Reader Request Week 2014 #2: Writerly Self-Doubt, Out Loud
Posted on March 17, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 16 Comments
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.)
I like my own writing, now, much better than I like my writing of some decades ago, but the current stuff truly does not sell as well, so I find that over time my feelings of self-doubt have had to decouple from the ups and downs of income, or I wouldn’t be able to write anything. And I’d rather write.
I don’t suppose very many writing days have gone by without my idly remembering that when I was 18 I had a serious offer to apprentice to a master upholster, and that by now I could have done a few thousand leather or raw silk living room sets. (Yes, if anyone has read Tales of the Madman Underground, that little tiny sliver of it is autobiographical — except for all the bits I changed). But when I consider that I seem to be magnetically attracted to fields that are dwindling/disappearing, and how few people ever have old furniture re-covered anymore, well, I would probably be wondering, as I sewed the calfskin, whether I could have written fiction or designed for live theatre.
I love the verb “to neurot”!
I think people in any field “neurot” on occasion. I certainly hear enough of it in my local, after work. I think, though, that because people who work with others, whether in an office or a warehouse or whatever, get fairly immediate and/or regular feedback from peers and managers, they don’t get quite as neurotic about how they’re doing… and if they are truly uncertain it’s a major sign of an unhealthy workplace.
In contrast, people who work alone, in creative fields, have severely delayed feedback and it’s often indirect. So they might seek out reassurance from peers or fans. I am more likely to neurot about by my writing than my day job–I know I’m awesome at my day job, that is positively reinforced several times per day. But my writing, well… the checks are few, far between, and quite small, so the occasional spasm of insecurity must be soothed by my small coterie of readers and close friends, preferably over a wee dram.
When I get into a good writing mode, I tend to tweet or make a Facebook post about it, if only because I’d hate for people to get the wrong idea when I get into my more neurotic phases. I also like hearing that you waited before you attempted writing a novel, because that’s something I’m still grappling with. I’ve tried to write manuscripts, but I realize that I need more practice with developing good stories before I try something with a longer form.
YES! And I know this sounds really arseholy, but sometimes it’s encouraging to see even [Totally Amazeballs Writer X.] has bad days too. It’s a PSA that 90% of being a good writer is nailing your arse to your chair and getting it done.
I have something of a philosophical stand on writers and their perception of their own abilities. And for reference, I’m a full-time freelance writer and novelist, so in that context I’ve written 19 books and about a thousand “things,” whether articles, white papers, website content, book reviews, press releases, etc. So, just on demonstrated fact, I’m a good writer. But my philosophical stand is that writers are never as good as they think they are. Me. Stephen King. John Scalzi. John Updike, et al. None of us. And that’s partly because of the difficulty of transferring all the things in our head onto a page and then transferring that into a reader’s head. Something ALWAYS gets lost in translation, but it’s very difficult for writers to completely grasp what it is that’s lost.
That said. Most writers are a bit neurotic. Some of that probably comes from the ephemeral quality of what we do. I washed pots and pans full-time a bit in college. Not fun work, in particular, but throughout the day I would have a big pile of crud-encrusted pots and pans. At the end of the day, they were gone. That’s fairly concrete. Writing, although you have a pile of words or pages, they just don’t seem to have the concreteness of clean dishes and although I can typically tell when a dish or pot is clean, it’s not always quite as clear that what I wrote is doing what it’s supposed to be doing (see first paragraph).
@Mark Terry: Hey, me too! In re dishwashing in college, I mean. I actually really loved it, though. Everyone leaves you alone, except to drop off more pots and plates, you don’t have to dress up, and at the end of the night (or morning) you hang up your towel and go home with nice clean hands. Literally and figuratively.
I still enjoy washing dishes–it’s one of my chores in our household, and no one ever offers to trade for it.
I have… we’ll say motivational issues, when it comes to writing fiction. I love to think about it, and I love HAVING written, but the actual process itself is pure pain. I somehow managed to con the Lilly Foundation into giving me ten grand to write a book this summer. The pressure is *already* crippling me. Fun!
For me, at least, there’s an important step of progress in admitting what I’m dreading. The worst internal tension come when I can’t bear to name or think about what I’m afraid of. Identifying it and putting it in words take it down a peg and start dealing with it. Sometimes it turns out to be obviously foolish once verbalized; sometimes it turns out to be very sensible and needs attention. Either way, though, when I name it – and gripe about it :) – I’m getting out of the purely internal loop and on to something that may yet be more productive.
Realizing that you don’t tend to make a big deal of your “failures”, is there some place where one of them is online, and you’ve also published a critique of it? It’d be interesting to see what you think was wrong with a piece.
I tend to judge a written work by “I liked it/didn’t like it”, but I’m aware that there are technical reasons that a piece may be good or bad (or, likeable or unlikeable). But I don’t know enough about the craft to be able to necessarily recognize them.
Would enjoy seeing/reading various author’s PowerPoint versions of their best-sellers. A PPT deck of 40 slides (max) that tells a story – plot, characters, motives, etc. – that most people in the room would rather not hear is a challenge.
I don’t know that it’s self-doubt that afflicts most writers I know. I think it’s the horror of putting their work out there for the world to see. Most seem very sensitive to criticism, as it’s their hard work thats under the light. I’ll admit, I became ill, literally, violently ill, when the first newspaper accepted my comic strip almost 20 years ago. Although it was a dream come true, it balled my nerves up terribly. Self-doubt is internal. Public scrutiny is torturous hell.
I have the good fortune to be FB friends with a number of professional artists and I found it interesting one time when one posted some self-doubting sort of post, and many spoke up and echoed the sentiments in one way or another. There are those self-critical voices (“It’s no good!” “What made you think you were creative??” “You’ll never amount to anything!”) buried in the back of the brain, or sometimes sitting up in the front, and for some people they never go away. However, some other people are able to banish those voices to the basement for good lengths of time.
When I began writing I worried about it more. And RIGHTFULLY so. I was sometimes brilliant, sometime awful, mostly mediocre. But practice makes better if not perfect and I’m happy with how great I mostly am. (But I still am bad at plotting, as Harlan Ellison put it more pungently in a workshop once. And by the way, last time I heard he was still healthy and older than I am and STILL writes better than I do!) And the self-doubt comes in handy, else I wouldn’t work harder at plotting & consequently getting better at it.
All hail self-doubt, the writer’s best friend (or at least mine).
I would note that, for me at least, there is a difference between healthy self-examination (how am I doing with this? Could I do it better? What could be improved?) and crippling, wallowing, irrational self-doubt that has a tendency to unnecessarily stress out and/or derail people (I’m completely crap at this! I’m never going to improve! Why did I think I could even try?). With the disclaimer that I’m referring to established writers. If you’re testing the waters and you’re really good at the former, a watered down version of the latter may actually be appropriate (so maybe writing is not for me…).
I’m not a writer myself (well I write a lot in my job but my job is not classified as ‘writing’) but I think this kind of philosophy can apply outside the creative-sphere as well. I’m actually in an industry where I get pretty regular feedback from colleagues and superiors, most of which is positive, yet I still have far too many Category 1 moments, in the face of all available evidence! The difference for me of course is that that angst is not fetishised in the way it can be for creative types. I’m pretty sure OGH has expounded on this before but I’m way too lazy to go look for the link :).
I tried to write a novel when I was in my early 20s. I didn’t get too many pages into it because I didn’t like what I wrote. My writing had a certain “Look See Do” quality to it and it read more like a primary reader than an adult novel.
I decided it was lacking in psychological motivation so I tried rewriting it with psychology thrown in. A person could not set down a cup of coffee without a 1/2 page of “why” behind it.
That wasn’t right either, so I quit writing.
I realized that I didn’t have enough life experience to write a really great novel. I decided that I would go out and have experiences, lots of experiences, and after that, I’d try to write a great novel again.
I’ve now got another 30 years of life under my belt and I think I’m just about at the point of trying to write another novel. I’ve got more interesting things to talk about now. I’ve met a lot of interesting people. I have more life experience and it enables me to write with a certain passion I didn’t have when I was younger. And, hopefully, I’ll be able to “move beyond “Look See Do” and a bunch of psychology.