Until Your Arms Fall Off


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. 



25 comments to Until Your Arms Fall Off

  • Since you are being honest, Misty, I will too. I have watched you from afar, going through this dark place, and waiting for the moment when you were ready to speak and be heard and then, not as important, but up there somewhere, to listen. I’ve orderd you write, (over sushi, remember?) knowing that wouldn’t help with the fear. I’ve watched your eyes fill with quiet horror when people talk about their careers in writing.

    Now you have manned up (womanned up?) and faced that fear. YEA! That fear is real and horrible and I have been there too, many, many times. A career is terrifying. I still look at that and run in fear. So. I no longer look at *career*. I look at this day’s work and do the word count. When that is done, I think about career. Not before or during. I break career stuff down into tiny challenges. I make lists of the career things that terrify me, and I do one thing on that list every day. That works for me. You will have to find the way through this, the method that works for you. And you will have to slog through and just do it. Day after day.

    I am here for you! Call when you can’t stand to look at the … whatever. You can do this. You can!

  • I’ve been reading Magical Words for a few months, although I don’t think I’ve ever commented before. But I want to thank you for being brave and honest enough to post this. It’s good for you, I hope–I know it’s good for me. I’m a new writer, or at least new in the sense of trying to write for others (and maybe eventually publication) rather than just for my own personal entertainment. Once I made the decision to focus on my writing and take it seriously, I immediately froze up. I was still writing, but it wasn’t fun and I made no real progress with my story. Just a couple of days ago, I made the connection between my own fear of not being good enough, not really having a story to tell, and my difficulty in writing . Your post comes at a perfect time for me to see, and is inspiring me to face up to the fear and keep going. Thanks for helping me. I hope it’s helped you, too.

  • TwilightHero

    ‘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’?

    If everyone was brutally honest with aspiring writers, half would cave and limit their writing to business reports. The other half would become horribly opinionated and unable to recognize constructive criticism. In the end there’d be a lot less good books out there, people would get sick of all the mediocre ones and television would make slaves of us all. 😛

    Seriously though. I hate this sort of thing – people being negative with the excuse that it’s for your own good, or for the greater good, or something. If your pipes are leaking, you don’t give up on running water entirely. You fix the damn leaks, even if your entire plumbing has to be refitted from scratch. (Hmmm, plumbing metaphor. Don’t know where that came from.) It’s easy to forget recognizing problems is the first step to fixing them, and maybe even improving whatever had the problems to start with. (So when replacing your pipes, you get the extra-strong composites, guaranteed to last twice as long as your old ones…) We all need reminding that difficulties can be surmounted – not told they can never be surmounted and we might as well just give up. We all need to be encouraged. I know I do.

    So to everyone out there in a dark place right now, or anyone who could use a little encouragement…

    *horrible Rob Schneider impression*

    YOU CAN DO IT! 😀

  • M
    I completely understand the panic and self-doubt. I hear it from friends all the time and I’ve had long black patches when I completely succumbed to it (the worst was the 18 months or so before I sold Darwen, and that’s including the 20 years before I got published the first time). I can’t offer much that is genuinely helpful except to say that the only thing that will surely kill your career (or anyone’s) is if you let the demons silence your talent and drive to produce. You know this. We all do. The only way through is to beat the demons silent or put them in a cage in the basement, till you are ready to present them with something new you have written. That will silence the little buggars.

    See you at Stellarcon.


  • Misty, I can only add my voice to the chorus. Good for you for facing your fear and doubt, and then sticking with what you love despite those doubts. As Faith and A.J. have said already, we have all been there. I had made up my mind a couple of years ago that I was done, that I’d had a good run, but it was time to find a new career. A couple of things then broke my way, and it turned out I wasn’t as done as I thought.

    But I am reminded of the Bene Gesserit saying that Herbert uses in CHILDREN OF DUNE: “To suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror; to learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror.” I think that for me at least, looking into the abyss — convincing myself that I was done being a writer — was actually a good thing. I found that I could imagine life beyond my writing “career” and while it was different, while it carried loss, it was still life, and not a bad one at that. Facing your fear, allowing it to flow over you and through you (to paraphrase another Bene Gesserit saying) allows you to shed that fear and doubt, and write on. At least I hope it does. Because the world is a far better place with the writings of Misty Massey in it, and personally I can’t wait to read more about Kestrel, I can’t wait to explore the other worlds that exquisite imagination of yours has dreamed up.

  • You are far more than the sum of your last work. Thing about that is, we don’t get worse with practice, we get better. Go back and look at your fanfic, then flip to any page in your last book. Now swathe your head in tinfoil to keep the negative thoughts out, take a deep breath, and get back to work. 😉 Anything is fixable, anything is possible.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for reminding us that we are not alone in our fears. I’ve been looking for a job for the last five months. I’ve always thought of myself as an intelligent, capable person, but right now I feel like a complete loser. Sometimes I’ll feel the fear building up in me and think that I’ll never get to experience any other emotion ever again, that I’ll never be rid of it. Then I’ll look at my writing and fear that my desire to include this thing I find so challenging and fun in my life is sabotaging my ability to fully focus on what is most important right now: finding a job.

    But *my* reminder is this: All of the very best things are terrifying. Leaving home to go to school. Venturing out into the world of dating. Having a baby. All completely terrifying, and transformative, but only if you keep your eye on what you desire and push through the fear. Good will come of this.

  • Misty> *hugs* coping with your son going off to college must be tough! And thanks, like all the others said, for posting about your fear. Just saying it to us makes so many of us feel better, and I hope it makes you feel better, too. Sometimes when I say stuff out loud it becomes less monstrous and more over-come-able.

    I think being a writer is a lot like being in grad school (oh the horror!). The intellectual struggle–learning to be a better writer, is tough. It’s so hard it hurts. But the hardest part of this process is the emotional part, right? The fear that I’m not good enough, that I’m not on trend, that some 24 year old intern gets to decide if my query letter and first pages go up the chain (okay, that’s a little bitterness on my part–see the emotional difficulty?), all of that stuff and more. I admit that one of my fears is “what if I have wasted all this time and it never goes anywhere?” It’s worse than the learning curve because the emotional stuff can stop the writing stuff dead in its tracks. Fear makes me stop Learning, stop growing, stop trying, stop writing.

    So, again, thanks for the post and the honesty. It does help to know that so many writers feel the same way. If they can keep going, so can I. And I know you can keep going and can succeed!

  • Misty you spoke right to my heart. I’ve been writing full time for almost three years now (three short stories and three novels (almost), without a sale. I’m starting to think maybe I’m chasing my own tail here. Maybe I haven’t got what it takes. Especially afte4r finishing up the first draft of my latest WIP and realizing it’s all dreck. But this is what I’ve been telling myself lately. Writing success is about PERSEVERANCE. If you don’t write, and keep writing, you’ll never get better. I KNOW that eventually, all those bad words will be out of my system, and I’ll have gained anough mastery to make a sale. And if I do one, I’ll be able to do another. Etcetera. And when I DO make it, I will give the next gal/guy in line the same sort of encouragement to stick to it and keep learning and keep writing. Every day I tell myself that with every word, sentence, paragraph and page I write, I’m getting better. And as long as I keep writing (and reading and learning), the improvement will come. It’s just a matter of time (and effort) before the writing speaks for itself. Writers write.

  • Why is your timing always so perfect? Seriously. This morning I got up thinking about all the things I had to do and do WELL in the next week and the fear was overwhelming. I could just see the chain of disastrous consequences stretching out to the horizon as my sudden but inevitable f–k ups snowballed. It was literally a struggle to make myself walk into the kitchen and make cereal. I would have much rather grabbed the cat and burrowed back under the covers to snuggle with my overwhelming sense of failure.

    But we’re not failures until we choose to fail. You aren’t failing – you’re succeeding! You’re succeeding by facing those fears, by talking about them, by having a book to revise!. And you blessed my day in ways you can’t imagine with this post, because I, and a lot of us, needed to know we’re not the only ones struggling with this same fear of success.

    The more I write, the more I believe in the sh-ty first draft. And the sh-ty second, third, and fourth draft if necessary. (Sorry for the profanity today folks. Some days seem to call for it.) This is why I don’t tell other writers to quit. The closest I’ve ever come to that is when I told a student “If you aren’t wiling to revise, you won’t grow as a writer. And if you aren’t willing to grow, you don’t really want to be a professional writer.” So I keep revising and trying to grow. Ain’t no other way.

  • Ken

    Thanks for posting Misty and thank you for your honesty. I misted up a bit when I read it. Seriously, I did, because that is exactly how I sometimes feel. I hear those voices when they whisper to me about fear and doubt and, while I try and ignore them, they ARE there. I’d like to be able to say that I bury them under piles of new words for my WIP and tuck them neatly away in all those brand new pages and sometimes that happens, but sometimes it doesn’t. I keep on telling stories though, because that’s what I’m wired to do.

    What helps is this close knit community, all in varying stages of “Been there” and all willing to offer advice and encouragement. You’ve all helped more than I can say.

    My arms are still there (although the left shoulder is looking a little frayed around the edges :)) and are more than capable of doing a bit of “Holding up” if anyone should have the need.

    Here’s hoping that the dark times pass quickly, Misty.

  • Beautiful post, Misty. It’s true – I help other writers because I want them to sing *their* heartsongs well and enjoy it as much as I do. Until our arms fall off – and after, too.

  • And thank you for being so honest, too. 🙂 We’re here for you. Thanks for being there for us!

  • It’s true – I help other writers because I want them to sing *their* heartsongs well and enjoy it as much as I do.

    Laura, you know, as I’m writing now, I’m using those things you mentioned in your beta response. Take that to the metaphysical bank. 🙂

  • Aw, thanks, Daniel! I’m glad my comments helped. 😀

  • Thank you, everyone. Back when Faith and I first started talking about this site, we agreed that we wanted to do it to help other writers find their way. I never realized I’d need the support just as much as everyone else. But I do, and you’re all amazing. I owe each and every one of you a drink at some con, some day.

    And now I shall get back to the words, because they won’t be writing themselves. 😀

  • Misty – I’m proud of you. I’m proud to (virtually) know you and call you a friend. Your courage is inspiring.

    I was first published in 1994. Between 1994 and 1999 I probably submitted 70% of the short stories I finished. I probably sold 70% of the stories I submitted. Not a bad start. I had one story that just missed the Nebula ballot. I had mentors and friends who were Hugo and Campbell winners. Then my world changed. I got divorced, lost my job and career, lost my home. My son had a kidney transplant. I lived in 4 states in three years. I went from complacently comfortable to wondering whether I could afford gas to get to my temp service minimum wage job. I stopped writing.

    About a year ago I decided I wanted – no, needed – to start writing again. I know I’m a good writer. I have more than a dozen sales on my bibliography. I have tons of files in my “Unfinished stories” file, and seven “Novels in Work.” Finishing up a couple and sending them out, making a few sales, getting my name back out there should be easy, right? Yeah. Right.

    In the past year, I’ve managed to finish exactly two short stories; neither of which I consider marketable. I’ve submitted perhaps a dozen of those unsold tales from back when, and collected rejections. I’ve probably written 40K words on three of the novels, but then realized none of them had sufficient depth or story or tension to be marketable. And so, for awhile, I stopped again. I didn’t stop wanting to write. I didn’t stop ~needing~ to write. I struggle with how to get over that great big chasm between Here-I-Am and Where-I-Want-To-Be. It was so easy before. It isn’t easy this time. I’m terrified and constantly dealing with dark, scary questions: Have I lost my talent? was my previous success a fluke? Is my brain no longer capable of putting together a good tale? Should I just give up?

    I don’t know if I’ll ever sell another story, or whether I’ll get any of my novels finished (I’ll worry about published later). What I do know is that you, Misty, and the others here, are what keep me trying. All of you affirm that I’m not alone in my desires or my fears. You remind me that my arms haven’t fallen off.

    And, Misty – when all else fails… WAR EAGLE!!! 😉

  • Razziecat

    Posts like this always hit me right in the gut, because I always wonder what I could have done if I had tried harder 20 or 30 years ago to get where I always wanted to go with my writing. I can never get those years back, so I have to make the most of what I’ve got now. Rediscovering my joy in writing was like waking out of a long, uneasy sleep. I don’t even look at it as a potential career at this point, but I still don’t want to give up. And I’m glad everyone at MW is here to encourage us, because only one thing will get us where we want to go: Writing, writing, writing. And submitting, of course! To everyone here: Keep at it, and when your arms fall off…glue ’em back on! 🙂

  • […] to face the fear and self-doubt that strike at all of us now and then.  You can read her post here.  I’ll […]

  • Misty, I’ll stand right beside you and yell at the fear to try and chase it away. Writing is scary. Not writing is even scarier. And careers? Terrifying. In the dark places it is hard to grit our teeth and trust our gut that we can tell a good story because our guts are all twisted into quivering knots. Every writer lands there at some point. And no one should ever give up out of fear, doubt, or despair. As you said, the arms are still attached.

    *Hugs* You’re a storyteller. Trust yourself and go for it. I’ll do the same. ^_^

  • Thanks for posting this very personal piece. I read it with great interest and I had a big sigh at the end and thought, ahhhhh … You’re not alone there, the old self-doubt monster creeps in when you’re not looking.

  • Lat eto the story, but I’m relieevd to see that everyone goes through the dark periods of doubt when writing and it is not jsut me. Thank you for posting this.

    Never fear, I will be here to support you as best I can and I know you have my back when I need a boost as well.

    Now get writing. *wink*

  • Good post.

    I do think there is such a thing as a “never will” – someone who will never develop the needed skills sufficient to tell a satisfying and marketable story. There are these people who, no matter how hard they try, just won’t make it.

    But who’s the arbiter of that? One thing’s for sure: not I. Heck, I don’t even know yet whether I’m a diamond in the rough or if I’ve already peaked and am instead a member of this group of “never wills”. I believe I’m the former… but there’s no proof I’m not the latter.

    If I do make it… I don’t think that will better equip me to tell the difference between a “never will” and a fellow diamond in the rough waiting to be polished. I’m not sure even editors and agents are in that position. They’re trained to recognize a diamond after it’s been sufficiently polished, perhaps, but not properly cut (to drive the metaphor to its grave).

    So if I make it… I’ll help others in whatever way I can, limited thought that may be, in hopes that another diamond in the rough gets their chance.

  • This post stuck with me all day Misty and I just wanted to throw in my support. I’ll yell at the fear with you, you bet. 🙂 But also remember that you have talent–you have proven it–and you have a wonderful circle of support here, with amazing skills and talent to help you if you need it, as they have shown in their replies above. I hope you let them help where they can. I know you’ll do fine. All the best!


  • Megan B.

    I know you can do it, Misty. Fight through that fear!

    What you said about supporting budding writers really struck me. I, too, was terrible when I first started out. I truly believe that anyone who cares enough to keep at it and keep learning, will get better. Even if they have to start by learning proper grammar. I will never tell another writer to quit, but I will try to help them improve. If they care enough to keep going, I know they’ll get better and better.