I’ve decided I should teach a class on writing. Not a class on “How to write” but on “How To Get Yourself To Write When You Really Want To but Are Terrified To Try but also Can’t Feel Peaceful Until You At Least Give It a Shot but What If It Isn’t Any Good and People Never Read It and Laugh at Me…”
Now, you most likely had one of two responses to reading that horrifically lengthy class title (wait until you see the syllabus!): either you thought
“Huh? Really? Do people want to be writers? That’s nuts!” or
“Oh, dang. Yeah, maybe, that might describe me, but I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about it.”*
Here’s the shocking part: if you believe polls (which, now, probably none of us do), between eighty and ninety percent–yes, 80-90%–aspire to write something. I’m saying four out of five adults in the U.S., maybe as many as nine out of ten.
I mean, geez! Right? So if those numbers are to be believed, and assuming I have only a handful of currently successful writers* reading my blog, that means a whole bunch of you aspire.
Every time I see these articles on that 80-90%, the author–a writer on some level–next starts hacking down that percentage by demonstrating through statistics how few will actually “make it.” So, that sucks.
“Hey, I hear you have a dream. Cool! Hang on, let me get my machete.”
In my class, I’m not intending to make you “face reality” or “get a clue.” I mean, whom do I look like to you? Someone rooted in reality? Do you know me at all?
No, I’m just going to share about facing the most difficult hurdles, and some notes on how I have–and still am–getting over them.
So let’s acknowledge this up front: Writing is scary as [insert favorite expletive here].
It just is. 1)Trying to succeed at anything is intimidating, 2)revealing yourself is scary as heck, and so 3)trying to succeed at something by revealing yourself is exponentially daunting. No, not everyone writes the way I do, in which revealing yourself becomes a contact sport. But yes, sorry, any writer does self-revelation. It’s unavoidable. You’re putting yourself out there for the world to see and critique.
And critique they will! If you think it’s shocking that 80% of our population are aspiring writers, I’d also say 98% are aspiring critics.
“Oh, come on, Mike. You’re exaggerating.” Yes, I am. But it’s going to feel that way, like 98%, regardless of the actual percentage. No, I take that back. It’s worse than that. Most people will be utterly indifferent. Being criticized is awful, but being ignored? Of course you just want people to like your writing on its own merit, but…If you let yourself, you’ll have little internal debates over whether it’s better to be criticized or ignored. There is no winner in that debate–especially not for the debater.
So here is point one in my course:
#1 You have to figure out how not to care too much about what other people think.
Class attendee who knows me too well immediately raises hand:
“But Mike, you care prodigiously about what other people think of you!”
Yes, I’ve noticed. Allow me to clarify that point: You have to make yourself not care too much, as in, “too much to be able to write.” You can’t care so much that it becomes debilitating for your writing. Another word for “care” here is “worry.” Imagine you’re in an argument and you care nothing for what the other person thinks or feels, nor about how your words impact them; you are absolutely free to say anything you want. You know, how a narcissist behaves. Or every single argument on Twitter. That’s one extreme.
However, for a lot of us, worrying about what others will think is disabling. Really, there are two hurdles here: “What will ‘they’ think of my writing?’ and “Can I say that in front of this person?” The first of these hurdles wrecks most of us. Usually “they” is a big, amorphous group. It’s directly related to “What if it’s not good enough?” The second, in contrast, is most often a very specific person or two.
The latter points to our inner censor. We’re worried that we will shock, scandalize, or get disinherited by someone whose good opinion or respect we don’t want to lose. Most of us have someone. “I can’t write this because he would see it!” or “What would she think if she read this?” The only answer I have for this is to look it straight in the eye, so it isn’t a sub-conscious block, and then decide if you’re willing to pay that cost.
But if the inner censor is embodied by one identifiable person, the “other people” is really difficult to pin down. So let’s go back to “Is it good enough?” That’s the underlying question, but of course that question begs an object: “good enough for whom?” Good enough for the general public to purchase? Good enough for the people I hope to impress? Good enough for the Nobel Prize Literature committee? Good enough for…
If it feels like I’m just naming your fears here, that’s because I’m naming your fears here. Or, if you prefer, I’m naming my own, and thus our shared fears.*
I’m speaking for myself now: I imagined that when I finally wrote something, it would be so utterly, heartbreakingly, stunningly genius that it would cause the world to come to a jarring halt, like a universal “Stop the presses!” My genius would be “discovered,’ the whole struggle trying to convince people (and myself) that I can do this would be settled once and for all, and I would hunker down to the work of producing masterpieces.
Now, while you’re sniggering at my delusions of grandeur, factor in this: my overinflated dreams of my own greatness might have been my biggest hurdle to do the actual writing. I’m talking ten years. Maybe twelve. When I say “the actual writing,” I mean butt-in-the-chair, fingers-on-the-keys, producing words that fill pages that result in a book. “The actual writing” is like the diametric opposite of the imagined writing, just like one’s actual significant other is the opposite of that fantasy significant other that does not exist but still gets in the way of having a healthy relationship with a flesh and blood person in the real world. I hope you’re tracking.
My first novel took me so unbelievably long in part because I was dying to the fantasy that it was going to be an instant New York Times bestseller, like some literary agent was going to track me down in the boondocks of Wenatchee or our barrio in Managua and demand to represent me. None of that happened. But I did the actual writing and produced a novel of which I’m proud and, more importantly, a novel I had to write. Paxton, Guinevere, Jeff, and Emily all needed to exist in the world.
Writers, I’ve noticed, have this weird combination of insecurity and delusions of grandeur: “What if it’s no good?’ and “What if it’s not the greatest thing ever written?”
It’s good. And it’s not the greatest thing ever written.
And if I have any hope of writing the greatest thing ever written–or even writing something better–I have to do the actual writing and produce this first.
Writing more will make you write better, and I can guarantee that not writing more will prevent you from writing better. It’s really that simple. And still really that difficult.
When I was first writing–okay, the first decade or so I was off-and-on writing–I would always type “A writer writes” at the top of every new work. Always. Because it’s hard to break through that “What if it’s…?” and, for me, I kept having to remind myself that the only thing that makes a person a writer is writing.
That’s worth repeating: The only thing that makes a person a writer is writing.
I liked this definition: “For writers, failure is never creating anything meaningful — and as a result, not making a difference with their words.” Again, meaningful for whom? And a difference to whom?
I think meaningful for me. Your writing has to be meaningful for you; you have to write something that feels meaningful to you, that feels worth sending out into the world. Not perfect, trust me, and not even “good.” Good is such a sliding scale and you are likely going to be all over the map with what you’ve written. I think “It isn’t good enough” can be a trap. Unfortunately. But are you writing what you need to write?
That’s my answer: You overcome caring too much what others think by identifying what you need to write and then deciding,–over and over, a millions times if necessary–whether you need to badly enough to outweigh those fears.
That leads logically to the next hurdle:
#2 You have to need to write, I mean the actual writing, enough to overcome whatever is stopping you.
Okay, I’ve given it away now. This is, in a sense, a simple class. I have only two points.
The hurdle is reaching that level of need. Let me give you a visual:
I need to write more than I am terrified of people’s rejection.
I need to write more than I need to write the perfect book.
I need to write more than I fear being a mediocre writer. “What if I’m not very good?” has stopped a bunch of us.
I don’t know how many people have told me, “Yeah, I’m writing, but I don’t tell anyone about it/show anyone/do anything with it, because that makes it too real.” I think here real=threat of rejection or failure. If I don’t admit to myself (or others) that I’m trying, I can’t get rejected or fail, right?
Well, no. That’s wrong. If you don’t do the writing, you fail to do the writing. And if you need to do the writing and fail to do the writing, you fail yourself. Ouch.
Now I didn’t exaggerate the statistics at the beginning–look them up–but I’m guessing that about six of you are reading this as if your lives depended on it, while the rest are just interested in the process or simply my supportive readers (and I do love you so much!). I read painter’s biographies and I’m fascinated, but I read writer’s biographies, and especially autobiographies, as survival manuals.
So, you six: Thanks, you’re welcome, and this is for you. Some voice in you still says, “You can’t.” Or “I can’t.” Or “Jason can’t.” (But if your voice talks about you in the third person, you might have bigger problems than we’re addressing here. Especially if your name isn’t “Jason.”)
In terms of writing, I haven’t “made it,” but I figure that gives me credibility in one way. It takes away the “We should listen to him because he has the secret formula!” But I hope it encourages you that maybe we’re in the same boat and you can do this. Some of my books just arrived in the mail. That still feels surreal to me. I’m not where I hoped with my writing–yet–but as with so many things in this life, it really is the journey, not the destination.
In conclusion, for this class, I encourage and challenge you to take the next step. I mean, if you aren’t already. Even if it’s a tiny step.*** Even if it scares the skubula out of you (yep, that’s my word of choice). Writing takes a massive amount of encouragement and morale-building, because so much of it can be lonely and discouraging. I’m profoundly grateful for everyone who has encouraged me in my writing, especially Adrien and Paul, my designated Supportive Readers. I don’t think I could have done this without you.
If you need more encouragement, let me know.
*No, I will not define “successful” here; I’m not opening that can of worms.
**If your only concern holding you back is if you can make a living, well, I’m probably not your go-to, but I will say this: you can’t possibly unless you do the writing. That much I know.
***I’ve described this previously in detail, but for the purpose of this class and in case it helps, here’s my bullet point progress, step by step, up to getting Something Like Faith in print:
- Imagine being a writer when I grow up. Tell everyone “I’m going to be a writer” because I’m still young and believe I can do anything.
- Receive strong encouragement about my writing from high school teachers. Thank God for them.
- Start writing and show no one. Too scary.
- Major in English Literature instead of Creative Writing because that way I can learn about writing without having to risk failutre
- Write more stuff that I show no one. Stop talking about being a writer.
- Isaac dies. Honestly, our son’s death made me realize that “waiting for someday” was exactly the same, in practice, as never doing the writing.
- Read a billion books and articles about writing by writers so that I can absorb this notion that failure is a necessary part of the process for almost everyone.
- Internalize Anne Lamott’s advice about “shitty first drafts” and keep starting new stuff. Not finishing anything, but doing the writing now.
- Show a few people my writing. Scary as [that same word again].
- Submit short stories. Pile up rejections. Curl up in a ball.
- Submit more short stories.
- Start to develop tiny, baby callouses for rejection.
- Have an editor of my favorite literary journal “love” a story and agree to publish it.
- More silence.
- Receive email that editor and entire editorial staff of journal have quit.
- Shake my fists at the heavens.
- Work on more short stories.
- Finally see a vista open up before me how one short story might keep going.
- Write maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of Something Like Faith.
- Ask one person to read chapters because I couldn’t stand the thought that it might be crap and what if I’m wasting all this time?
- Asked the right person, thank God! Good, clear, positive feedback without adding to my inner censor.
- Continue slow but steady on Something Like Faith. I’m talking 2009-2016.
- Submit Something Like Faith for publication. Get rejections. Crawl into a corner and die.
- Notice I didn’t die. Get back up.
- Have another friend give me feedback. Again, thank God, chose right friend. His advice: Don’t give up on this. It’s good.
- Gather a group of young adult readers (plus one) to give me feedback on chapters.
- Publish chapters on blog, one by one, up to chapter 10.
- Self-publish Something Like Faith.