Hi, all! [Waves] I am back from the family spring-break trip, feeling refreshed and happy to be home, if a bit overwhelmed with all that is waiting for me on my desk. (Perhaps I should glance back through my post from last week on organizing time…) We had a great trip — celebrated my birthday by hiking down into the Grand Canyon, spent a memorable afternoon scrambling over slickrock formations in Zion National Park, and saw an incredible performance by Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. Thanks to all who commented on my post last week (and thanks to Edmund for fielding a couple of questions on my behalf). I’m sorry I wasn’t able to respond. If any of you have additional questions from last week’s post, please feel free to include them in this week’s comments.
I wanted to continue my “Back to Basics” series with something that is not always easy to discuss, but that lurks behind the efforts of nearly every writer: self-doubt. I don’t want this post to devolve into some New Age touchy-feely, warm-and-fuzzy, Deanna-Troi-get-the-hell-out-of-my-head therapy session. But I also don’t think it’s realistic or helpful to take the drill-sergeant “shut-up-and-get-over-it” approach. Maintaining one’s confidence in the face of rejections, creative setbacks, dry spells, poor responses from editors and beta readers, and all the other crap that comes our way is breathtakingly difficult. It’s also essential. Self-doubt is real, and it can be debilitating. The rest of the “basics” don’t mean a thing if we can’t even bring ourselves to sit down at the keyboard.
Let’s start with the not-so-obvious. Writing — indeed, any artistic expression — is an act of self-confidence. Some might even call it an act of arrogance, and I mean this in the most positive way possible. By writing a story, we are basically saying “Hey! Listen to me! I’ve got a story to tell! You WANT to hear this! You NEED to hear this! It’s that good!” How ironic then, that the process itself can be so utterly humbling, and that the business is often crushingly brutal on one’s self-esteem. So, how are we to reconcile this expression of “Listen to Me!” with those feelings of “God, I suck!” and “Oh, look — this agent who I don’t know from Adam has sent back my manuscript and seems to agree that I really, really suck”?
I find it helpful to break down the creative process into three broad components: conception, execution, and negotiation. Most of us tend to start the conception stage with a lot of confidence, only to see that confidence erode slowly during the execution stage, and then with greater speed during the negotiation stage. That’s why separating the three stages from one another can be so valuable. We start a story or book with an idea that has captured our imagination, that has made us sit bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night (or blurt out “Holy crap, that’s brilliant!” in the middle of a parent-teacher conference, which, I can tell you, is a little embarrassing….). It’s that idea, that moment, that leads to everything else — the work, the craziness, the queries and subsequent rejections. Which means, essentially, that you have two choices: you can ignore the idea, or you embrace it completely and believe in it. I’m not going to argue the relative merits of these two paths, because if you’re like me (and you KNOW you are — I mean, you’re reading this, right?) it’s not really a choice at all. Logic and reason ceased long, long ago to be factors in any of this. You’re a writer. You’re going to embrace the idea. You’re going to write the thing. And good for you. But that means you have to believe. You have to trust the idea.
Because as we move into execution, stuff is going to start to go wrong. You’re going to run into narrative dead ends. You’re going to have characters who do things they’re not supposed to (not in the good “Oh!-She’s-surprising-me!” sort of way, but rather in the bad “Oh-no!-What-the-hell-is-she-doing-now?” sort of way). You’re going to have days when nothing flows, and every word is a struggle. I know you’re going to, because I have days like these all the time. So do Faith and Misty and Ed and Stuart and A.J. and all the other professional writers who contribute to this site. It is part of the process. You can’t prevent it. I have days in the middle of book (around the 60% mark, usually) that are so horrible I convince myself that the book is doomed to failure, that leaving academia was a terrible mistake, and that clearly the only reason my other books got published is that Tor made a terrible mistake (or, rather, the same terrible mistake again and again and again. I told you: logic and reason have nothing to do with this). But then I remember that the idea is actually quite good — that, in fact, I love this idea — and that, yes, there really is a book here, waiting to be written. And I start to write again. Writing is hard. Really, really hard. If it wasn’t, everyone would publish, and every published book would be brilliant. And we all know that neither of those things is true. But here’s the point. That’s the execution part. Your idea is still brilliant. I promise. And not only that, the execution part is supposed to be every bit as bumpy and unpleasant as it feels. There are times when I hate the things I write, when my working feels clunky, my characters flat, my narrative incoherent. Those moments used to make me panic. Now I recognize them as inherent elements of the process. When I hate what I’ve written, I delete and rewrite. And then I delete and rewrite again. Eventually, I’ll get it right. Our goal has to be to persevere, to maintain our faith that at the far side of this slog we will be able to celebrate the accomplishment of getting through it. The true poisons for self-confidence are not the creative struggles; the true poisons are the self-loathing and guilt that come from giving up. As long as we move forward, we have reason to take pride in our work. Trusting the idea and understanding the nature of writing itself — those are the keys to getting through the conception and execution stages.
But, you say, what about that third stage? Ah, yes. There is a reason I called this stage “negotiation” instead of “marketing” (which implies that our entire focus is on the money) or “submission” (which implies giving up control). I’m not talking about contract negotiations. Rather, I mean artistic negotiations. None of us should take rejection to mean that our stories suck (or that we can’t write). Rather, rejections should be taken as stances in an extended negotiation — the process by which we take our original concept and the story produced in the execution stage, and reconcile that artistic creation with the realities of reader tastes and the market. One beta reader or editor might read our story and decide that the characters need work, or that the plot is too complex. Okay. After the tears and the tantrums are over, we have to look at our work from the perspective of a negotiator. Are these criticisms legitimate? Probably they are. And so, what needs to be done to our story to make the next reader like it more? How much are we willing to do to address the problems spotted by that reader while still remaining true to the conception and the execution? At times we might find that we’re not doing enough, that the next reader still sees similar problems. We have to soften our negotiating stance a bit more. At other times, we might find that the fixes were just what the story needed, and that they have placed us in a better position for actual business negotiations the next time around. The point is, this isn’t about “sucking” or not; it’s not about “failing” or not. It’s about reconciling our vision and our creation with the perceptions of the reading audience. It’s a negotiation, not a verdict, and as such, it is very much part of a continuing creative process. Thought of in this way, it’s far less frightening, at least it is for me.
Self-doubt can manifest itself in many ways, and I know that I have only scratched the surface here — and still this is a long post. If need be, I’ll return to the topic next week. But in the meantime, let’s talk about this. What eats at your self-confidence? What gives you faith in your process?David B. Coe