Reader Request Week 2014 #2: Writerly Self-Doubt, Out Loud

Beej asks:

I’ve noticed a recent trend among the SF/F writers I follow on twitter in which they question their abilities as writers.

As a very successful writer who seems pretty self-confident, do you have moments of doubt in your ability? What do you think drives it, both in yourself and in the profession as a whole? Assuming you have these periods, what gets you past them?

I don’t tend to question my ability as a writer, no. I’ve been writing professionally for twenty-four years now, writing novels more or less continuously for over a decade, and have published twenty books and literally thousands of other pieces of professional writing (reviews, columns, features, interviews, etc). In my adult life, I have never not made a living writing, and I’ve accrued several markers of success in the field. It’s a little late in the game for me to doubt my basic competency at what I do. If I did, the evidence would be against me, and people would be right to roll their eyes at me.

(Mind you, people who don’t like my writing may still doubt my basic competency; the evidence, however, is against them too.)

When I was younger or newer at things? Well, I had two things going on. One was ego and the (not always entirely warranted) certainty that I could write anything I decided to put my hand to, if I worked at it. Two was a nevertheless somewhat realistic ability to assess my own competence at a particular writing task, so that if it wasn’t something I thought I could do, I generally didn’t try it all out until I thought I could. The latter kept the former in sufficient check most of the time; the former allowed me to move forward when the latter decided it was time to try something. And there was point three, which is that I didn’t spend a lot of time advertising a thing I couldn’t do, or did poorly, because what was the point in that.

This was one of the reasons why, for example, I didn’t attempt a novel until I was 27. Before then, I didn’t see that I had the skill/will/interest, so I did other sorts of writing, much of which went to help developing skills that would come in handy with novel-writing. I also didn’t talk to any great extent about having any desire to write a novel, any more than casually, until I was ready to try. At a certain point, I had developed enough that I decided it was time to make an attempt.

With all that said, I think I, as do most writers, try not to only stick with that which is comfortable. I like to try some new things when I write, to keep readers interested and to keep myself from getting bored. I always want to be a better writer, and pushing myself is a way to get more tools in the writing toolbox. Sometimes when I make that attempt, I fail — it will turn out that my own self-assessment was off, one way or another, and my ego these days, while still large, is not so large that I will continue unduly beating my head against a wall.

When that happens, again, I don’t tend to make big deal out of it, either in public, or in private. If I fail at a particular aspect of writing, I don’t think of it as a referendum on the whole of my writing ability. Again, I have too much of a track record for that. Instead what I try to do is a post-mortem on the thing that failed; see why it failed and what I can learn so that when I attempt it the next time, I’m better prepared. Once I’ve succeeded, I may talk about having failed earlier, but usually not until then.

This is not to say I don’t sometimes gripe and complain and moan about writing things on the various social media. I do, particularly when things are just slow or if the story is fighting me. I complain because a) it’s fun to whine sometimes, b) I know there are other writers out there who will commiserate, and misery loves company, c) other people will offer encouragement and that’s nice too.

Not being other writers, I can’t say with any certainty why they will gripe and complain and appear to question their ability online, although if I had to hazard a guess, I would say for many of them it’s mostly what it is for me — a way to let off a little steam when the day-to-day creative process is slow going, and to hear back from the universe that they’re not alone in what is essentially a solitary pursuit. I do imagine there are a few who may genuinely question their ability, for reasons ranging from commonplace Impostor Syndrome to a more troubling hitch in their creative ability that causes them to question whether their skills have abandoned them. Again, in cases that that, hearing back from other writers that this has happened to them and that this too shall pass is probably a comforting thing.

Which is to say that I think it’s likely that what you’re seeing there on Twitter is shop talk between writers, which you, by the essential nature of the medium, get to see even if it’s not directed at you specifically. I don’t suspect it’s shop talk that’s any different than the shop talk has been for decades — neurotic writers are going to neurot — it’s just that where before it was done in a bar or in letters, now it’s in front of a bunch of online bystanders.

I wouldn’t worry about it too much, is what I am saying. The funny thing about writers is that as much as we complain and muse that our Muse has ditched us, at the end of it all most of us eventually get it done. In that regard, if we’re questioning our ability to write, again, the evidence eventually stacks up against us.

(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)


Reader Request Week 2014 #1: Travel and Me

Let’s get started with this year’s Reader Request Week, then, shall we?

This year it seems the most popular particular topic is travel: Several people have asked why I travel (or don’t), where I’ve traveled (and where I would recommend not traveling), the difference between my personal/professional travel, etc. So in an attempt to make as many people happy as possible in a single post, here’s an amalgamation of travel information from me.

* First: Countries I have visited (not counting places where I’ve transferred via airport): Canada, Mexico, Australia, Scotland, France, Germany, Israel. Via cruises I have visited US Virgin Islands, Jamaica, Haiti, St. Maarten, Grand Cayman, Bahamas. I am mildly reluctant to consider those cruise stops genuine visits because they were heavily mediated by the cruise experience (i.e., mostly in tourist zones that differ vastly from the actual experience of the place).

* States I have visited in the US,”visit” meaning stayed in for a day or more rather than merely traveled through to somewhere else, from roughly west to roughly east: California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire. I have resided in California, Illinois, Virginia and Ohio, but visited each of those when I did not live there. When I was an infant, I lived for a few months in New Mexico, but I have no memory of it, and therefore it doesn’t count.

* Provinces I have visited in Canada: British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec.

* I did almost no travel at all the first eighteen years of my life and never left California, save for short camping trips I took to Mexico with my family, and visits to family in Las Vegas. The one exception to this was a “peccary trip,” a trip to dig fossils, which I was part of the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in high school, during which I hit a number of western states. One of the reasons I attended the University of Chicago was to get out of California and see some of the rest of the US.

* My first trip off the North American continent was in 1990, when I traveled to Israel as part of an educational junket sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. That was a very interesting trip, which included a meeting with Israeli soldiers, Palestinian journalists and Binyamin Netanyahu.

* With that said, up until about 2006, I didn’t actually do a whole lot of travel. This was for several reasons. One, when young neither I nor my family had a whole lot of money, which limited travel (vacations were usually at home or at local vacation spots). As I got older I had more money but tended not to travel too much — occasional vacation trips to North Carolina with friends was the most of it. Part of that was because Athena was younger and small kids are not great travelers, and part of that is simply that I am not hugely motivated by travel. More on that in a bit.

* Most of my travel began in earnest in 2006 or thereabouts, when I started being invited to science fiction conventions as a guest, and/or traveling to book fairs and trade shows. Being invited as a guest had some benefits that I appreciated, namely, that my travel and lodging was free, and usually then I was going someplace that I knew I would have something to do. The drawback would be that unless I budgeted in time before or after a convention, I wouldn’t see much of the surrounding locale, and at first I was not very good at doing that.

* The fact of the matter is I’m not hugely motivated by travel. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy it when I do it, nor that there are not places I would like to visit, but the fact of the matter is that for me, given the choice between visiting places and visiting people, I tend to want to visit people — a fact that means that my destinations are less about the locale than the company. I’d rather go to Spokane than Venice, in other words, if Spokane has people I like in it, and all Venice has is a bunch of buildings which are cool but which I will be able to see better in pictures.

* Coupled with that is the fact I don’t really have much of a desire to be a tourist, which is to say, to go somewhere just to have the stamp in the passport and the fridge magnet (although there is nothing wrong with getting a fridge magnet once you’ve been somewhere, he said, hastily, because his wife has a nice collection). I don’t mind being a tourist once I am somewhere; I just usually don’t go somewhere for that purpose. I feel like if I’m going to go somewhere, I would want to be there, long enough to at least get a feel for the rhythms of life there. Unfortunately, at the moment, that’s not conducive to how my life actually is, either when I travel (again, mostly on business), or in the pattern of my day-to-day life.

* With that said, as I get older I find there are places I would like to visit, just to visit, independent of work obligations. I would like to take a long (three weeks, at least) trip to Australia, and a similar one to New Zealand; I’d likewise like to take a long trip through Canada, going one ocean to the other and stopping in as many provinces as practical along the way. I’m mostly Italian and Irish in ancestry and would like to spend a nice chunk of time in each country if I could. I was very pleased a couple of years ago when I got to do a book tour in Germany; visiting there had been a life dream, so I was glad to have been able to do it. I’d like to revisit Israel at some point; I have actually dreamed of the Dome of the Rock more than once and would like to see it again.

I’ve been invited to conventions and festivals around the world, but one of the things that’s increasingly true for me is that I don’t want to visit someplace just to go from airport to hotel back to the airport. I’d want more time, just to wander.

* More to the point, though, there are places I would like to live. I’d like to spend half a year living in, say, New York or London or Melbourne or Christchurch or Munich or Singapore or Hong Kong — long enough that I could really get to know the place; not long enough that I might take it for granted. Again, there are practical issues with doing this at the moment, but in the future, who knows? But I don’t know if that would actually count as travel. It sort of counts as staying.

* I do a lot of travel these days — between now and mid-June I am in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, New York, and Phoenix; after that I have several other travel commitments including another book tour for Lock In. It’s part and parcel of my work life now, since the life of a commercial writer is in many ways as much about selling the work as creating it. I’m fortunate to be in demand, but I’ll also note a lot of travel is tiring; what it does in that case is make me glad to be home when it’s done. I will note that I don’t think this is a bad thing.

* As a final point, I would note that now that Athena is old enough to travel well, we are motivated to travel with her and to take her places — but of course that has to be tempered with the recognition that she has, like, school. We don’t have any problem with taking her out of school for a week for a new and interesting travel experience, but it’s also not something you can do too much before the school gets annoyed and also, her education gets a ding. There’s a balance. On the other hand, I like the fact that we have the potential to give her travel experiences; so far, she does too. I’d like to keep doing that.

So that’s me and travel.

(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)

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