I think to myself, “This is a writing blog. I am a writer. I saw other writing blogs where the author put up a snippet of writing. I could do that.” But then, of course, I am immediately overcome with writer’s angst and think, “No. I could not. I would lose credibility as a writer instantly, because all my everything is terrible and everyone will hate me!”
The funny thing about writer’s angst is that pretty much every writer has it. Now, I personally have a lot of self-confidence issues when it comes to writing that come from damage dealt to me in my youth, when an authority figure I really cared about tried to tell me I was deranged and obnoxious for wanting to tell stories, which settled as a “truth” somewhere deep inside of me. It’s still there, even if it’s a smaller piece of me that believes it now. But I notice that my writer’s angst is still not that different from most other writers. I still write something and think it’s the best thing ever, only to turn around and despair at its horrendousness. And it truly is so horrible I have to invent the modifier ‘horrendousness’ to describe it. And…that’s pretty much what everyone else does. Maybe the only difference from the norm is I let the despair really get to me sometimes, which plunges me into a mini depression where because I can’t write, I can’t do anything and everyone hates me and I ruin everyone’s lives, and it takes some coaxing to get me to go back to normal oscillation.
So I want to talk about how to deal with doubt, a little. I honestly think if you don’t have writer’s angst, that’s a warning sign. Every writer should probably have writer’s angst, even if they are popular and successful and the best ever, because I think, generally, writer’s angst is a type of realism and even humility. But it’s not very useful, because when we’re busy thinking “Worst ____ ever!” we’re not thinking, “How can I make ____ better?”
And that brings me to the first thing you ought to do. If you see a scene or a chapter or a character or a story arc or some other thing that is just terrible, don’t dwell on how terrible it is. When I, as an overly dramatic and whiny person, post on Facebook, “Everything I just wrote is awful, I’m going to go print out my manuscript, lie down on it, and light everything on fire”, my thankfully patient and loving friends will remind me that I do have at least a smidge of talent and that I can fix it. And also that I’m writing a rough draft so of course it’s going to be terrible. They remind me that I’m focusing on the past, what I already wrote, rather than the present and future, what I can do about it and how good it will be once I do actually put my all into it. Wordsmithing is an editing process. I don’t need to feel bad because the first things to tumble from my brain through my fingers to the keyboard are not so good. That isn’t my all. And even if I hit Draft V and chapter 9 is still a disaster zone, not that that’s a specific, real-time example of what I’m currently angsting about or anything, well, it’s not the final draft still. Sometimes you have to reforge again and again. And in the stories, broken swords reforged are ALWAYS cooler. This chapter is broken. I need to reforge-er, re-write the whole thing. And that’s okay.
I mentioned two important things in the last paragraph. Friends. Get yourself a support group. Someone else who writes. Non-writer friends are great, but they won’t understand or sympathize with the cycle of angst. They will likely become impatient with your fifth bout of angst over the same book or chapter or passage. They’ll also likely not quite understand just how to comfort writer’s angst, even if they’re familiar with things that look similar, like depression. A writerly friend or twelve have their own cycles. They’ll probably angst differently than you. Maybe they angst privately and that’s okay. But they know. They know what it’s like, this cycle, and they will not so easily tire of patting you on the back and encouraging you. And I am eternally grateful to my writing groups, my writerly friends, and my husband for their individual ways of encouraging me, from soft words to threats of smacking for my foolishness.
The other thing is remembering where you are in the story. Everyone’s first draft sucks. You probably know this. You may still be crucifying yourself as a fraud of a writer for making a bad first draft. I learned from one of my Tolkien-adoring friends that in the first draft of The Fellowship, Strider was a clog-wearing hobbit. Next time you angst over your writing and you’re in draft one or even two, just remember: the King of Gondor, the heartthrob of many, the wielder of arguably the coolest reforged sword ever, was once a clog-wearing hobbit. Your argument – and your angst – is invalid.
Another tip about first-draft-specific angst is to simply re-name draft one. I do not refer to the first draft of the book I’m currently working on as the draft one. I call it Draft Zero. That seems silly and stupid, but try it – somehow, just calling it Draft Zero, skipping one, and going directly to two puts distance between you and your skill and that…draft. It makes it sound more like a prototype, something that wasn’t supposed to work in the first place. Or maybe a zombie virus. I could see my first draft as being a zombie virus. I have it in a containment cell where no one can ever be infected by it again! (Containment cell here means a small folder labeled “Draft Zero” hidden deep in my computer.)
Time and distance are great tools. One reason I love writing first drafts for National Novel Writing Month is because I don’t have time to really consider how bad my story is. I don’t have time to re-read it. I can think, “This is crap, this is crap, why am I still writing,” but the answer is, “I need to hit 5,000 words before the end of the hour or my rival will have more words than me/I won’t be able to meet my word count requirement for today before X happens/some other thing.” And I keep writing. And I don’t care it’s crap, at least it’s words. More words separating me from the crap I just wrote is distance, and then the crap doesn’t stop me from writing, and I don’t start angsting. If I pause in the middle of crap, when I go back to start writing again, it’s far harder. Primarily because I don’t know how to fix what I wrote, let alone write more. So I always try to keep distance from the particularly disparaging passages. Once I have the whole document, that’s when I like to edit – I’m not saying that’s the best way, just that’s how I like to do it. Everyone is different. Anyway, after I write, I need time. I need time to forget what I just wrote, to become unfamiliar with it. I can be more objective and am better able to see just how to fix what I wrote. And if I can remember that with time, it won’t seem so bad and so impossible to better when I’m first writing, that helps me not angst.
Finally, think through the angst. So you wrote something bad. What does that really mean? Let’s turn to what started this post: am I afraid to post my own writing here? Yes, a little. Maybe even a lottle. But it’s not going to destroy my cred as a writer to you all – I mean, my blog posts are still going to be good advice, even if I post an imperfect scene. Maybe I should be wise and not post first drafts or second or third drafts here. But my advice is still sound. At worst, if I wrote a poor villain, I’d be a hypocrite – but I’d still have my theories straight, if not my practices. (Side note, I basically never angst about my villains. They’re all pretty awesome, if I do say so myself.) So what if you wrote something terrible? No one has to read it. And if they do, people do tend to understand first drafts are bad. Worst comes to worst, they’ll probably just give you their criticism to help you write a better second draft. And if their criticism makes you feel like giving up, they are a bad critic. Critics, if you ask me, are supposed to be constructive. A deconstructive critic is a bad critic. What if it’s not a first draft? Well, still, so what? No one writes a perfect book. You can always edit. What if you have edited and it’s still not better? Maybe you need to get an outside view. A good critic. What if you did and you still can’t fix it? Get another view on it. Take a break.
What if you really, truly, just aren’t a good writer?
I promise you that that’s okay, for two reasons: writing’s just one thing. Maybe it isn’t for you, but that doesn’t make you any less. And maybe it’s your passion – and then no matter how bad you are, it IS for you, because writing is part natural talent, and part practice. Just like everything else. If you don’t have the natural talent, you just need to practice more than those who do. So talk to other writers. Read more books, different types of books. Write. Write many things. Different things. Write short stories. Write books. Write essays. Write letters and emails. Just keep writing. Don’t think you’re not a good writer, think you’re a novice writer. Novices are students, novices grow, novices become masters.
As for me, I actually think I’m not prone to post my own work on here, but more because I don’t think it would actually fit the purposes of the blog. Perhaps I could change my mind with a bribe of pie, but I don’t think I’ll reference too much of my own work until it’s actually published.
So find yourself a support group of some sort or another. Give yourself time and distance from what you wrote poorly. Remember first drafts are supposed to suck. Rename the draft – you don’t have to go with Draft Zero, you could make it something like Draft Lawl Just Kidding!
And whatever you do, remember that even if you suck at writing, you yourself don’t suck. That is a lie. People like you. You are good at things. Your intrinsic value as a person is not based solely on whether or not you just wrote something badly. Know and remember that you may not be unique but you are special in that at least you tried to write at all – so many people would like to, but don’t. Sometimes I have a hard time keeping my writing separate from my self worth. But it is separate – I am not what I wrote, and neither are you.