Last Week’s Lie: I wrote, I like the way TFSoLY is going. That’s untrue. But it’s not because of the way the story is developing, or how I feel about it, and it’s not specific to TFSoLY, but just a general malaise about all my writing in recent years. TFSoLY is going well (as in I’m cruising along), but I don’t know how much faith I have in my writing as a whole, which creates this weird juxtaposition and gnawing self-doubt.
I believe a number of writers are insecure about their writing. And it’s something that’s worthwhile exploring.
But before I go into it myself, I asked four writer-friends about their insecurities.
Here’s what they had to say …
For me, writing and insecurity are inseparable. I go through different phases of insecurity when I write. If I am between projects, I fear that all my ideas are done, and I will never write again. As soon as I start a project, I think how terrible the idea is, and how no one will want to read it. But I’ve learned to ignore this feeling, and get to the end of the first draft. When I get to the end of the first draft, I start to doubt that the story can be saved in the revisions. After I’ve revised the story, I’m back to thinking it isn’t working again. Then when I submit a story, I expect it to be rejected. If it gets accepted somewhere, I’m really happy. For a day. Then it’s back to thinking I will never write anything decent again.
Objectively, I know there is evidence that my writing is not utterly awful. I’ve had quite a few short stories published, and two books which have been published in Australia and the UK. I have been well reviewed and shortlisted for a number of literary awards, and was even fortunate to win one last year. Readers have told me, online and in person, that they enjoy my work. I am hugely grateful for all these things, but they can’t hold off the feelings of insecurity about my work, or if they do, it’s only for a few days, at the most.
I think I have become much better at managing these feelings in the last couple of years. I know they will occur, and they don’t necessarily reflect the quality of the work. (Though sometimes when I am telling myself, This idea is terrible, I’ve come to realise it’s because the idea is actually terrible). I try to keep the feelings of insecurity in the background; I acknowledge them, and try to move on.
As an example, right now I am between projects, and yes, right on cue the voice is there telling me, You’re done. It’s over. No more stories for you. But I remind myself that I have felt the same way after everything I have written, and so far, I’m not done, and it’s not over, and I have to trust that there will be more stories. – Ryan O’Neill Their Brilliant Careers (2017 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award Winner) The Weight of the Human Heart
When I was writing my first novel, I assumed that subsequent novels would get easier. I thought that with each manuscript I would write and revise – and certainly with each novel that was published – the words might flow more freely and I would naturally become more confident in my ability to write. Now, writing my fourth novel, I have found the opposite to be true. Each novel has shown me precisely how inexperienced I am, how little I actually know, and how much better every other writer is than me.
Coming back to draft one after polishing a previous manuscript upwards of a dozen times entails slapping around through a bog of self-doubt, self-flagellation and disillusionment. Coming back to draft one after having three published novels on shelves means writing with the voices of publishers’ passes and uncomplimentary reviewers echoing through my head with each sentence.
Despite being lucky enough to have overseas sales and publication with a ‘big six’ publisher, I cannot shake the sense that these things happened through pure luck, coincidence or some kind of freakish literary accident. That at any moment, they’ll all turn to me and shout, ‘You tricked us! You can’t actually write at all.’
The only consistent way I’ve found to avoid insecurity in writing is to adopt what I call the four walls of ‘wait.’ I read it, I re-read it, I send it to a friend or colleague, and then I put it through Grammarly. I do this in this order to address my need to have the right word assessed, my need as a reader for the sentence to flow, my need to know I’ve not missed a blind spot, and the need to be grammatically correct.
Once I’ve passed the four walls of ‘wait” I’m not so much insecure as exhausted. In that respect, I’d very much encourage an exhaustive approach to extinguish one’s fears or insecurities!
Writing is hard. And tiring. And, at times, incredibly liberating. And yet, it’s also a privilege, not a right. We don’t have to write. But we do. And so there’s more joy to be had in the striving than in the giving up, at least in my experience. – Laurie Steed You Belong Here
Writers never think their writing is awful – not if a real effort has been made. What they feel is the writing that they put to paper (if you’ll excuse the dated expression) isn’t great. That they’ve produced work that is mediocre. And that’s correct.
I think Sturgeon’s Law is true. Ninety percent of all creative output, in whatever field, is below par. At one end of the spectrum it’s absolute shite, and at the other, it’s writing that has every feature of brilliant literature, and is practically indistinguishable, except that it has no pulse.
So a writer’s horror can be that despite a piece of writing being well crafted, grammatically prefect (or imperfect in just the ways we intended) it can be impelled by a genuine social issue, or fuelled by the pure adrenalin of adventure in every narrative twist and turn, etc., etc., it yet fails to breathe, let alone sing.
At that point a writer thinks the work is just awful, and that the writer is hopeless and pathetic. And since writing is rarely not bound to our identity, that sense of failure can go down to the soul.
Writing is such an abstract art, it helps to compare it to other fields of endeavour. A boxer, for instance, does not need to be an undefeated champion, fifty wins and no loses, to make us feel that their career was admirable. In fact, we’re more interested in fighters who have lost many times, overcome all kinds of adversity, to have perhaps only one or two truly great fighting moments.
Similarly, our favourite writers produced mostly mediocre work. Don’t just read Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and Hamlet if you want to really see beyond the icon we have in mind when we think of Shakespeare. He wrote a bunch of plays, most of them pure shit.
And it brings to mind a story I heard about Joseph Heller going to a writer’s festival and being asked, What happened? You wroteCatch 22and then nothing but middling literary fare. And his response (as I imagine it) was righteous fury, as he said, Yes, but I fucking wroteCatch 22!
Even writers who had far more successful overall careers, still have one or two books that are truly great, and the rest fall away into Sturgeon’s Law. And it can be confusing for a writer because a miserable failure like The Great Gatsby, can go on after an author’s death and become that writer’s signature piece, living on as a classic for generations.
His whole life Denis Johnson dismissed his landmark collection of stories, Jesus’ Son, hailed as a masterpiece by many, as a book of drivel – most writers would dearly love to call that book their ‘failure.’
Alice Munro is rightfully thought of one of the all-time great writers, and I’ve read stories by her that I think are as good as any I’ve ever read. I listened to many of her radio interviews, and came across one in which an interviewer asked her which, in her opinion, was her very best story. Most writers say that’s an impossible choice, but Munro picked one out. Out of the immense catalogue of stories she produced there was one best story. Naturally I read it and was surprised by how awful it was. I think it’s the worst of her stories, so it just goes to say it’s subjective.
It’s better for a writer not to think about literature as though it were a legal proceeding, where each document is brought out to either prove or disprove a charge of mediocrity. At the end of Shakespeare’s life the jury would clearly have come in favour of failure. And there are those writers, who few have read for decades, who died when hailed as great figures of literary achievement. Better to find a more productive metaphor.
In my own life I have many useful metaphors but I’ll return to the boxing one because I’ve already mentioned it. There was a point in the life of Muhammad Ali where he could barely walk and talk. There were years of this miserable state, yet people who met him never described his as miserable. He had lived the life of Muhammad Ali. I’m sure there were a multitude of moments in the midst of suffering he didn’t think it was worth the pain of being crippled. But I also imagine the flashes that illuminated his mind with the glory of what he managed to do simply through the courage to persist no matter what.
I read this quote, where Muhammad Ali said that he told people he was the greatest boxer ever, even before he began learning how to box. And that’s what we think of when we think of Muhammad Ali, but there’s a more useful insight into his motivation. He might have quit fighting after his greatest moment, defeating George Foreman in Zaire – The Rumble in the Jungle fight. He had achieved what that mouthy boy had pronounced like a million other idiots. He had all the money and fame he needed for the rest of his life. Deeper than money and fame though was a love for the training and the boxing gym, the companionship of other fighters along the way, and fight night.
And that might be my own projection, because I find that whatever my own ambitions are to succeed, to have success in this book or that, primary to all that grandiose endeavouring and posturing, before good or bad comes into play is an abiding sense of pleasure in simply placing one word after another into an empty frame, and then of seeing a story rising up out of nothing. – A.S. Patric Atlantic Black Black Rock, White City (2016 Miles Franklin Winner)
Heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Ryan, Kim, Laurie, and Alec for their openness, honesty, and insight.