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.

Thank you, Bali. by Nikki Van Noy

As a freelancer, the idea of travel can be a bit loaded. For most of us, if we're not actively working, we're not getting new gigs or getting paid. It's awesome being your own boss, but one of the downsides is that it’s (generally) not like there’s someone there to pick up your slack when you don't clock in for the day. Even though vacation, downtime, and exploration are unquestionably healthy things to do, it’s nonetheless a bit more of a stretch for us self-employed types.

Last week, I bit the bullet and went to Bali. It’s one of those places that’s been on my bucket list for pretty much as long as I can remember. When I had the opportunity to go there on a “workcation” with a group called Hello Adventure, I couldn’t resist. It was my perfect scenario: creative workshops, yoga up for offer, plenty of time to be creative, and, well, Bali. With just two weeks’ notice, I went on overdrive to finish up some deadlines, corralled my mom on board, and we were off for the adventure of a lifetime.

I’m so grateful that we went. Bali is a largely Hindu island, so every morning my mom and I joined the locals in offering prayer baskets (canang sari). Throughout the day, we would see these baskets scattered around everywhere—on the streets, in cars, in businesses, on the beach. No matter what your religion is or is not, these gorgeous flower offerings were just great little pause point reminders to stop for a second and be grateful.

I woke up right before the sun broke every day to the sounds of chanting echoing throughout the land as owls and morning birds sang back and forth to each other, as if to hand over shifts as night gave way to day. We dashed in and out of the waves of the warm ocean water as incense wafted over to us from the temples on the beachside; monkeys climbed all over us at the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud; we wandered through traditional Balinese village houses (gorgeous!); we watched the sun set over the Tanah Lot water temple; we bartered at the markets; every day was full of yoga on this gorgeous teak platform, lined with prayer flags and surrounded by thick foliage—it was the best when it rained.

Every night, I returned to this incredible, authentic village house imported from Java that was nothing short of enchanted. It was made of beautiful hand-carved wood teak and dated back to the 1900s. That house was alive. Especially at night, it was as though all of the energy that had built up in it over the years seeped out to say hello. Perhaps I should have been scared, but it felt friendly … just very, very present.

My particular village house, Rumah Toer (rumah is Indonesian for "home") was named after Pramoedya Anata Toer, an Indonesian author. It was aptly named because everything about my temporary little teak-wooded corner of the world made me want to put pen to paper. I went through a struggle that I think many writers do between sitting down and writing and going out and living life to acquire things to write about. I did a little bit of both but, in the end, I gave in to Bali and all it had to offer. I’m glad I did because I now have inspiration for days.

As tough as it can be to get away as a freelancer, it’s something we should all do. It’s healthy, it’s inspiring, it’s a re-set. I’m now back with fresh eyes, ready to take on the world, and with the muse on my shoulder.