My goodness there are a lot of myths about writers out there. Thanks to the rise in self-publishing, and to smart people talking about it (like Hugh Howey, David Gaughran, The Passive Guy, etc.) many of those myths are being / have been debunked.
Myths like “True authors don’t really care about making money,” and a follow on from that first one, “You can’t make a living writing anyway,” as well as “The world needs ‘curators’ (publishers / agents) to make sure only ‘good’ literature is published,” and, closely related, “We have to make sure there aren’t too many books in the world.”
There are so many more of these myths which, fortunately, people are starting to see are completely ridiculous, but there’s one that persists. “Authors are plagued by anxiety and self-doubt,” or one of many, many variations of this. Here’s another version of that; “There’s nothing more intimidating than a blank page to a writer.”
Either these are as untrue, and in need of debunking, as all the above-mentioned myths, or there’s something really, really wrong with me, because I could not disagree more.
First, the blank page thing – “nothing more exciting” – maybe that’s what this writer meant to say in her piece. Because that’s just about right. To me, a blank page / screen is opportunity, escape, and a brand-new piece of work waiting to be born. I can understand the blank page being intimidating to somebody who doesn’t enjoy writing, and is forced to write a report, or professional document they don’t want to, but if you’re a writer by choice, and a blank page isn’t exciting, then … why? Should you still be choosing to be a writer? Should you change something about the way you write?
Next the sweeping assertion that ALL writers are swamped with anxiety and self-doubt …
I realize me saying that doesn’t fit into the image of the tortured, pained writer, but that’s not me.
And why should it be? Why is there an expectation that writers should find blank pages scary, writing hard, and we should never be sure we’re any good? That seems twisted to me.
Let’s change “writers” for “engineers.” Can you imagine anybody expecting an engineer to say “there’s nothing more intimidating than a brand new project?” What if engineers went around saying “I am constantly plagued by anxiety and self-doubt.”
Society wouldn’t like that, much. We’d be pretty nervous about the bridges we drive over, the buildings we live and work in, and the structures that surround us. I wouldn’t want to be protected by a breakwater engineered by somebody wracked with professional self-doubt.
The same is true of a whole range of professionals including doctors and, even, astronauts. Canada (and much of the world) fell in love with Chris Hadfield in his role as commander of the International Space Station. Not only is Chris Hadfield accomplished, he’s extremely self-assured. Nobody thinks less of him for that. He’s not cocky, but he is confident.
Why are writers not supposed to be confident as well? Why can’t we say, “I’m good at what I do. People buy my books.” Even writing this post I feel like there are people who will consider me arrogant just because I dare to say, “I enjoy my writing, I do my best to make it good, and – often – I succeed.”
I’m not saying I’m perfect, and I’m not saying I never have any doubts about anything. That would be crazy. The truth is, I take longer to publish books than many other indie authors. I take lots of outside advice. I strip my books down and re-write them (let me be clear; this is the process that works for me – not everybody will, or needs to, work this way). When I get back my first editorial letter, containing a dozen pages of questions and comments, I have moments where I wonder, “How am I going to do this?”
But I know I will, because I have before. I don’t become seized with anxiety, and convinced nothing I’m writing is any good – I just remind myself, “I’m a writer, this is what I do,” and, just like the engineer faced with budget, or time, or materials challenges, I get to work and sort things out.
I often see this idea of self-doubt accompanied by the sentiment “I’ll never express exactly what I want to.” Well, writing that way would never work for me. My characters are alive to me and, as I write, I’m often discovering things about them and the story. I think having a shining ideal of exactly the way your perfect story should end up is a sure way to be reduced to a quivering ball of uncertainty.
Instead, follow your characters, put all your skills and talents into telling their story, be prepared for setbacks, be willing to work through them and then, when you’re done, remember, you finished a book (many people never will), you did your best (congratulations) and, hopefully, some readers will enjoy it (good work).
No need to live in an endless cycle of anxiety and self-doubt. There may be professions that could benefit from a bit more of that (I’m sure we all have our favourites to insert here) but I’m telling all the writers I know that, in my opinion, they should feel free to leave those behind.
My recommendation to writers? Be plagued by joy and wracked with contentment.