Forgive my not having posted yesterday; I had just completed writing my post, when the lights went out all over my neighborhood. In retrospect, that seems symbolic: I received word this morning that my friend Marc, a genuinely gifted poet and playwright, has just died. He was only 39, and I have known him since we were both 18. And so, out of respect for him, I am going to delay my posting on how to expand your agents list and devote today to urging you to maintain faith in your own writing talent.
Marc was one of those writers whose promise was obvious to everyone early. Year after year, all throughout school, he won poetry and essay prizes; his English teachers adored him, as the kind of super-creative, insightful student who comes along only once in a blue moon; his basketball coach praised him as the ideal of a hard-working athlete with natural talent. Confident in his abilities, he never doubted that triumph would continue to follow triumph for the rest of his life.
Yet as every high school hero is shocked to learn, the rules change radically after graduation. The talents that spelled success within the sheltered confines of a private school are not automatically lauded in the world outside, and as many a crestfallen college freshman can tell you, there are always more than enough highly-praised high school Juliets on campus to fill all the roles in a college production of ROMEO AND JULIET forty times over. Big fish, welcome to the ocean; you’re not in your little pond anymore.
At Harvard, Marc was surrounded by brilliant young writers from all across the country and all around the world. His work was appreciated, because it was very good, but no longer was he the outstanding talent. While some writers might have embraced a new-found community of very talented people, Marc went the more common route: in the midst of such stellar competition, despite the fact that he was clearly able to hold his own with the best of them, he started to doubt himself. He started to wonder if he could really write.
Oh, if only we could all rewind our lives back to the point before we started to question our own talent! To before the demons of self-doubt and endless internal criticism started to nag us! How many among us have not been turned away from our computers at least once by the fear that our best was just not good enough?
Marc did keep writing, but increasingly, he kept his work to himself, thus reducing to zero the chance that it might see publication. He stopped entering contests; he stopped querying publications; his writing resume languished. Like so many aspiring writers, he began to believe that the slightest defect poisoned an entire work, so he stopped being able to incorporate good criticism. He wrote a solid first draft of an interesting novel — I know, because I’m one of the few human beings he allowed to read it. It would have been very marketable after a single revision, news that should have brought joy to his heart. Instead, after only one or two rejections from agents, he stuffed it in a drawer, never to see the light of day again.
He next turned his talents to play writing, but there, too, even the most minor criticism seemed to make his confidence wilt. Eager at first, he took attaining finalist status in a competition as evidence that he had failed. Like so many of us, he fell into the trap of expecting every word that sprang from his fingertips to be perfect without revision. It’s very seldom the case, even with the most brilliant of writers, but it’s an easy trick to play on yourself: if you were truly talented, the imp of perfectionism whispers in our ear late at night, you wouldn’t have to struggle. The world would be beating a path to your door, unasked, to read your work.
This isn’t true, of course. It is utterly impossible to sell work that you don’t send out, just as it is impossible to win contests that you don’t enter. Yet self-doubt would rather not try than to risk defeat.
Marc and I discussed his fears of sending his work out quite a bit. He was astonished that I just kept plowing ahead, regardless of rejection, until agents and editors started saying yes; having attained success so easily in the past, he was suspicious of incremental gains made through persistent effort. Yet by insisting that his own work had to be born perfect before he would allow others to see it, he made it harder and harder to get himself to sit down and write at all.
This is a very common logical conundrum for writers, one I tried to understand by incorporating an analogy gleaned from Neil Fiore’s excellent book on procrastination, THE NOW HABIT (without which, truth compels me to state, I probably would not have completed my master’s thesis). Fiore compares any major task to walking the length of a ten-foot board that is six inches wide. When the board is sitting on the ground, getting across it would be an easy task, right? Yet the procrastinator worries about crossing the board perfectly — and thus waits until conditions are perfect. As the deadline nears, it becomes clearer and clearer that the task is getting harder to do well — thus emotionally raising that board until it is stretched between two five-story buildings. Now, crossing the board is terrifying, as the stakes of failing are much more severe. What a procrastinator does to end this situation, Fiore argues, is to set fire to his own end of the board, metaphorically speaking: with absolutely no time to spare, perfection in execution does not matter nearly so much as simply scooting across the board as fast as possible.
For Marc, and for many, many writers, a similar logic applies to completing a book — or a play, or a poem, or a contest entry. They do not want just to walk across that board — they want to do so in such a memorable style that the admiring multitude will be talking about it for generations to come. With such lofty intentions, that board is not just stretched between adjacent buildings; it is wavering in the wind between the Empire State building in New York and the Transamerica pyramid in San Francisco.
No wonder it’s terrifying: effectively, every sentence the writer produces has to be the greatest since the invention of the pen. Marc, and writers like him, expect inspiration to waft them into a state of such divine creativity that all of their latent promise as artists will undergo some sort of instantaneous alchemy that produces the philosopher’s stone of writing, the book that is perfect with no revision. Then, and only then, will they believe in their hearts that they are genuinely talented.
And every single time that inspiration, as is the way with muses, comes and goes at its own sweet pleasure, the self-doubter comes to doubt his own talent more. And even when, as in Marc’s case, inspiration does hit hard enough to produce a stellar short piece, that success apparently does not count as proof: it could have been a fluke, or it wasn’t a big enough success. Or it was a short story, rather than a novel. Any excuse will do, because there is nothing more voracious than a talented person in the throes of self-doubt.
Painful? You bet. And painful to watch? Absolutely.
I am telling you this, not to criticize Marc, but in the hope that his story might help inspire those of you out there who are afraid that you’re not talented enough to start the book you’ve always dreamed of writing, or whose fears have paralyzed you into stopping in mid-draft or mid-revision to give yourselves a bit of a break. Instead of abusing yourself for not producing perfection every time you sit down at a keyboard, why not reward yourself for sitting down there at all? Instead of berating yourself for being in the midst of writing a novel for a year or two or ten, why not break the task up into manageable smaller goals, and celebrate those achievements as you reach them? There’s no better cure for self-doubt than tangible evidence of talent, and you’re more likely to convince yourself that you are indeed gifted if you don’t demand that you produce THE DIVINE COMEDY every time you sit down to write a poem.
Regardless of how talented you are.
Start small — remember, an ego is a fragile thing, and it needs to be rebuilt with care. You could start by setting time goals for your writing, logging in the minutes as you go, or set yourself a page goal for each writing session. Keep track of your successes, so later on, when you start to berate yourself for not writing as often as you should, or as much, you can look back in your log and say, “Hey! I wrote for ten hours last week!” or “Hey! I have been averaging three pages per day!” Start there, because no matter what the imps of doubt whisper in your ear, there’s never been a book written yet without the author’s sitting down day after day and writing.
If these goals seem too tiny to you, requiring too many added together to reach the goal of a completed book, remember this: prolific writer Graham Greene wrote only 147 words per day. (Which, I suspect, is why his dialogue exchanges are so short. Most of us can expend 147 words in debating where to go for lunch.) He carried around a little notebook, and (the story goes) would not allow himself his first drink of the day until after he had penned word 147. Now, I wouldn’t recommend emulating the drink part, but his strategy was basically sound: those words, few in and of themselves, added up to many very highly-respected novels.
And please start easing up on yourself soon, because there isn’t always time to change. I tell you this from experience, because I shall never be able to wipe from my mind that saddest of literary sights: a brilliant, partially-revised novel sitting in a drawer, awaiting the beneficial touch of a writer who can never come back to it again.
Keep up the good work, my friends. Your talent is worth it.
– Anne Mini