I have had many dark moments while writing. But this one was probably the worst.
Before I moved to St. Louis I had finally started to see my work gain some traction. I had published my first story, and it got a lot of positive feedback, and was even mentioned in a big essay anthology. About three months after I sold the first one, I got a contract for the second one from a big magazine that I had been reading for years. And it was for decent money! A couple months after that I received my acceptance to the Master of Fine Arts program of a well-know, well-funded writing program.
Finally, all that worked seemed to be building toward something! I had momentum. My confidence soared. I figured by the end of the two years I’d have a few more published stories and a completed manuscript that I could shop to agents.
I moved my family to the Midwest for the program, enrolled in classes, and got to work.
That’s when it all fell apart.
Besides being homesick and lonely, the workshops were the first time I was exposed to live criticism of my work. I expected to get some light structural advice; instead my classmates told me really jarring things, like that the way I wrote my female characters was actually offensive. People shook their heads, confused at who was who and why anyone was doing what they were doing in the story.
I took it pretty badly.
But I shook it off. I needed to learn how to take criticism and grow from it. Whew, okay, this was going to be harder than I thought.
To buck up my confidence, I told myself: “Well, soon that second story will be published, and we’ll see what people think about it.”
Then I got an email.
I don’t remember what all it said, but I remember it was very apologetic. The gist of it was that they thought they could edit my story in a way that made it fit the magazine, but it turns out they couldn’t. They’d pay a kill fee, about half the expected payment, and I could shop the story elsewhere.
I knew it wasn’t personal, but I felt that email down to my toes. All I could hear in it was “We tried so hard to make your writing good, but we couldn’t. Good luck with your life.”
The next two years wouldn’t get much better. I fished around for a voice but kept pulling up dirty shoes. I tried to resell that story and the best I got from it were some optimistic no’s. I got gun shy and started writing things I thought my classmates would like, just to avoid the criticism.
I have never been more terrified in the pursuit of my dreams. Why didn’t I just chill out and get a desk job like everyone else? I’d be in a decent pay bracket by now!
The stories you tell yourself are the biggest hurdle on your way to finishing.
Writers, painters, sculptors—all of us produce our work solo. Artists aren’t just emotionally sensitive by nature—the entire way that art gets done makes you emotionally sensitive. When you’re alone working you can hear every little click-clack of the keys, every breath you take, every little negative thought that bubbles up within.
You’re being irresponsible.
Do you know how rare it is for writers to make money?
Do you really think you have something to give the world that’s unique and necessary?
For those of us that love creating, the biggest hurdles are internal: they are the stories we tell ourselves. Here are some common ones:
- “There are too many books out there already.”
Of course there are. There are also too many brands of toilet paper, too many insurance companies, too many cans of diet sodas. Welcome to America.
2. “I don’t have the talent”
Talent is a myth. You weren’t born literate. How is that you read so well now? The more I practice, the more talented I seem to get. Weird, isn’t it?
3. “But what about money and insurance and blah blah blah?”
This is a biggie, and it tempts me every day. But listen, if you got into creative work for the money, then you are a FOOL. Go prowl the YouTube universe, learn persuasion, and get a sales job.
If you’re afraid of not having resources, then just go get an easy, flexible job. Drive for Lyft. Tutor online. Keep contact with that recruiter that emailed you the second you put a Bachelor’s degree on your LinkedIn account.
If you aren’t in danger of starving, then you can probably manage to write without getting paid for a while.
Stop letting your fears off the hook. Question them.
What is it that makes you quit? It might not be something that terrifies you; it might be something that makes writing unpleasant enough to never want to do.
Here’s a really valuable exercise that I adapted from Tim Ferris’s blog. It’s called fear-setting.
First, set one column in which you acknowledge your fears. Write them down, in complete sentence format. Then, make another column for each fear’s worst possible outcome. Then, write what you might do to repair these worst case scenarios. Are you dead or maimed in any of these scenarios? If no, then chances are, they can be endured.
Then, add two columns:
In one, write: Who would benefit from this work if I finished? Write specific names, and not just broad demographics.
If the person you, then make the final column about how you would specifically benefit from success–in terms of quality of life, self-esteem, your family’s well-being etc.?
For those that you write down that aren’t you, make this your question for the last column: What benefit are these people missing out on because they don’t have your work?
These are really important exercises. Your fears will take a much different shape if they’re on paper, and not in your head. They’ll also seem a lot different when you stop making your work all about yourself.
Because who cares if you accomplish your dreams?
No, really. It’s an important question. Who cares? Who’s life would be better if you did the brave thing, the thing everyone else seems to be putting off and bailing on, and stuck with it?
Believe me, someone out there needs you to create. This world is full of boring, bureaucratic jobs that leave people uninspired and depressed.
When I got down in the dumps, I turned to stand-up–Jim Gaffigan or Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld. Or I would watch the incredible TV show Atlanta.
What if none of those things got made? What if all that ever got made was diet soda and toilet paper?
God, save us from a world of robotic monotony!
Keep writing. Keep creating. Never quit.