Sunday, March 07, 2010

Confidence and Confidants

This is not a post about writing--at least, not at its core. It matters very much to the process of writing, though, so I'll share it here.


It's been a long time since I've written on this blog. More than a year. I don't bring that up as a commentary admitting to my absence; it's germane to why I'm writing here today.

I didn't write on here because I wasn't writing at all. Last year I struggled a great deal with a lot of things, most of which I'll talk about here in time, all of which were part of the Gordian knot I'd tied myself into. But at the root of why I stopped writing was this: I had lost confidence in myself.

One of the most fundamental reasons for belonging to a writers group like Wyrdsmiths is to have the support and encouragement of your fellow writers around you. And they have been there, not pressing me, letting me have and take whatever time I might need. I certainly wasn't burdening the group with work to critique.

For those of you who don't know me well, I should note that I've been writing for 20 years now. I identify as a writer, and consider writing to be core to my sense of self, more than almost any other trait. And I almost quit writing last year, for good.

Not that it would have been good. I am a fundamentally happier person when I am writing.

I've been working on a particular novel project for twelve years now, off and on—mostly off. It is a large project, somewhat overwhelming, and a project of its scale brings its own complications and dangers to the table: “Am I good enough to write this book? How can I possibly keep track of a world this large, with so many characters and complications, et cetera? How will people react if I retell a story they have so much grounded upon?” A piece of this novel was what I submitted to Wyrdsmiths when I was first trying to join the group years ago, and over the years I have come back to it and turned in pieces of it for critique.

Along the way, I've collected lots of opinions on it, ranging from delight to disgust. Several more experienced writers, in whom I have a lot of trust, suggested that certain elements of the novel would need to change or else it wouldn't be publishable. That was difficult to handle. Not only did I know from reading other novels that had been published that some of those styles and elements had been used successfully, but it made me stop and scrutinize the structure of the piece in a way that didn't help me continue on to complete the story. I started to feel that the reason I couldn't use a particular style or phrasing was that I wasn't good enough to do that, unlike Author A who had already established a name.

I'm not saying there isn't some truth to that nugget about publishing. I'm saying it affected me in an unhelpful way.

Perhaps the least helpful response when faced with an already overwhelming project is thinking that you are not up to the task. I turned to other writing to improve my craft. I wrote short stories—a very good way to focus on tightening your craft, by the way; shorter word count, fast turnaround—and found that there were innumerable things wrong with what I was doing. I tried to work on other novels, and found that problems persisted. Rejection is discouraging, and as writers we have to shoulder a lot of it.

Add to this downward trend that I would rather be writing than doing almost anything with my life. I enjoy writing for weeks and months at a time—and yes, I have done so, and finished novels before. I know that I could do this full-time. And I see that future becoming less and less clear, less probable, with each passing year.

I stopped believing in myself, and started letting all the baggage accumulate. I stopped loving the process.

Was the frustration of writing and the associated feedback the only thing that sapped my confidence? No, not by a long shot. I cut myself down in plenty of other ways, and I'll get to some of those in due course. But the key is that as a developing writer, I came at the critique process wrong: I cared too much what others thought.

Before you jump: Critique is essential to improving your work. Feedback from other writers can be one of the most valuable assets you ever encounter. But you must find the proper balance between listening to what others think and doing what you believe in. You must believe in the story the way it works in your own mind, and you must believe in yourself as the person who can tell that story.

No, really. You must be confident.

If you don't believe in the story, you won't have the energy necessary to sit down all those days and hours to write it. You won't care about it in the way that will keep you coming back, even when it's difficult. You won't be able to pour your energy into it, because you won't actually believe it is worth investing your energy in.

And if you don't believe in yourself, you're building yourself into a house of cards. It's not pretty when your house falls down around you. Every writer has things they struggle with. Every writer gets better as they work on their craft. And every writer can only do as well as they are able to right now. You can't just wait and hope you'll get better. Writing takes practice. Write this book now. Sure,maybe your craft will be better when you write the next one, or the one after that. But if you don't write this one, you definitely won't get any better, and you won't have anything to show for it, either.

The moral of the story? Your fellow writers are a wonderful resource for you as a writer—they understand some of the stresses and difficulties you will experience along the road of writing. And they are, generally, are trying to help* when they give you feedback on a story. It's up to you to find the right balance between listening to what they have to say and holding on to that vision of the story that got you so energized to write it in the first place. It's okay for a story to change, for feedback to alter it, but not if it means you don't care about the story any more. That's not a change it's okay to make.


*If they aren't, send 'em to me. I got me plenty of vim and vinegar to dole out to that sort of critic.


lydamorehouse said...

I agree. Absolutely. One of the things I try to remind my students when we start the critique process that, in the end, it's up to the writer to decide what "is rot, and what is not." It's your story at the end of the day, and that's the important thing to remember.

I also think the problem of confidence vs. opinion continues throughout your career. I know I struggle with harsh reviews, etc.

Good post.

petra said...

Oh man... I've been at that very place for the last few months. I loved writing but after so many years of it, you start to let the negative take over and you start believing that little voice inside you that's telling you.. this will always be only a dream.

Thank you for sharing this with me, and maybe if I let your words drown out the clamoring chorus in my head I can get back to what I so loved about writing... creating my own worlds to visit, filled with wonders and excitement.

Kelly Swails said...

Excellent post, Sean.

Kelly McCullough said...

Nice post. I think this really gets at both sides of the problem of critique. I know that I'm one of the writers that had some things to say about the book in terms of some aspects of the structure making it harder to find a publisher and that in turn that made it a more difficult process for you to get here and that's really the last thing in the world that I wanted to result from those comments. For that, mea culpa.

As I noted earlier today on facebook I find that the longer I do this, the less willing I am to give advice because I see how much even the best intentioned advice can drive a wedge between the writer and what they need a given piece to be to make it work for them. I also find myself ever more willing to either say "no, that's not going to work for what I want to do with this" or to try to capture the sense of a piece of critique rather than the specifics of it.

I sometimes think that the second biggest bar to publication for many of the writers who are going to be published eventually is the lack of confidence in handling a thing in the way they feel it needs to be handled. The biggest, of course, is generally the lack of sufficient practice to have the skills to do the thing.

The next tier of the problem is that it's really hard to get to the place where you have the necessary skills without going through a lot of writing and critique. And further, you simultaneously have to learn to ignore some critique while still retaining a certain level of critiquibility if you don't want to want to end up being the writer about whom everyone says "oh yeah, they used to be good before they got too big to be edited."

Learning how to take critique and bend just enough to let it teach rather than stifle is a tough trick and I don't think there is any way for a person to help someone else get there. Likewise, it can be very hard to find the right balance between pointing out real issues in a piece and making sure that you remember and convey that there are a thousand ways and one to write a novel and that every one of them is potentially right.

Jonna said...

Thanks for sharing, Sean!

Douglas Hulick said...

Good post, Sean.

You're right, it's all about belief: both in terms of standing up for your work, but also believing in yourself enough to be able to judge what works, what doesn't, and what makes it better. Developing that ear, however, can be tough.

Interestingly enough, I had someone ask me today at the con if I ever thought I wasn't good enough to be published. I didn't even hestitate when I said, "No, never." Cocky? Absolutely. But you need to believe in yourself and your writing that hard. You can have all the support in the world, but when it comes right down to it, it's you and the page at the end of the day, and the page isn't going to make it easier for you. You write the best you can now, and tomorrow, and the next day, and over time, your best becomes better. And eventually, everyone else sees what you already knew: that you're a damn good writer, and of course your stories kick ass. It just took a while for the words on the page to catch up to your ego. :)

I'm sorry to hear it got so hard for you, but am glad you are getting back to a point where you can do the work and enjoy the process again. You dream big when it comes to your books. That can be daunting; but it can also help you reach that much higher. I don't know if I could tackle some of the material you are attempting, and I for one am wanting you succeed at it so I can see how it's done.

jen@ywt said...

This has some powerful truths in it, thank you for sharing it out in public rather than in a closed group meeting.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Welcome back, Sean, in multiple senses.