I spent the holidays with Sarah here, and as such I didn’t do much beyond be dad and do chores around the house. I think the most exciting thing was putting a new 20 amp breaker in the panel and wiring up power to the cottage near the new horse pasture. Well, that wasn’t all that exciting, but testing the new electric-tape fence was at least somewhat amusing I guess. As I couldn’t find the fence tester I got last year for Christmas, I figured I’d just do what I did last time and use my hand.
The jolt from a solar-powered box with a 2500 milliamp battery is basically equivalent to the zip you get from a 9v battery on your tongue times two. The jolt from an AC fence energizer that can power ten miles of fence and runs dedicated off a 20 amp breaker over 12 gauge wire is…stronger. Like, “red scorch mark on your hand” and “knee buckles out from under you” stronger. Let us just say that I didn’t have to test it a second time.
Anyway, the thing I didn’t do over the holidays was write. Anything. At all.
A couple of weeks ago I got a comment that, for a lot of reasons, hit a pretty deep nerve. Explaining why means opening up and sharing something very personal.
As I’ve discussed before, growing up my mom wrote novels. A lot of novels. And won awards. And spoke at conventions. And signed books for hours and hours at signings. And talked to a lot of aspiring writers.
All of those aspiring writers had one thing in common, they honestly and truly believed they could write at a professional level. MANY of them would have my mom read something they had written and ask for advice. My mom was so good at saying positive things and encouraging them to follow their dreams. But there’s a dark side to that happy memory. Of the hundreds of people who asked her for advice, the exact number of people who had any conceivable chance of being published by a paying market was exactly zero. Not a one. Over twenty-five years my mom encountered exactly no-one with even a reasonable grasp of English and the ability to string words into sentences and sentences into something that anyone would willing pay money to read. Nada. Zip. Nil. Goose-Egg. Doughnut. ZERO.
But every single one of them believed they could. They looked at what they’d written and were completely oblivious to the flaws. Something in them said “this is good enough” and went out looking for confirmation.
In the years since, I’ve dabbled in the professional writing industry. I know editors and agents, and I have some pretty good insight into how it all works and I’ve done enough light editing and structure advice for others that I know how to critique, how to revise, how to take what is there and fashion it into something professional. Something people would pay for. I imagine that there are life choices I could have made that would have led me into the production side of the industry as an editor or agent (or at least that side of the industry, those jobs are tough as tough can be and I don’t have the hubris to believe I could have just moseyed in and magically gotten one of the premier jobs in the industry).
I know enough about the slushpile (the place where unsolicited manuscripts go to languish) to know that for every manuscript with the potential to be published that crosses the threshold, at least a thousand piles of dreck masquerading as written words crossed over before it. Piles of dreck that someone honestly thought was the best “synopsis and three” they could put out. Piles of dreck that someone believed in enough to put their name on and send out into the world.
I do not understand this.
Every moment of every day I have an insidious imp of self-doubt sitting on my shoulder and whispering into my ear all the reasons I’m not good enough. My greatest challenge isn’t believing that I’m “the best” or that I’m “good enough” or anything like that…my challenge is just ignoring the imp. I don’t have to believe I’m the best, I just have to believe I’m not as crappy as I’m afraid I am.
“Who would write this?” he says to me. “Who would be stupid enough to publish this where people could read it?”
I stopped answering long ago, but my silence is simply encouragement to him.
“You know you suck. You know it and you prove it every time you try.”
And because I’m afraid of him, I decide that the best way to avoid my fears is to do something else. He can’t taunt me if I don’t try.
Sometimes I do try, and that’s when he gets personal. You see, because he’s just a metaphorical manifestation of my own insecurities, he knows exactly where to hit me.
“You know what she said. She read everything you’ve ever written and then said that you should ‘keep practicing and just follow your dream’…exactly what she said to every other loser that couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag.”
And that does me in. Because it’s true. And it kills me.
Every time I read through my archives I hit some point where the writing just doesn’t shine and the taunts from the imp drown out the glow from the words that I’m proud of having written. Deep down I suspect that this will keep me from ever writing in a significant professional capacity.
Now, please don’t think this is some kind of reverse plea for internet affirmation because that’s the most insidious part of it, I don’t believe them. At least, not for long. Not in a significant or lasting way.
The last time I wrote about this, several people chided me for taking my writing so seriously, “it’s just a blog” and “write for yourself” are true and accurate statements; but they’re also just fodder for the imp. “It’s just a blog” can easily be appended with “because you suck” and nothing anyone can do can change that. Not even me.
When I first started blogging there was one thing that anonymity gave me, and that was insulation from the imp. You can’t take your writing personally when no one knows who wrote it. Which is dangerous. Anonymity may free us from self-doubt, but it also eliminates self-restraint and self-censorship, which are tools civilized people created to prevent the collapse of society.
Two weeks ago someone said exactly what I’m afraid of, that half the stuff I write sucks. I’m afraid of it, because deep down I know half of it does. Nominally, this doesn’t matter because no one (and I do mean NO ONE) actually hits it out of the park every time they swing the bat; and I’m smart enough to know that. But it’s fodder for the imp and that just beats me to the ground.
As I’ve tried to work through this over the last few days I’ve been confronted by a quote someone posted on Facebook:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” -Marianne Williamson
I think this is true. I think I’m not afraid of writing crap, I’m afraid of being a good writer who ALSO wrote crap. Really, I’m afraid of not being able to tell the difference. The imp would have no power over me if I didn’t care. And if I didn’t suspect that something, somewhere, deep down really was worth putting out there then I wouldn’t care at all. I’d do tax-automation integrations and drink a beer at night and worry about fantasy football and my XBox Gamerscore and writing would never cross my mind.
I know what I need to do, I need to write more. The more I produce, the more quality stuff comes out. The more quality I can see, the less power the imp has over me. If I can’t do that, then I need to accept that I’m not a writer and turn the imp loose and climb off this existential roller-coaster. Of course, I know I can’t do that. Without an outlet I become intellectually constipated, which makes me irritable and unpleasant to be around.
So I’m going to ramp back up the writing habit for a while, to see if I can get back to a place where writing happens more frequently if not necessarily more consistently. To that end, I’m considering some other changes around here. I’m going to reset the word count down in the bottom right corner and try to crank out about 20k words a month. As a short blog post from me cracks in at 1500 words that works out to about three posts a week. I’m going to try for a Monday-Wednesday-Friday pattern but we’ll see what we can do.
Also, I’m going to actively try to ramp up the fiction writing over at serialstoryteller.com and include those words in the word count as well. That way even if I’m not blogging I’m still giving myself credit for writing, and that’s really what I need to be doing.
My goal for the next few months (before my birthday in April) is to finish my “What I’m Looking For” series and put up at least two short stories on Serial Storyteller. If I can do that and be around 75k words in the word count bucket I’ll be pretty happy with my progress. If I come up short, well, I’ll just have to buy imp-proof earplugs or something.
We’ll all see how it goes.
[Word Count: 1645]