I’ve been going through a major writing crisis lately! For the past… little while… the writing blahs have invaded as a mountain of doubt has taken up residence upon my shoulders. When my misgivings first reared their ugly heads, I chalked it up to the fact that I’d received some unwelcome news about a submission. No big deal, I thought, not everyone is going to like my novel. Besides, I’m starting a brand new manuscript and I want to tell the world their story. It’s all good, right? But the next day, as I sat at the computer and re-read my work, a heavy hammer, full of misgivings, hit me over the head. Everything I had written the day before looked… unprintable. Every word. And no matter how much I tinkered with my chapter, I wasn’t happy.
This happened again. And again. And again. Phrases like This isn’t working and Writing isn’t fun anymore and questions like Why am I writing? and Who is going to read this? filled my mind. Along with self depreciating expressions like I don’t think I’m cut out for this after all and I’m only wasting my time. Moreover, I found that my whole body reacted negatively when I prepared to write. I wore a frown, my neck and shoulders stiffened and my stomach contents congealed. Until finally, I didn’t want to set foot in the office or take my laptop to Starbuck’s. Even now, as I think about writing, my stomach is twisting into tight knots when I think about working on my new manuscript.
Huh?? When did I become so uncertain and unhappy about writing? After all, I’ve spent the last several years looking forward to the time after work, and on my weekends when I can sit in front of the computer and leave my life behind. Don’t get my wrong, I love my life. And I wouldn’t trade it for anyone else’s. But the time I spend writing is my getaway from the same old thing. My time to create a world and become someone else for awhile. Why, then, am I letting negative thoughts ruin my day? Or infiltrate my precious writing time? Pessimism won’t do anything for the writer inside me except erode my confidence in my writing ability and naturally, in myself. I understand we can’t always be confident all the time but I hate when I am so insecure. For some reason, however, those negative thoughts manifested and I’m having a hard time getting rid of them.
This morning, I absolutely had it with self-doubt and joyless writing. So, before I let the words I’m no good and this stinks debilitate me one more time, I decided to take an ice-pick and mallet and break them into tiny pieces. I listed all the phrases running through my mind and pulled them apart one by one.
I don’t think I’m cut out for this after all. Really? Why? Because writing is difficult? Of course it is! I’m desperate to tell a story. Well, more than one story, to be honest. And I want to do it perfectly. I want to write so well that everyone who picks up my book experiences life through my characters. I want them to laugh, cry and maybe fall in love again. And, of course, I want them to love my books. But the problem is… I want it all now. I’m sorry, but that’s not going to happen. Frankly, I haven’t had enough practice. And I reckon I have a long way to go. I haven’t written enough.
Gini Koch (Alien Proliferation) has commented on more than one occasion that “Every writer has a set number of words to get through before they stop sucking (stinking on ice, if you prefer). For most it will be in the hundreds of thousands; for some it will be in the millions. So the more you write, the sooner you get through your bad words and on to your good ones. And remember – the average novel is 100,000 words, so what I’m saying is that you have to write several books before you get good enough to write a publishable book.” Millions? Really? I know she’s right but hoped I was different. I’ve had dreams where-in I’m one of the lucky writers whose manuscript was accepted… first time! So when I received my first no after my first submission, I thought my dream died. And a little bit of my confidence died too.
This isn’t working True. It’s not. I’m too busy letting my ego get in the way. Most likely, it’s the reason I’m not getting anywhere with my new ms. Never mind the fact that my internal editor is breathing down my neck and criticizing every word I write, I’m adding potholes and detours to my scenes whenever I write. I’m not listening to my characters. I’m forcing things to happen and rushing through my chapters. I’ve been battling my characters, my plot and myself since I began chapter one. I re-wrote what I now call the bastard chapter countless times and it still wasn’t right. I’m big on loose outlines and character interviews to guide me and help me keep the flow of the story moving along. But for some reason, I completely got away from them. Instead of moving forward, I ended up sitting still in a sea of uncertainty.
I spent four plus years writing and perfecting my first novel. At the end of my second draft, I knew my characters well and I’d discovered some of the ideas I had about them at the beginning were wrong. Of course, I had to re-write. But by the time I was ready to submit my manuscript, I knew everything about them. I have the sneaky suspicion that I want to have that same knowledge about my new characters right now.
Writing isn’t fun anymore That’s an expression I never thought I’d think, let alone say aloud, but I’ve repeated those words to myself over and over again. And for a writer, an attitude like that can cripple you. So, to keep from quitting writing completely, or maybe running into the path of an on-coming train, what do I do?
Laurie Schnebly Campbell (Believable Characters: Creating with Enneagrams) has some wonderful suggestions. In her class, Putting the Joy Back in Writing, she outlines some of the causes for joyless writing including feelings of apathy and fear of success. Then she dispenses the antidote. Her cure includes tips like re-reading your own work and asking yourself questions from the class worksheet. She also advises students to “take a vacation from writing. Instead, spend time on other hobbies that make you happy.”
I took her advice. For almost a month, except on my beloved Starbuck Fridays, I stayed away from my computer. I left my thumb-drive at home and if I had the urge to re-read my current manuscript, I re-focused my desire. I finished a book and began another, picked up a research book I’d been dying to read and I pulled out a cook book and tried some favorite recipes. When I came home from work, instead of running to the computer, I spent time with my husband. The light in the office stayed off. In other words, I relaxed.
It worked! During my vacation from writing, I began this article. With no self imposed deadlines or the pressure of my own thoughts lurking around me, I pondered my frustrations. Soon, I realized all of them could be summed up in one word. Fear. I was afraid of starting the long, sometimes grueling, journey of writing another book. I didn’t want to face re-writes or well meaning friends advising me that the hero didn’t stay in character. I didn’t want to spend days in a scene only to discover that I was in the wrong place. And I didn’t want to take the chance to hear another “thanks but no-thanks.”
The moment I identified what ailed me, my fear disappeared and excitement about writing began to build. I looked forward to running into the office to sit, once again, in front of the computer. My smile returned and happiness filled me. The feeling of anticipation so great, I practically rubbed my palms together. I felt… light as a feather. I know now that I needed my vacation, no matter how much I loved writing. And though I was itching to get back at it, I didn’t rush. Instead, I let myself have those last two days off and enjoyed them.
Koch once said “the very definition of fear is: False Expectations Appearing Real.” I love that definition because it helped me understand that although there were good reasons for all my frustrations, I’d blown them out of proportion, distorting all of them and until they became fact. Koch’s definition now sits over my computer so I can re-read it in those times of doubt and frustration.
When I discussed this article with Schnebly, she said “fear might be the single biggest factor in taking the joy out of writing.” I think she’s right. But I also think a little dose of fear can help give it back. Facing my own fears forced me to look into myself and my new manuscript. I discovered I had the courage to take on the uncertainties thrown my way and use them to make my writing something I could love.