterday. I simply could not get myself going, mentally or physically, so I finally decided to take a personal day and just let myself shut all of the way down in hopes that I could re-energize.

So it was that I found myself flipping through my library’s e-catalog (greatest invention ever, by the way—talk about instant gratification!). I started scrolling through the list of titles recommended for me and came across a book called Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen. (Let’s not put too much analysis into why I am viewed as the target demographic for YA books, shall we?) The reviews for this book were fantastic, and I decided to give it a whirl. If nothing else, it seemed like a good way to let my brain relax.

The crux of the book is this: Maya, a self-coined “social outcast” of an eighth-grader, stumbles across a book published in the 1950s called Betty Cornell’s Teen-age Popularity Guide. With nothing to lose, Maya decides that she’s going to follow this now-sixty-year-old guide to popularity for an entire school year, incorporating one chapter from the book into her life per month.

What I didn’t realize when I first started reading Popular is that the book is non-fiction. Maya actually did this and documented her social experiment throughout the course of her eighth grade year. Penguin picked up the manuscript Maya wrote based on journaling about the experience in real-time. Maya was published at age fifteen; Dreamworks picked up the movie rights for her story before the book even hit the shelves. I mean, come on!

Maya talks about how she’s shy and kind of a loner but, lemme tell you, this girl has balls of steel. Granted, I’ve got—ahem—a couple of decades on her, but I’m damn sure that even way back in the day when I was in junior high, I would have looked like a complete freak and opened myself up to a lot of mocking and ridicule for doing the things this book prescribed: things like donning a girdle, always wearing a pearl necklace, and busting out a hat and white gloves for church. As the months go by, though, Betty’s advice stops being so externally based and begins requiring Maya to do really scary things—things like inviting herself to sit down at lunch tables with kids who are different and/or more popular than her and striking up conversations with strangers. You know, the kind of things that freak me out today, let alone what they would have done to my nervous system as an awkward thirteen year old. But god bless, Maya, she did them all.

Ultimately it ended up being a much bigger, more transformative, and more magical experience than Maya could have ever dreamed. By the end of the school year, she figured out that we’re all the same inside and that, really, we all just want to be treated with kindness. She figured out that a little self-confidence goes a long way. And she even got in touch with good ol’ Betty herself to let her know how her advice had positively impacted a teenager’s life sixty years after its publication.

Flash-forward to what Maya certainly never expected: a six-figure book deal; a movie rights option; and the coinciding reissue of the book that inspired it all: Betty Cornell’s Teen-age Popularity Guide.

Recently, I was talking to an author who I’m working with about the importance of hanging on to that fearlessness we have in our youth. That innocence of not knowing what we “can’t” do, and how incredibly powerful that mindset is. Because, after all, when there’s nothing you think you can’t do, then you actually can do anything.  This morning it dawned on me that it’s this precise thought pattern that’s been driving my inspiration away lately. Over-thinking the things I “can” and “can’t” do or “can” and “can’t” write about. Looking back, every time I’ve found success in my life and achieved those lofty heights of great creative satisfaction, it’s been in a scenario where a chorus of people have told me that something’s impossible—but I haven’t listened because I’ve known that it is in fact possible based on nothing more than the knowledge that I was going to do whatever it took to make it so. How can inspiration truly seep in when it’s being given parameters like this? Spoiler alert: It can’t. But take down those parameters and the world is yours. 

Thank you, Maya, for reminding me of this. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that inspiration has come flooding back in today. I just needed a little reminder from someone much wiser than myself.