A few days ago on Twitter, I asked people what their biggest writing struggle was besides finding the time for it. There were a variety of answers, but the most prominent pattern was this sense of despair. People are plagued by self-doubt, or they’re too depressed to write, or they feel the pressures of the market and distrust their ideas, or they stall because they’re comparing themselves to others. No one who has ever pursued a creative venture is a stranger to self-doubt.
Considering what I’ve gone through this year with regards to my art, I felt well-equipped to respond to this.
As many of you know, I have been querying the novel I wrote last year, which is a stressful experience no matter what kind of writer you are. It requires you to focus on the market, pay attention to what’s selling, and think about your creative output through the lens of literary agents and editors. Is your idea original enough? Do the parts of writing you know you’re weakest at stick out like sore thumbs, or are they acceptable? Are you doing this right? Has your writing taken a step forward or just a step to the side?
The common advice querying writers are given is to work on something else. With all this self-doubt in my head, it wouldn’t have been surprising if my writing had suffered. I could see myself starting a new project and thinking, “Okay, don’t screw this up in the ways you have before. If the other project doesn’t land an agent, the pressure is on this one. It has to be perfect.”
But thankfully, that didn’t happen. Because when I sent out that first query, I had a treasure of an unfinished project waiting for me: a novel barely anyone was going to see.
When I started writing a series of four books at age 14, I promised myself I would see them through to the end, no matter what. Between books three and four, though, I was impatient to be an author, and the first book of the series had (unsurprisingly) not landed an agent. So halfway through book four, I switched to the book I am now querying–partially to prove to myself I could write something else, but also because I was itching to write that particular book. So after that was done, book four was still there. And leaving it unfinished wasn’t an option. I owed it to my 14-year-old-self–to the characters and to the world I spent a decade building–to reach “THE END.”
This meant I had to be okay with writing something I didn’t intend to send to agents. In other words, I had to be okay with writing just for the sake of it. Writing for the reward of zero recognition. This is a hard lesson for any artist. Artists are led to understand that recognition is the marker of success. If no one cares, then what are you even doing?
But I fell back in love with writing in a way I’d been missing for a long time.
This is why I argue that the way to combat self-doubt as a writer is to find your joy. Find the part about writing–the part that has nothing to do with other people–that makes you happy, all by itself.
In my case, writing this just-for-me project brought me back to a space I’d occupied as a teenager, when I had vague dreams of publication but mostly focused on honing my craft. Sure, this meant I wasn’t informed about the market or what it took to get published for the first five years that I was writing, but it also gave me room to experiment. To learn my voice, to play with ideas, to ask questions and answer them. To practice without pressure. It was liberating. And it made me remember things I used to tell people as a teenager, such as: “Even if I never get published, I’m never gonna stop writing. I love it too much.” Also, because I was dramatic, I used to tell people I hoped that when I died, it was at the keyboard, in the middle of writing a scene. “But then you won’t finish it!” people said. I told them, “That’s not the part that matters.” It was the feeling I got while writing that mattered.
Of course, when you seriously pursue publication, these attitudes are harder to remember. If I was going to finish my series, I had to remind myself where that joy used to come from. And I did. 2017 has been one of the hardest years of my life, but one of my most rewarding years as a writer.
Finishing book four reminded me of the joy of a beautiful sentence. Of the feeling of writing 1,200 words of crap and 48 words that worked, and looking at those 48 words and thinking, “I made that. Tonight, at this humble desk, I brought some more beauty into the world. It took 1,200 words of awfulness to get there, but look what it got me.” It’s like hauling yourself up an ugly, craggy mountain for the tiny, gorgeous flower at the top. Re-finding my joy meant re-learning that the flower is enough.
I re-discovered more old joys: characters so vibrant I feel like I inhabit their skin as I walk through the day. Worlds that are characters in their own right, with rich histories and personalities. Jokes–yes, my own jokes–that make me laugh out loud as I write them, even if the rest of my day has been miserable. Sinking myself into a scene that will probably be cut and being okay with that, because that’s what freedom tastes like: enjoying something in the moment that you know is temporary.
I did that. I made that. I made that. And no matter what anyone says, no matter what the market is like, no one can take the joy of writing for writing’s sake away from me. That is a reward all by itself.
This space of joy is not an easy place to reach. It’s also not permanent–it ebbs and flows like any other feeling. People might be reading this and thinking that finding this joy is impossible for them. I’ll be upfront: yes, it often feels impossible. I have, like, a PhD in self-doubt. My mom tells me she still hasn’t met someone who’s as hard on themselves as I am on myself. This blog post is coming from someone who titled her Tumblr page For An Optimist, I’m Pretty Pessimistic**. Nothing I say here is said lightly. I have fought for this joy while hanging for my life by the skin of my teeth.
I will also caution that if the primary joy–or the only joy–that you get from writing is rooted in validation from others, writing may not be for you. This industry is not one for validation. It is full of rejection. You need something self-fueled to fall back on. You need to be able to cultivate your own joy, which takes practice like anything else does. Crafting a space of joy for yourself is a discipline and an art.
Also, if you are a published author, or a writer under contract, I can’t yet speak to your experience. The pressures in that situation are different. If(/when?) I land a book deal, I may have to re-work my methods for cultivating joy entirely. I know writing under contract means responding to the market directly, with a deadline to boot, but I hope there is still un-self-conscious joy to be found there, somewhere.
I’m excited about my next project. Even though I plan on shopping this one around, I want to approach the first draft the way I approached this final series book. I want to be able to play. It will probably mean more revisions later on, but I can make peace with that.
I highly recommend writing something just for you in an effort to find your joy. Maybe you don’t have time or energy for a whole novel (or whole series, heh) that you don’t plan on sending out. Try a short story or two, or fanfiction, or random scenes from your novel that have nothing to do with the plot but help you get to know the characters/world better. Build yourself a playground where you can be free. Save that critical voice–that much-despised but also much-needed voice–for another project, or for revisions.
Writing saved my life again this year. I wasn’t sure it could do that by itself anymore. I am so grateful.
“They say that dreaming is free / But I wouldn’t care what it cost me.” – Paramore, “26”
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*Avatar by Charlavail
**Yes, this is a Paramore reference.