Ever get that musket-ball feeling in the pit of your stomach, the one that says your work is truly crap?
You know the score: When the characters who have so far flown off the pages now look dreary and flat. When that plot filled with unique twists and turns suddenly just seems silly. When your prose—which you were oh-so proud of just yesterday—now clangs in your ears.
And it’s just you, isn’t it. You’re the one cosmic-fluke writer on the planet who has no confidence. Who just can’t believe in yourself and stick to this long and winding road.
But as it turns out, you’re actually not alone.
This confidence factor is something I work with my authors about literally all the time. It’s something I have felt as well.
Because when it comes down to it, writing is sometimes about standing atop the mountain peak, and sometimes descending into the dungeon.
My diagnosis of this beastly phenomenon is that the gene that creates the passion to write, has doubt on the flip side.
Nobody comes out of this unscathed. Seriously—nobody.
I just love Joe Fassler’s new article in The Atlantic, “My 150 Writing Mentors and Me.”
Oh, not that these great authors suffered, but rather, he presents proof that none of us is alone on the doubting road.
Doesn’t the very thought of that make you feel an eyelash better?
Over a 5 year span, Fassler interviewed 150 successful authors. One of the main things he gleaned was:
“The artistic process never seems to get easier, not even for the most successful, famous authors. They, too, wasted months of time chasing down material that ended up being no good. They, too, were sometimes wracked by self-doubt. They, too, also sometimes felt a sudden, sweeping urge, as bold as lust, to give the whole thing up. A few glowing reviews in the Times won’t change any of that.
As Mark Haddon, author of the best-selling novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time, said, “The job of writing is pretty uphill most of the time.”
You know the feeling, right?
Sometimes your work flies off the page, and you’re so happy with it. Only to read it the next day or week or month and, well, what the heck were you thinking?
How did that brilliant picture in your mind translate so muddily to the page?
Once again, even the most famous amongst us knows the feeling. We’re all going to write crap some of the time, if not often.
That’s why revision is the name of this game. And even then, it doesn’t mean you’ll get it perfect. Or even near-perfect. Or even what you want it to be
I loved in this article what Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Mountains Echoed, whose books have sold in the tens of millions, said about his process:
“You write because you have an idea in your mind that feels so genuine, so important, so true. And yet, by the time this idea passes through the different filters of your mind, and into your hand, and onto the page or computer screen—it becomes distorted, and it’s been diminished. The writing you end up with is an approximation, if you’re lucky, of whatever it was you really wanted to say.”
Ah, yes, those doubts plague us all.
But here’s the secret: The goal isn’t to banish those doubts, but to learn to create around them. To keep at it, no matter how off track you seem to have gotten; no matter how bad what you’re currently writing seems to be. To figure out a way to trust the process, trust that what you’re doing has merit, and that one day you’ll reach your goal.
As a book editor, I have a simple exercise I use with my writers when those doubts arise:
Look at the Doubting Demon and say to it: “Yep, I bet you’re right. I bet this stinks. But right now, I have a sentence/paragraph/scene/chapter to write. Once I’m finished, I’ll get back to you and we can discuss this.”
I promise—that shuts the nasty gnashing troll up every time.
And speaking of Trolls, I found one of my own from childhood, a wild orange-haired thing, which now sits next to my computer. And every time my own doubts arise, I pick that sucker up and say those very words to it. Then of course, I break out laughing and the spell is broken.
In the end, those doubting voices will never be banished for good. But you don’t need them gone forever, do you? You just need them away for the time you’re writing today—whether what you produce is golden or dung.
And if those sentiments don’t get you there, then listen to those of Flannery O’Connor, who of course couldn’t mince words if she had to speak them to the Pope:
“There’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once …”
Are you ready to join the ranks of these writers? It’s up to you. Roll up those sleeves and go to it!