My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Help! I Need My Confidence Back (Mailbox)

I need my writing confidence back! What should I do? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple each week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. I will gladly try to deal with existential crises with a checklist.]  

B asks:

Hi Chris,

When I was a kid, I wrote so much. I even shared some of my stories with friends. I was so proud of my work. I longed for the day I’d be a published author. When I was in high school, I began writing what I hoped would be my first published novel.

However, I was never satisfied with any draft. I revised and revised and revised, but it never satisfied me. However, I couldn’t get myself to stop working on it. Cut to almost 8 years later (Yeah…I know…long time) and I decided to give it one more shot. Last summer I booked a motel room and spent a few days alone to write. But after that, I decided to stop trying for this one.

Nowadays, I find it tough to write. I’ve started a few projects, but end up tiring of them quickly and hating my own work. I feel my characters are bland and one-dimensional, no matter how many “character charts” I consult or create. I feel my protagonists are too perfect no matter the flaws I give them, I feel like my antagonists are too “evil laugh while twirling mustache” no matter how relatable I try to make them. I feel my plots go nowhere. I worry about how descriptive I’m being; too descriptive or not descriptive enough. At the end, my passion for the project dies like a match burning out.

This all started after I called it quits on that 8-year struggle. Is there a way out of this slump, and to get my confidence back as a writer?

My reply: 

B, the only way out is through, but let's see if I can give you some suggestions that are worthy of a blog instead of a bumper sticker. I'm sure if you wanted that shit, you could have just found a webpage that generates a new random platitude every time you click. ("Be sure to measure twice and cut once.") 

If I had twenty minutes to talk to you about this, I could ask some follow-up questions, and probably drop some wisdom targeted better than a Facebook ad after you've been spent a week talking about a product you need near your smartphone. I have some suspicions based on the way you worded your question, but I'm going to lineup most the usual suspects nonetheless.

The only one I think you're getting to skip, B, is "are you trusting in the process of revision." A lot of folks wonder why their rough drafts don't feel ready for publication, and I'm often put in the position of saying "because you're not done; in a very real sense, you've handed me half a story." In your case it seems like you're doing the revision, but it isn't helping. There are some questions about the rigor of your revision I could get into (it's gotta be more than just pushing a few commas around) but that might be a better subject for another article.

The first thing I'm going to ask anyone in such a long and profound writer's block is if they really want to write. Don't just answer this off the cuff. I know you want to want to write, but you have to figure out if you really want to write. What would it feel like to just put down the pen (or computer) and go on with the rest of your life? Or what would it feel like to write for fun and pleasure and never again worry about being a published author? Take some time with this question. Ask yourself what it was about being a "published author" that you really wanted. Because I'll tell you, B: for a lot of folks there's some validation and affirmation and street cred (and maybe fame or money) that they think of when they imagine what being a published author is going to be, but they really don't like actually writing that much and it leads to some very acute frustrations and—if I may be so bold—hypocritical ambitions. And given how long it takes to reach those bellwethers and how long you'll work without them, it's easier to get them in other ways and forget the writing. Sometimes the worst thing we can do for our confidence is continue to grind our gears doing something we don't really like.

It's really okay not to write

Okay, that's not the issue. You really really wanna write. You did some soul searching—you looked deep within your very bowels—and it's not fame, money, or glory that you want but really the act of writing itself, and it's okay if this "published author" thing takes another five…ten….fifteen years. Or maybe NEVER. Because what is really important to you is writing for its own sake. Let's move on then. 

Okay. Okay. Let's move on.

he next thing I'm going to ask, B, based on the way you worded some of your difficulty with portraying heroes, villains, or describing things, is if you're reading. And I don't mean if you're reading at all. Some of it might be trying to overlay more sophisticated writing on the core of a character you thought was a great idea when you were a teenager, but it sounds like the principal frustration you're experiencing is a gap between what you want and what you're trying to describe, and that comes from not reading.

Most artists get that they need to live and breathe their art. Painters go look at other paintings. Musicians listen to music and can barely suffer silence. Filmmakers watch movies constantly. It is particular to would-be writers that you find this bizarre paradox of being reluctant to read. But you HAVE to read. You have to read constantly. You have to read voraciously. You have to read in sips and gulps and long pulls like you are dying of readingthirst. Trying to only write without reading is like trying to ONLY breathe out. It just can't be done. And those who try are doomed to struggle with why the concrete language doesn't ever seem up to the task of describing what is in their head. 

In your case, B, I would read the sorts of things that you are frustrated you can't write: complicated villains, nuanced protagonists, the perfect amount of description, and pay close attention to how the writer achieves this effect. Then go and see if you can emulate that process. Every book on your shelf is a personal writing lesson if you read with "How did they achieve this?" in mind. 

Just don't forget to read for pleasure too.

"Shelob totally ganked Frodo??? NO WAY!"

My next bit of advice is to forget attempting to publish something for a while. In fact, make sure you know that, whatever happens, you will NOT be publishing what you write. (You can go back much much MUCH later if you happen to write the great American novel.) Literally…write with NOT publishing in mind. Fuggedaboutit. 

Fall in love with writing again. Go back and find the magic that first attracted you. Forget about that book you just can't get write or being a "published author" or whatever. Leave behind the sunken cost and the sense of obligation. Just write for fun again. See what happens. Enjoy the sheer pleasure of creating characters and worlds.

Look, I'm the first person to arch an eyebrow when someone who wants to be a professional writer (as in someone who wants writing to be their JOB) says, "I can't write if it feels like a chore." Of course your job feels like a chore sometimes. (If they want to write only ever when it feels good, that's awesome, but then accept that it's more of a HOBBY.)  But there's also something to that. If you aren't enjoying it, it'll just beat you down. Try starting small, and write a little every day without any sense that it has to "go somewhere," and see if you can't find some of those reasons you fell in love with writing in the first place.

I know this sounds like "rekindle your marriage" advice…I do. But it's kind of true. Just take writing out on some fun dates again. Let writing pick the position. Order writing something from Zanzibar. And then fuck it gently in…oh wait, this is a Tenacious D song. 

If you're still struggling, my next bit of advice would be to finish something. It doesn't have to be this novel. In fact, it would probably be a lot easier on you if it weren't. A short story. An article. A vignette. Whatever. Write something and feel what it's like to say "that's done," and let it go. It won't be flawless. But it will be done. And you will get a sense of what it means to be done and let something go into the world covered in artistic imperfections. (Letting it go can mean sending it off for publication, putting it online, letting some friends look at it, or just letting yourself preen in the glory of a job well done if you're not ready to be read yet.) The usual way writers bend is to not do ENOUGH revision, but sometimes it goes the other way, and for you, it may be that the act of revision is becoming a sort of "crutch" to never have to put your work out there. If there's always one more thing you hate that needs retooling, then you can just endlessly be not ready. And that is its own pitfall. Learning what it feels like to get something as perfect as it can be and then put it out there and move on will build confidence in your ability to do that more. Maybe even enough to know what you have to do to get that old manuscript to "done."

Lastly, I want to make sure someone besides you is reading your work (and maybe even those old revisions of your manuscript, B). Most writers think their shit doesn't stink. They don't even want to be EDITED, nevermind have to do a serious revision or—GOD FORBID—a rewrite. But that overconfidence is typical, not universal, and sometimes the pendulum swings the other way. We can be our own worst critics. And I'd like you to find out if this is really awful writing, or if you—who have probably read your story fifty times and know everything that happens and are bored by things that would delight a first-time reader and critical of things a first-time reader wouldn't even notice—are really being fair to it. 

Could be that someone saying to you "Holy shit! This is really good. Why isn't this published??" might be exactly the confidence boost you need. Just make sure it's not your mom, BFF, or someone who wants to bang you.

I think it was a good idea to put your high school idea away in a drawer for at least a good long foreseeable future. I would absolutely make sure that was higher priority advice to a broader audience. (You hear that, broader audience? B's got the right idea.) But I also mention it because—and I might be wrong with this—it feels to me a little like maybe you've "stopped fighting" more than "let go." But it's actually really good not to get too deep into the sunk-cost fallacy with our older works, and sometimes the things we thought were a good idea when we were teenagers are…not so hot. There may be NO way to retool a scene so that it works or redeem a character that was badass when you were 15, and part of the tension and frustration you may be having is that unconscious realization that it's going to take more than tweaking a few knobs here and there, and you haven't yet come to the conscious realization that this can't be "retooled" into something workable.

If your protagonist goes around unabashedly kicking the ass of your Cobra-caliber, evil-laugh nemesis all the time, you can't just give them a flaw (or a single redeeming characteristic respectively) and call it a day, or let them get punched in the face a couple of times and suddenly the outcome is uncertain and you have dramatic tension. 

If you're going to revisit this work, you're going to have to restart from the ground up. And probably you need as much emotional distance from that manuscript as you can get. Maybe someday, a much more experienced version of B will show up, pull that out of the drawer and know if it's got some good "bones" for a total rework. Although it is just as likely that in the fullness of time, you will come to laugh (lovingly) at the lot of it, but at the same time realize that bits and pieces of it have shown up in a dozen things you've written since. 

But at the "worst," it will be a thousand great lessons that you can never unlearn.

Now it's possible there's something different going on, B, and you could try all of this to no avail, but in medicine there's an idea that if you see hoofprints, "think horses before zebras." Which means it's probably not something exotic so much as something simple. I'm guessing if you get through this list, you're going to be feeling a lot more confident. Maybe not about that book you've been tooling for eight years (that MIGHT be a lost cause), but about writing in general.

1 comment:

  1. This is possibly the most comprehensive and practical writing advice I have ever seen in one place. The sheer love of writing is so vital and necessary to write well, and the love of and ability to read analytically is the other side of the same coin...

    I don't think the love of writing for it's own sake is talked about enough (actually, maybe at all) in advice to writers, but it profoundly true.

    Thank you.