A few weeks ago, I wrote about how meditation can help us to deal with our inner critic. You can read that piece here, but in short, the idea was that we can train ourselves to recognize that hyper-critical little voice that pipes up when we’re writing so that we don’t let it derail us. We can simply notice its incessant berating diatribes and ignore it, much as we would a barking dog. Well, it occurred to me recently that your inner critic has a BBF: Doubt.
We all know that rejection is part of being a writer. And we all KNOW that we shouldn’t take it personally, but there’s still that little voice in our head that pipes up every time we get another rejection letter, or a pass from an agent or a publisher. It’s that little voice that says: maybe you’re just not good enough.
In the past, I used to do my damnedest to ignore that voice and when it got too loud I’d soak it in alcohol until it shut up. But it takes a lot of energy to ignore and anesthetize doubt. Frankly, it’s effing exhausting.
At some point, out of pure desperation, I tried something different. I turned to face the doubt. There’s this concept in Buddhism called Right View. (I’ve blogged about it before in relationship to editing.) The idea is to try and see things as they really are. So I tried it. I asked myself: Is my doubt warranted? As a writer, do I have any skill at all?
The trick is, it’s hard to know. The first time I asked myself this, I really didn’t know the answer. So I asked another question: what’s the worst case scenario? Answer: that I am a terrible writer. The next logical question was whether I was ready to quit. The answer was an emphatic no. Instead I got to work on improving my craft.
To be clear, I had no evidence that suggested I was a terrible writer, but I figured even if I was a descent writer, I wanted to improve. I realized then that I wanted to always be improving.
Doing The Work
I bought books about writing – everything from Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and many in between. I took Novel Writing III and IV with Mark Sarvas through UCLA Extension and learned so much (and keep in mind, I already had a master’s degree in writing at this point). I read and studied novels like the one I hoped to write. And most importantly I kept practicing. I figured if I wrote every day I was bound to improve to some degree, just by sheer force of repetition.
And what do you know? I started to have some success. Of course, it was only then that I realized how very sneaky doubt can be. Just when you think you’ve got it licked, it reappears in its evolved form as Imposter Syndrome.
Tell me if any of this sounds familiar:
- You get a story published in a literary journal and Imposter Syndrome says: “well, it’s just a tiny little journal”
- An agent wants to sign you and in your head it’s like: “she’s probably having an off day, she won’t be able to sell your book”
- Your agent sells your book and: “it’s not one of the Big 5 publishers”
- Your book sells thousands of copies: “if it’s so good, why didn’t it sell hundreds of thousands of copies?”
- You’re a NYT best-seller: “wait until you try to sell your next book, then everyone will know you’re a fraud”
Point is, that bitch is never satisfied.
A teacher of mine used to say that the things we tell ourselves are “real, but not true.” This has been so helpful for me because I can’t deny that I think these things (tried that, it didn’t work). The feeling of doubt is real. But when I stop and ask myself “is it true” what I come to is this: it doesn’t matter.
Remembering Why I Care
At this point, I write because I love writing. I love the challenge of figuring out a story and getting it on the page so that it matches what’s in my head. I love discovering things about my story as I go through the process and how, every time, those realizations point to themes I’m curious about on a deep level. I strive to be good at it out of respect for the art, and because the better my writing is, the better I can convey the ideas in my head.
The rest is all just frosting on the cake. Really delicious frosting.
And for the record, I’m still working on my craft. As of today I am half way through the online class series “Building Great Sentences,” taught by Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa. It’s available as one of The Great Courses and I frankly had no idea there was so much to know about sentences. Definitely check it out if you’re looking to improve your writing on a sentence by sentence basis.
And may we all be students of something until our dying day.