Sylvia Plath: “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Sometimes self-doubt comes in fast & hard: the first rejection, maybe, and you’re wondering if you should even try to be a published writer. Sometimes, like in my case, it comes in slowly, easing itself along through the years, grinding you down a little bit more with every rejection or every not-so-stellar review.
It took me four years to write my first novel, Small as a Mustard Seed. At first, I loved the characters (still do), and the setting, and the story. But later, as the writing began to take on a life of its own (as it always does), I really started to doubt, not only the story but myself and my ability to write it. A few months into the work, the father arrived with schizophrenia and then, later in the process, became a Korean war veteran. Early on, it was set in a more modern time period then suddenly I realized it needed to happen in the 1960′s. It had two little girls, sisters, as the main characters. I had an overwhelmed mother struggling to keep her family intact.
Late at night, alone in my little writing room, my thoughts were these: I know nothing about schizophrenia. And really, what do I know about Korea? Or being a veteran? Or being in any kind of battle at all for that matter? I wasn’t even born in the 60′s, what do I know about that? I’ve never had a sister, how can I write that & make it believable? What do I know (because when I first started I didn’t have any kids) about being a mom? There were a lot of days I just wanted to quit & work on something else. Something easier, I told myself (which became kind of a joke, because there’s never really anything easier, is there?).
But little by little, I kept pressing forward in the face of all my doubts. I jotted notes in my journal like I need someone who knows about schizophrenia and ~ because the universe is a friendly place ~ a week or so later, I got introduced to a woman who had lived with an adult schizophrenic & who graciously answered all my questions about how it was to be with him when he was off his medications. I read books. I researched. I wrote about the relationship I would’ve liked to have if I’d had a sister. I knew how it felt to be overwhelmed, so I transferred that feeling to the character. I kept moving forward.
I finished it & sent it out into the world. It won two awards & got great reviews. I let out the breath I’d been holding.
Was the self-doubt gone? No. But it did fade a bit, and I got to work on the next thing. So this is my little pep-talk: Don’t let any self-doubt stop you. Don’t let it make you question your motives or your intentions. Don’t let it make you ask, Who even cares? The best advice I can give you is to keep writing through it. Trust in the story & trust in your ability to tell it. I know this sounds new-agey, but trust in the universe to get you what you need. And finally, this goes along with my post last week, find a support system of people who understand what you’re trying to achieve.
What about you? Have you struggled with self-doubt? If so, what have you done to overcome it?
So this is my two cents worth, but I think the most important thing a writer can have going for them is not talent, not desire, not sheer will. All those things, of course, are great, but 10 years down the line (maybe more/maybe less) & you’re not where you want to be, you’ll think about lowering your expectations, or worse, giving up. I think the best asset you can have as a writer is having a support system around you filled with at least one person who understands what you’re trying to do as a writer & believes in it (and believes in you.)
I log a lot of hours holed up in an 8 x 10 room by myself. Then I send my work out in the world & hold my breath. Of course, there’s the good, which is easy to take: a reader sending me an email saying she loved the book, a fabulous review, having a reporter call to ask for an interview. But there’s also the rejections, the rough reviews, the edits that make me feel like I’ve been through a meat-grinder.
I’m grateful for my husband. Truly. He sends me flowers when the good stuff comes & we get to celebrate. He lets me borrow a shoulder when my manuscript comes back with a bunch of red-pen slashes & a 4-page, single-spaced list of everything that could be improved. He takes me out to dinner for the victories. He lets me rant for a while at the failures.
But what do you do if you don’t have anybody like that? Well, if you truly can’t think of anybody (relative/friend/local writing group/the #amwriting bunch on Twitter) that will help you along, then here are some suggestions for other ways to find support:
Other authors (maybe some you’ve never even met) can encourage you through their brilliantly-crafted books:
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- East of Eden by John Steinbeck
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Dead Zone by Stephen King (read it when I was 12; the reason I wanted to become a writer)
And/or take some strength from other writers who’ve gone before you:
- Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
- John K. Hutchens: “A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right.”
- Anaïs Nin: “The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.”
- Truman Capote: “To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.”
Or maybe music is your thing:
- The River by Garth Brooks
- Standing Outside the Fire by Garth Brooks
- Defying Gravity from the musical Wicked soundtrack
- Amazing Grace by R. Carlos Nakai
Or unforgettable fictional characters:
- Gene Forrester from A Separate Peace
- Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye
- Ree Dolly from Winter’s Bone
- Picola from The Bluest Eye
Or the memoirs of real people:
- The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angleou
- Pretty much anything by Mary Oliver (but especially her poem, The Journey)
These are my favorites when I need a little pick-me-up & my husband’s not around. What are yours?
How hard is it to find a decent alfredo sauce at the store? Impossible, I think. I’ve tried. This recipe makes alfredo sauce that tastes like you got it at an Italian restaurant, and it only takes you about 5 minutes prep time and 45 minutes to cook. Costs about $12. Feeds about 6, maybe 8, people.
- 8 tbsp. (1 stick) butter
- 2 cups (1 pint) heavy cream
- 1 1/3 cup shredded Gruyere cheese (in the specialty cheese section of the supermarket)
- 1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- 16 oz. fettuccine noodles
- Melt butter in the microwave & add to the crock pot.
- Add cream & both cheeses.
- Cover and heat on HIGH until it’s melted and bubbly (about 45 minutes), careful not to burn it (stir if edge starts to brown).
- Cook noodles according to package directions then drain (don’t rinse).
- Add noodles to crock pot & stir.
- Sprinkle any remaining Parmesan cheese on top.
- If you like, add grilled chicken on top.
Please keep in mind that cooking times may vary so the first time you make a recipe, keep an eye on the crock-pot. You may need to adjust the amount of cooking time.
So, this one goes along with the post I wrote last week on fear.
It’s been my experience that procrastination is caused by one of two things: 1. you really don’t want to do it, 2. you’re afraid. Either way, procrastinating will kill your writing goals & steal your dreams. You’ll never get that book done if you keep putting it off until tomorrow, Monday, next week, when you have a day off. Yes, you may say I don’t have time, I have kids/spouse/parents/pets to take care of, you just don’t understand how busy I am. Okay. But if you really want to write a book, then you have to start (& yes, finish it, too). These suggestions come from that Dave Ramsey EntreLeadership class, too:
- Make a deadline for yourself.
- Write it on a calendar that’s out in the open (i.e. don’t write it down & stick it in a drawer where you won’t see it).
- Circle it.
- Both tell yourself and write it down: I will FILL IN THE BLANK (write the first chapter, have the first draft done, hire an editor, write a query letter, whatever it is) by this date.
Yes, it’s a self-imposed deadline, but make it a hard one (i.e. that you can’t back out of or change later when it’s coming up fast & you’re not done). There’s also something very liberating about having an end-date; you don’t have the stress or the burden of always putting it off.
I know this seems simplistic. But you’d be surprised how many people don’t do it. You’d also be surprised about how effective it is (truly, I’ve done it) in getting you to reach your goals.
Well, last week’s post got a lot of hits so I figured it’s probably a topic that people struggle with or at least are interested in. This post expounds on what I learned during EntreLeadership, not just for writers but also for anybody wanting to overcome their fear & pursue their dream.
For starters, Dave Ramsey said that the number one reason people don’t follow their dreams is fear. He, too, was terrified in his life (a story he told: he was in bankruptcy, with a wife, marriage on the rocks, 4 kids, mortgage they couldn’t pay, being sued) but he kept moving forward.
People are looking for a risk-free environment. They come to seminars and want someone to take the fear from them. They want the risk to be gone. I know because that’s why I wound up at Dave’s event. In fact, 3 out of the 4 people at my table that day were there because they were afraid to follow their dreams (the last guy was there because he “just liked Dave Ramsey”). I wanted someone to make it easier. I wanted reassurance that it would all work out fine. When there’s no risk, you might say, well then I’ll follow my dream. That, the no-risk part, Dave said, is never going to happen.
What you have to do instead is keep moving forward. What I mean by that is to take the next step in the direction of your dream, then the next, then the next. It doesn’t matter how big the steps are. The more terrified you are, the smaller you probably ought to make them in the beginning (but not forever). The point is that you have to move—and keep moving—through the fear.
When you stay stagnant, motionless, your thoughts get the better of you: I can’t, I won’t, I’ll fail, it’s too hard. And so you back off. You lower your expectations. Maybe you stop altogether. But when you keep moving, keep making goals for yourself and then reach them, there’s a little piece of strength added to your plate and a little piece of fear taken away.
HOW THIS LOOKS IN REAL LIFE:
- I wanted to make my novel, Small as a Mustard Seed, available as an eBook & I had a shoe-string budget, which meant I had to do most everything myself.
- I broke it down into tiny do-able steps (redo my website, start a blog, make a Facebook fan page, get a Twitter account & learn how to use it, do the cover, format the book, etc) that I did one at a time.
- Was I scared? Absolutely. At every step I felt out of my comfort zone: who am I kidding, I don’t know what I’m doing, what the #$@#! did I get myself into, why am I doing this.
- But I kept going. Sometimes, I took a day in-between decisions to take a breath, but I knew that I wouldn’t give myself more than a day off, that I would keep going forward.
- I set an end date, May 29, 2011, and promised myself I’d have it done by that day.
- I, who knew nothing about HTML, CSS, jQuery, or any kind of web-design language, cruised through forums & learned & made a website myself (www.shellijohnson.com) that I think turned out pretty good.
- I took an online class and learned Facebook & Twitter (& am still learning).
- I learned about royalty-free vs. rights-managed images & licensing agreements for cover photos.
- I took another online class when the formatting of my novel into an eBook fell to pieces a week before the book was due.
- I dealt with problems (yes, there were a lot) as they came up. I did my best not to back down. I took a breath, sometimes two, and made a lot of decisions.
- Did I make mistakes? You bet.
- Were any of them fatal to my dream? No.
- Most importantly, I made my deadline. My book went up for sale & the fear I had when I started in early April was all but gone by the end of May.
Dave said you can’t reach your goals waiting for a time when the fear will subside or the risk will be gone. I can attest to that. Really, in 2 short months, I went from being fearful to being empowered. There’s strength in living boldly. And the best part is that once you knock down the first wall—the one you might’ve thought was impossible to scale, that you didn’t have it in you to beat—the rest of them don’t look nearly as high.
Grand Prize Winner, Grant Winner, & Silver Medal Winner