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