The silence of the dispirited writer

A moment of silence, please: I’m giving a eulogy today.

My friend Marc, a genuinely gifted poet and playwright, died a few years ago — not too long after our last reunion; thus the delay in eulogizing him. One of the liabilities (or joys, depending upon how one looks at it) of going to a reunion-happy school lies in the inevitability of, as time passes, more and more of one’s classmates requiring eulogies. Today, it’s my turn to step up to the podium.

Marc was only 39; I had known him since we were both 18. Brilliantly talented, he lost faith in his own writing before he could find the right agent for his work. And so, out of respect for him, I am going to step aside from our ongoing series 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.

Heaven help us, 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 ceased entering contests; he gave up querying magazines; 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.

So what did he do with all of that pent-up creative energy? 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. As thousands of aspiring writers do every day.

He next turned his talents to writing plays, but there, too, even the most minor criticism seemed to make his confidence wilt. Eager at first, he soon came to regard attaining finalist status in a competition as evidence that he had failed abysmally.

Like so many of us, he fell into the trap of expecting every word that sprang from his fingertips to be perfect without revision. As, again, do thousands.

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 plausible, 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.

Because I’m a generally upbeat person, Marc and I frequently argued over our respective expectations of the literary market. 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 at the time 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, as 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 telling their grandchildren 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.

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, or it was a genre work instead of literary fiction, or it was literary fiction and unlikely to appeal to a broad mainstream market. Any excuse will do, because there is no one more voracious for justification 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 — that’s not usually the point of a eulogy, is it? — 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, even the best-upholstered 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.

So there.

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 easily expend 147 words in debating where to go for lunch.

Greene 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, at least not on a daily basis, but his strategy was basically sound: those words, few in and of themselves, added up to many very highly-respected novels.

However you decide to go about it, 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.

14 Replies to “The silence of the dispirited writer”

  1. Anne,
    I remember your orginal post about Marc. I was saddened then as I am now, to read of his withdrawal from the writing world. Further, it is disnheartening to know that he can never reverse the downward spiral that he found himself riding.
    From the point I am at in my writing career, I would offer the following to anyone who might be feeling doubts about their talents and abilities.

    First, write for yourself. Write the story(s) that you cannot find on the shelves at the local bookstore.
    Secondly, heed Anne’s advice of setting and accomplishing small goals. If Graham Greene only wrote 147 words a day, even a page a day would be a prodigious output. And if you write a page a day, a years time would see a work of considerable length.
    Third, if you have finished that novel, consider yourself a successful writer, and start on the next project. (At the same time, don’t be afraid to going back and improve the first if it needs it.)
    Being a successful writer isn’t always about landing an agent or having a best seller on the NYT best seller list. It’s about accomplishing what you set out to do, checking off small goals as you reach them, and always believing in your abilities.

  2. Anne,
    This is a lovely post. Thank you. I came at my first manuscript unevenly. Huge spurts then nothing for days, sometimes weeks. With my second manuscript I have given myself a daily goal of 300 words. I don’t always get there, but usually make up for it the next day with 600 words, sometimes much more. The important thing is to pull up that manuscript every day. This gives me a sense of accomplishment whether it’s a good day or a bad day. Plus, I’ve found that off days often bear hidden gifts that come to light the next day. I’ve learned this discipline keeps me in my story, and as you would say, “keeps the wood beam on the floor.” And if you write 5-7 days a week you get better at it, so there are more days you can out shout the evil twin who wants to convince you you’re wasting your time. There is no successful athlete who can train in a loosey goosey fashion. Same goes for writers. The muse is not born invincible, is only as strong and disciplined as the writer is.

  3. Anne,

    This is a wonderful post, with such an important message. I’m doing much better these days, but I can definitely say I related to Marc. I’m so sorry to hear that he passed away, and that he never got the chance to rectify his own situation. That really is tragic.

    From personal experience, I would also note that writers can get dispirited partially from competition with themselves. In my case, I’ve had a tremendous amount of success with my programming work, which (in the niche it fills) has been rather highly regarded. Programming comes to me with extreme ease, and apparently I’m able to do things much better and faster than many in my field.

    When I come back to writing after a day of that, then, it can be rather discouraging to stop being the mentor and teacher, and again become a comparative novice. It’s easy to forget all the years of time and effort that went into learning to be an expert programmer — the temptation is to think that I’m just an inferior writer.

    Especially since I was never the golden boy of my English classes (as I suspect most writers were not). I went to the top magnet high school in the country, and four years there were enough to convince me not to pursue the creative writing degree I had been planning on. Looking back I don’t regret that decision, as the choice has had other positive outcomes, but I do recognize how dispiriting it was to hardly be noticed in a room full of brilliant teenage writers.

    I can definitely sympathize with Marc, from that angle. It seems like that sort of early quasi-rejection (even if it is mostly only in your own mind) is something it takes years to work through. When the rejections start piling in from agents, it’s too easy for all those feelings to come rushing back. I’ve never felt like my work should be perfect on the first try, and I’ve always been open to criticism and take great pains to incorporate it into my work, but that doesn’t make rejection hurt any less. In some ways I think it makes it worse, because I’ve been open and bent over backwards, and then the result is still negative. Confidence, for me, comes from realizing I really am gaining some proficiency.

    I suppose my point with this comment is that there are a lot of writers with much less extreme circumstances than Marc, but whose struggles nevertheless feel just as epic to them personally. You alluded to this, but I wanted to say it outright: self-doubt can be caused by all sorts of circumstances, dramatic or not, but the solution to it is the same. All the things you said hold true for someone who has had no other negative writing experience beyond a rejection or two on their first work, and is considering hanging it all up in response. Hopefully your words will provide inspiration and hope for writers all along the scale of “tragic aspiring writer stories.” Hopefully a lot of those stories will end up being inspiring success stories instead of quiet tragedies.

    It really was a beautiful eulogy.


  4. Amen. Great post. Who among us cannot relate to Marc’s struggle? I am sorry he is not still with us to keep up the good fight. Thanks for the story, Anne.

  5. What a beautiful and heartbreaking post. After querying agents on and off for the past two years, I’ve been feeling discouraged to say the least. Your story helps put things in perspective. Thank you.

  6. I’m almost ready to start querying for my second novel. For my first, I sent letters out to over fifty agents and only got one request for additional materials.
    I’m finding it difficult not to get dispirited, even BEFORE I’ve sent out my first letter.

    One idea I’ve had (which is partly reinforced by trans-pacific postal rates) is to spend the next two months preparing query letters for as many agents as possible and NOT mail them out (yet). I’m hoping to finish them all before I receive my first rejection letter–so as to minimize the contempt leaking into subsequent submissions.

    This time I’m writing in a different genre–the list of agents for this round is significantly shorter than my list for my last novel. After I weed out all the ones that don’t REALLY represent my genre, the ones that “Only accept clients through referrals,” and the ones that just don’t seem right for me by any stretch of the imagination, I’m looking at only about twenty five or thirty agents (and that’s being optimistic).
    Now, it’s highly likely that all thirty of those agents will reject my query/sample pages/manuscript/whatever. When my list is exhausted, what options are left for me? I’ve heard plenty of people advise against self-publishing, but I’m not sure what else is left, unless I keep pestering those same thirty agencies time and time again until one of them caves. Is doing that likely to help much?

    How do we keep the train chugging when we’ve run out of tracks?

    1. Okay, maybe “pestering” is the wrong word. What I was going for is “is it okay to revise the query and re-submit to the same agent more than once?”

    2. I would like to comment to Jake. I absolutely understand your feelings of being “dispirited” even before you send out the query. But, please–stop! Do not send out those queries yet for your second book. Not until you are capable of mustering a deep positive sense that they WILL be successful. I truly believe that the energy of your feelings go along with your letter. And I do not mean this in some sort of “The Secret” way. Our feelings come through in our words, subtly. To agents, who read piles of queries, these feelings may be blaring and obvious.

      How do you get rid of these feelings? In my opinion, and experience (I am also on my second book and many queries down the road), you must first make sure you believe absolutely in what you are submitting. If you have any doubts at all, wait on the submissions. I think the biggest mistake is submitting too soon. Have you “submitted” what you will be sending to several readers first? And not just friends and family members who are inclined to be encouraging. Have you listened carefully to and responded to all feedback? Could your work perhaps use just one more rewrite before it is ready in its polished splendor? The answer to this question is almost always “Yes”. Have you gone through a writer’s group or workshop? Read your entire submission out loud until you finish it with a big YES! in your head, a yes that means you have no idea how anyone could read it and NOT request more. Don’t send anything until your work has passed all these tests.

      If you still get rejections, or rejections farther along the process, just keep working it until those rejections begin to change. There is a definite progression in this process: nothing but form rejections, followed by the occasional request for more, followed by always getting requests for more, then the occasional request for the full manuscript, then frequent requests for the full, and so on. What is changing in the process? The writing, and the writer. Stephen King once said “The difference between a published writer and an unpublished one is that the published writer never gave up.”

      And you can re-submit to the same agent, but you’d better make sure you have reworked it sufficiently to warrant another look. Even better to make sure it is the best it can be before they ever see it the first time. Maybe you should test it on a few who aren’t on your final list. Yes, I know this takes time. Spend that time going over it once more and making it so perfect that anyone would be crazy to turn it down.

      I just felt the need to reply, because I have been exactly where you are. I currently have four full submissions out with agents. For both books, it was a progression. Best of Luck!

      1. Oh, one more thing… don’t send all twenty five at once. If this is your must do list, send only five at a time. Get your responses, and if there are no requests, rework it first! Don’t lose all your chances in one swoop.

  7. Anne, this was lovely. I am struck anew by your generosity in wanting to encourage fellow writers.

    I think one of the reasons I like genre writing is because it’s easier to emotionally detach yourself from the project; i.e. easier to admit that what you wrote just has too many flaws, and to set it aside and start the next book. At least I’ve found it to be so. I imagine it takes a stronger stomach for those attempting the Great American Novel or a memoir.

  8. Thanks, folks — I was giving a literal eulogy for my friend at our college reunion on Sunday, and it was very, very helpful to have done this one first. Very few of the attendees at the memorial service (for everyone who had passed away since our last reunion five years ago) were writers, and I feel so strongly that there’s a specific message in Marc’s story for us that obviously would not have worked as well for another audience.

    And I hope very devoutly that I’ll never have to give another one.

  9. Interesting post to choose to ask that particular set of questions, Jake.

    Cindy’s given you some great advice here: bitterness does indeed come across very clearly in a query letter. (My all-time favorite of this ilk: “Since you agents have set yourself up as the door-keepers of the publishing industry, I suppose I have to ask you to take a look at my manuscript…”) For more ways that resentment tends to show up in submission materials, you might want to check out this post on synopses.

    She’s right, too, about not sending them all out in one big chunk — it’s substantially more difficult to keep good records of who has seen what when that way, and a mass mailing really isn’t more efficient in the long run. Partially, I would discourage it because it encourages the (false) impression that all agents are identical, a belief that renders talking oneself out of continuing to query much, much simpler. (The logic runs, I believe, thus: if all agents are alike, then querying one is the same as querying them all. Therefore, if one rejects me, all will — and there’s no point in trying any others.)

    As I’ve mentioned before, doing a bit of research on individual agents’ tastes and track records so that you may personalize the query you send that agent is an excellent idea. Generic queries tend not to work nearly so well as those that demonstrate that a writer has done his homework — like members of any other profession, agents like to be recognized for being good at their jobs. (For more on why generic queries seldom work, please see the WHY GENERIC QUERIES DON’T WORK category in the list at right.)

    Frankly, these days, it often takes several hundred queries before a good book gets picked up, so I’m a trifle concerned about the 20-30 estimate. From what you’ve said you write, there are certainly a couple of hundred possible agents — you ARE querying SPECIFIC agents, right, and not agencies as a whole?

    Also, if you send out a dozen or so queries without getting any positive responses, it’s a good idea to sit down with your query letter and figure out if it is sending a message other than the one you’re trying to send. The bitterness Cindy mentioned above is a common one, but so is lack of clarity in describing the book, failure to assign it to a book category, and — I hate to bring this up, but it’s always a possibility — being poorly written. Too often, aspiring writers forget that every syllable they place under an agent’s nose is a writing sample.

    I’ve done an entire series on how to find agents to query after the initial list runs out, as it happens: it’s the FINDING AGENTS TO QUERY category on the list at right. There are certainly options beyond (and this is what it sounds like you’ve limited your search to in the past) simply going through one of the standard agency guides and reading the listing of every agency that the index says represents your genre.

    And yes, you can re-query an agent, usually, but Cindy’s quite right that it’s expected that a writer will revise the work fairly substantially between approaches. Or at least wait several months, revise the query letter in its entirety, and not mention in the letter that it is a repeat attempt.

    All that being said, aren’t you borrowing trouble a little? Why assume that everyone’s going to reject you before you even start? After all, the only manuscript that has NO chance of getting published is the one that its author never tries to market.

    Not that this isn’t a common way for writers to borrow trouble — as Chris explained very beautifully, I think. I suppose that I’m going to need to blog about that again soon.

    For now, suffice it to say that while concentrating on how hard it is — and I’m not going to lie to you; finding an agent IS hard, perhaps more so now than ever before — may seem like just being practical, try not to focus upon it too much. Although it may not feel like it in the moment, talking oneself into low expectations does require energy — energy that might be better invested in revising the query letter, the manuscript, taking marketing classes, etc. Or, as Dave and Shelley point out, in the writing process itself.

  10. Me again. I’ve just read back over all of these comments, and I wanted to thank all of you for being so open to talking about the hobgoblins of doubt. This isn’t a topic that’s discussed enough at writers’ conferences, which tend (for obvious reasons) to trumpet the notion that really good writing will inevitably find a home.

    In the face of that kind of assertion, it’s all too easy to conclude, as Chris points out, that the fault must lie in the writer — or, as Jake brought up, in the agency specialization that renders it difficult for a writer new to the industry to figure out who would be the best person to query with a particular book.

    Because, as I have pointed out so often here, you don’t want just ANY agent for your work; you want the RIGHT agent, one who will love your writing and work tirelessly to try to sell it.

    But no writer, no matter how talented s/he may be, is born knowing how to market a book; agents would drop dead from frustration if they approached their work on the theory that a GOOD book should sell after only a couple of pitches. Learning to submit well is a skill that can most assuredly be learned, and I commend all of you for putting in the time and effort improve your books’ chances of publication.

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