Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fear Itself (Alan Gratz - August)

All this month I've been the Children's Writer in Residence at Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio. It's been great--I get to live on the third floor of James Thurber's childhood home in downtown Columbus, where by day I work with young writers and by afternoon/evening get time to focus on my own writing. It's been an incredible experience.

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of young adult writers (that is, writers who ARE young adults) when they held the last of their summer get-togethers at Thurber House. This group has been meeting bi-weekly for years now. Many of the young writers have grown up with the writing group, and a couple said tearful farewells before heading off to college this fall. It's a fantastic, supportive group. They're all very different writers, and they all have different writing goals, but they've been able to put aside all the doubt and angst and bravado that naturally comes with being a teenager and work together to make each other better writers. I heard better critiques during the hour they shared their own work with each other than I have heard at many adult critique groups.

Before they did their usual critiques, I held a Q&A where I invited them to ask me anything and everything about the writing life, from craft to business to daily life. There were a lot of great questions, including this one: "Is there ever a point where you stop feeling like you're just an awful hack?"

I laughed, and then I fake-sobbed, and I told her the truth. No.

I lose confidence in myself on a daily basis. I tell myself that I've already published the best book I'm ever going to write, or that what I'm working on is the worst book ever written. I second-guess my decisions. I think about jumping ship from a book mid-way through and starting a new project. I worry that my style isn't literary enough, or that my plot isn't commercial enough. I worry that I'll finish a book and it won't sell to my editor, or worse, won't even make it past my agent. (It's happened.)

At the same time, I told the young writers that I thought self-doubt like this was necessary to become a great writer. Imagine you were confident all the time, I told them. Imagine you always thought you knew what was right, and that you didn't need input from anyone else. You just knew you were awesome. Then you would never grow. You never get better. If you believe you're already at the top, you never push yourself to get better. You'll never accept constructive criticism, or editor's notes, and believe you me, every writer needs those. Some sense of, "I can always do better" is necessary for pushing ourselves to be great.

Negative thoughts can be debilitating if we let them, to be sure. I've known many aspiring writers who gave up for one reason or another because they told themselves no. Told themselves they couldn't do it. Heck, I have five books out, and I still tell myself this kind of thing. There are a few tricks I've learned though that help to see me through.

Think out where you want to be as a writer and what you want to write. Make a game plan: This is the book I'm going to write, this is my deadline, this is what I want to accomplish with it. This is my goal. Then commit to following through. Don't let the self-doubt derail you. Finish what you start.

Let other people tell you no. Don't assume you're going to be rejected. Make them reject you before you give up! Yes, it's painful. As other authors have said on this blog this month, it's perhaps the most painful thing you have to go through as an author. (Right up there with getting negative reviews of your work.) But don't tell yourself no before you even get started. There are plenty more people waiting to tell you no. :-) (And one, somewhere, who's waiting to tell you yes.)

Trust yourself, and listen to people you trust.

And finally, for every day that I feel defeated, I have another where I feel triumphant. You have to harness those times when you feel like you can conquer the world. Those times when you're in the bookstore or in the library and you see books on the shelf and you think, "I can do this! That could be me!" Use that positive energy to surge forward against the tide of doubt that will inevitably follow. It's the shield you're going to need for when the doldrums attack.

To quote Franklin D. Roosevelt, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Or perhaps Pogo put it best: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." Be afraid, my friends--but not too afraid.

3 comments:

  1. "Don't assume you're going to be rejected. Make them reject you before you give up!" Best advice I've gotten in a long time. Thanks, Alan!

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  2. What an amazing experience...and post as well! Young writers are truly the best. I am constantly awed by them.

    And, yeah, today is one of those hack-feeling days.

    Shelley

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  3. LOVE this: Some sense of, "I can always do better" is necessary for pushing ourselves to be great.

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