There’s a cute comic strip that I was unable to locate in order to share with you. It features a happy little dog who’s having his belly rubbed, but eventually his human stops rubbing, The dog looks up and says, “Why’d you stop? Your arms haven’t fallen off yet.” This is, I think, the way writers feel about what they do. Whether we succeed or fail, whether we make a career of it or tuck our stories away in a desk drawer forever, we keep writing, because the words are still demanding to be put together and our arms haven’t fallen off yet.
A couple of weeks ago (or maybe longer – we’re talking internet time, so who can guess how long it really has been?) I read a post wondering why writers who’ve made it to some level of success keep offering to help other writers who haven’t gotten that far up the mountain yet. The blogger talked about writers who can’t seem to learn to spell well enough to be understood, or whose grammar skills would make a cage full of lemurs drop their heads and sigh, writers who’ve been rejected time and time and time again, and rightly so. Why, he asked, do we keep offering to help people who clearly don’t have the talent or drive to achieve success? Writing is competitive enough when the truly talented are all querying the same few agents and editors. Letting the never-wills continue to muddy the water must be a problem, and maybe it’s our fault for not being brutally honest with them. Wouldn’t it be better, he said, for us to tell them the truth about their prospects?
I’ve always written stories. The ones I wrote when I was a kid are just horrendous. I’ve told people before that I still have four handwritten pages of a Wild Wild West story introducing a new super-villain, the Black Fox (yeah, that’s original. *laughs*) Just recently I found another short story I wrote in high school, about a cat-like alien whose race was at war with the humans. Her ship had crashed on a deserted moon, and the only help she could hope for was going to have to come from a human who’d also crashed. (Enemy Mine, anyone?) I wrote stories in college, published a couple in the school anthology. They weren’t good, but they were a little better than what I’d done earlier. I was learning. In between, I read and read and read. I came to recognize that some stories had already been done, and began learning how to make a familiar story original, my own. I graduated from college, and joined the working world. Work has a way of eating your brain and making the writing suffer, but I still doodled when I could find the time. I started learning how to submit stories to magazines that might actually pay a little cash. Eventually, I joined a writing group. I had to swallow my pride in order to learn from these people, but I did it. And my writing got better. One of the writers was already professionally published. Helping us wouldn’t do anything to push her career forward, but she did it anyway. I gained a friend. I honed my craft. I discovered how thrilling and terrifying it could be to take risks, both creative risks and emotional ones. Most of all, I learned how much it means to encourage someone else to follow her dreams.
Over the last few months, I’ve found myself in a dark place, creatively. Part of it was related to my son going off to school – my world was changing in a major way, and I didn’t know how to handle it. Another part was having my novel sent back to me for a major rewrite, and not having the first clue where I needed to go with it. But mostly I’ve been letting myself be swamped in self-doubt. I’d peaked, I thought. I only had one book in me, or the first book getting published was a total fluke that won’t happen again. I’d listen to my friends talking about their latest books being finished, being sent off to their agents, getting publication dates, and I’d quietly panic. The worst part of it all was that I didn’t feel that I could be honest, and express my fears out loud. My hands are shaking right now, typing this. I can’t even tell you how long it’s taken me to work up the courage to admit all this. I realized that the only way to chase the fear away was to say its name out loud. So I’m saying it, and I’m letting all of you hear it. If you feel like yelling at it with me, I certainly wouldn’t mind that at all.
And here’s my point – telling other people to give up is just as bad as giving up on ourselves. It’s important for us to keep encouraging each other, whether we’re on top of the pile or scattered around the bottom. We all need support. Not just the people whose writing has been incredible from the first time they laid hands on a keyboard, but the ones with terrible spelling and impossibly derivative plot ideas, too. Maybe the people who haven’t figured out how to put together a story yet only need a little more time to find their groove. Maybe the grammar-challenged are about to come up with a risky, crazy new way of communicating a story. Fear’s been plaguing me, but so far I haven’t stopped writing. I still pound out words. Some nights it’s two pages, other nights it’s two sentences. My arms haven’t fallen off yet. If yours are still attached, too, then no matter where you are in your process, I’ll be right there at your back, holding you up.