Sure, there might be the occasional performance review at work, and your future in-laws may look you up and down but, for the most part, you get to be your own judge and jury.
Except, of course, if you’re a writer.
In our world, editors, agents, book reviewers and Amazon commenters all get their turn to praise or bury you. Critique group colleagues pick our work apart. And readers have the final say, by buying – or ignoring – our books. We live with the awareness that no matter how much we protest that we write only for ourselves, we are dependent upon the whims and opinions of others to make our way.
No wonder so many of us are emotional wrecks.
If doubt and fear are holding you back, it’s time to take a fresh look at how you’re doing things. And it’s time to shed these burdens once and for all. Having worked with thousands of writers over the past 23 years, I’ve identified five ways that writers can overcome self-doubt and move ahead with confidence and joy.
1. Be a Writer, Not an Author.
I’ve always tried to make a distinction between “writer” and “author”. The first implies a desire to pursue an activity. The second implies a desire to have others sanction that activity by disseminating one’s work. There’s nothing wrong with thinking of oneself as an author, of course. But it’s often useful to revert to the former in order to gain perspective and overcome self-doubt.
Write for yourself. Write because it’s fun. Write because it’s an area of your life you can control utterly and completely. Don’t judge your writing, and don’t ask others to judge it for you. Don’t worry whether anyone else will ever see what you write.
Just be a writer.
And then, when writing becomes a simple and joyful part of your every day existence, you can start thinking about being an author. Or not. Your choice. But as long as you feel fulfilled by what you’ve written, the opinions of others should ultimately mean little.
2. Ignore the Haters
I’ll admit it: I want to be liked. I wish I could brush off criticism or rudeness, but that’s not something that comes naturally to me. Twenty lovely compliments can easily be overshadowed by one nasty e-mail.
To help thicken my skin, I searched the web and found an utterly brilliant piece by Tim Ferris, author of The 4 Hour Workweek. It’s called Practical Tactics for Dealing with Haters and it needs to be required reading for anyone with a sensitive soul.
I won’t rehash the entire piece, but I’ll discuss two of Ferris’s main points:
Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity.
Man, that one hit home. But it’s true. Watering everything down for fear of being criticized is a certain method for generating pablum. Look at your bookshelf, your CD collection, the art on your walls. How many of the works that you consider to be truly great were made by men and women who were thought to be “difficult”? How many were created by folks who courted controversy and didn’t back down?
As I stare at my CDs and look at the names: Miles Davis…Bob Dylan…Billie Holliday…Lou Reed…Mozart…The Sex Pistols, the answer becomes clear.
We aren’t writing to make friends. We’re writing to create something meaningful and important. And we shouldn’t confuse the two.
And that’s because…
It doesn’t matter how many people don’t get it. What matters is how many people do.
A couple of lines back I mentioned The Sex Pistols. Now I happen to think they created the greatest rock & roll album of all time. Statistically speaking, you probably disagree. Strongly. But you know what? It doesn’t matter.
The Sex Pistols didn’t make that album for you. They made it for the relatively small number of people who would be enthralled by the music, and who would go on to lead lives impacted by what they heard. Everyone else? Irrelevant.
One of rock’s oldest cliches is about the first Velvet Underground record. It goes like this: “Only 5,000 people bought it. And every one of them went on to form a band.”
That’s what it’s about. Really moving some readers, even if their numbers are few. If other people don’t get it, fine. Listen to those who do. Those are your people.
For more on dealing with feedback, both positive and negative, check out this excellent piece: Five Steps Towards Making Peace with Criticism
3. The Pimple Rule
I named this after the best advice I received as a spotty teenager – “No one cares about your pimples because they’re too busy worrying about their own.”
It’s so true in every aspect of life. We think that people are out there ready to pounce when, in reality, they’re more terrified of being pounced upon.
We’ve met some big-time writers who tell us that even as they prepare to publish their fiftieth book or collect another prize, they still have a voice inside that wonders when everyone will catch on to the fact that they’re frauds. Yep, that little nagging “you don’t deserve it” voice never goes away, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
If you view the outside world as a place filled with vultures ready to swoop down and pick at your bones, it’s time to rethink things. The truth is this – all those scary would-be haters are too busy scanning the skies for vultures of their own to bother with you.
Along those lines, here’s a really cool post that can help turn your inner fears into creative gold: Why Feeling Like a Failure Boosts Creativity.
4. Attain Non-Attachment by Being Prolific.
The Buddha was sure on to something. Attachment is truly a dangerous thing. Especially for writers.
The late Spaulding Gray referred to his unfinished manuscript as a “monster in a box”. It had taken on a life of its own. He became so attached to it — and so fearful of letting others see it and critique it — that it all but shut down his creative life.
We see this syndrome all the time. Writers work for months and years on a piece that holds great personal meaning to them. They eschew all other projects to focus solely on their own “monster in a box”. And then they never let anyone see it. And then they’re done as writers.
Listen, if you pour your heart and all your time into one piece of writing, of course you’ll live in mortal fear of it not being “good” or of someone being critical. That’s a recipe for creative inertia.
Falling in love with a manuscript is a bad, bad idea. We have to remove our ego from the process. As a first step, the best way to do that is to split our ego up into tiny little pieces, by having scores of writing projects rather than one big one.
Write about subjects that have little emotional relevance to you. Write magazine pieces. Write a column for your local paper. Blog. Start a journal. The possibilities are limitless. And if someone doesn’t like one piece you wrote, big deal. You’ve got 20 more things out there getting positive attention.
5. Protect (and ultimately subvert) Your Self-Image By Writing in Unfamiliar Genres
One last visit with the Buddha before we part. This time, it’s about shattering your self-image to free you of fear.
If I strut around declaring myself a “sci-fi author”, of course I’ll be crushed if my sci-fi manuscript meets with rejection or poor reviews. It makes sense – my very being is defined as something other people seem to think I’m not especially good at!
The long-term solution is not to maintain a self image as this or that. Just be a writer. That’s easier said than done, of course.
So as a starting point I suggest that, as part of their new prolific outlook, writers ply their craft in genres that are new and unfamiliar to them. Someone doesn’t care for my historical fiction story? Big deal. I’m a “sci-fi writer”, remember? Your ego and self-image are taken out of play when you look beyond your comfort zone.
Of course, far more likely is that some people will like my historical fiction novel. Then my self-image expands. Then someone enjoys my romance story, and it expands some more. Ultimately, it expands so far that it pops.
And then I’m just a writer.
So, how do you deal with fear and self-doubt? I’d like to hear your thoughts!
About the author:
Jon Bard writes about craft, publishing and marketing for writers at The CBI Clubhouse. To download a copy of his new free eBook that details the current hot trends and opportunities for children’s & YA writers, click here.