Insecurity is part of being a writer as much as fascination and frustration, and even the toughest, most acclaimed authors share this horrible absence of confidence now and then. There’s no way to outrun it, the best chance we have is to learn how to deal with that inner voice in our own way.
But it turns out there is quite a variety of ways in which we can feel insecure. Writers are creative with their fears (who’da thunk it) and each experiences his very own brand of low. Some worry they’re untalented impostors, others that they’ll never finish what they started, some that they’ll never be published by a major house, others that they’ll never be famous like so-and-so and win awards.
There’s even an Insecure Writer’s Support Group, hosted by Alex J. Cavenaugh, that rounds up writers / bloggers who share their insecurities and support each other every first Wednesday of the month. I’m sure you’ve come across their posts every now and then, and the majority of these people are very open and very supportive.
It’s important to note that those gloomy thoughts we have about our talent and our work do not reflect reality. We cannot be objective judges of our own artistic output, it’s impossible. We will either love what we do, or hate it, but we’ll never judge it impartially. A good way to know if we’re going in the right direction, if we’re accomplishing what we set out to do in a satisfactory (hell, even extraordinary) way, is to compare ourselves with those who’ve gone before us. To look at the writers who’ve done it, and check how well we’re on our way.
Aaah… but the writer’s brain is a creative bastard, and this is just another opportunity for that frothing creativity to come tear up our mojo’s ass.
What we compare ourselves and our work to will determine whether we feel smugly superior and indolent, motivated and eager, or intimidated and utterly crushed. The writers we admire and the books we love may be wonderful, but they may be very different from us and our work, and trying to draw parallels may be irrational. This is particularly true for science-fiction where the subgenres differ enormously, and where the writers are sometimes as similar to each other as ravens are to writing desks. If you write science-fiction romance, don’t try to compare your talent and work with that of a hard science-fiction writer. Or if you write psychological thrillers, like me, don’t look at space opera writers for correspondence, there is none. None that is constructive and useful, at least.
I’m no stranger to insecurity. In fact, at the moment, I’m pretty much convinced my work of this past year is nothing but utterly ludicrous drivel. And it’s a tough job to pull myself together and get back to work. But I think I know what the problem is, and my experience tells me it always helps to unpack one’s own attitudes and thoughts, and look at them with a critical eye.
I’ve been making unsuitable comparisons, and it almost brought my momentum to a painful, screeching halt. Over this past month I dug into space operas and alien encounter epics, and even though I love them, really luurve their greatness and vastness, they are fundamentally dissimilar to what I write and hugely surpass my scope. Closing a book like Pandora’s Star and going back to my revision felt like trading places with an earthworm. I suddenly found myself squirming through muck, nearsighted and insignificant, and totally discouraged. I thought, my novel is nothing like the awesome books I’ve read, it’s so much smaller in scope, so much narrower in coverage… it’s never gonna measure up.
Epics with casts of dozens, exploring an entire society with all its layers, hinging on events that affect millions, possibly several species, and spread leisurely over 800+ pages, are nothing like what I write. I mean—holy crap! Do you know how freakin amazing most of those books are? The sheer imaginative power, the groundbreaking ideas and heart-stopping discoveries, the amplitude of the vision and the weight of the implications and repercussions… so very daunting. How can anyone hope to reach that level, let alone with a debut novel? It’s ridiculous. What was I thinking? I can’t write to that level. *sobs and blows snot bubbles*
But the thing is, I don’t have to. I don’t write that kind of books. SO WHAT if they’re awesome? It’s not like the world has a limited supply of awesome, and it’s already been tapped and distributed by a selected few. There’s demand in the world for all kinds of awesome. There’s demand for my kind of awesome as well—for all our awesome!
I know that most insecurities in life come from using the wrong measuring rod. This is true in our personal life, in our family and our professional life, and it’s equally true in the day-to-day work of writing fiction. What we compare ourselves to can stall us in our development, it can motivate us, or it can demoralize and crush us.
For example, it won’t get us anywhere to compare ourselves to some shmuck and his masterpiece about how Joe Everybody contemplates himself without the aid of intellectual lubricant, or how Jane Shallow conquered true love with no other opposition than her lack of perfect shoes. Even knowing for certain we can do much better than that doesn’t help us improve. It might make our chest stick out for a moment, but the lazy confidence resulting from comparing ourselves to those below us on a daily basis, is not conductive to progress. Equally, comparing ourselves to masters of craft and story who dominate other areas of literature, other genres or other times, can smother our creativity and personality. It happens far too often that fresh writers lose their own voice even before they fully develop it, because their vision inadvertently transforms into star-gazing.
The only healthy way I see that we can truly measure and motivate ourselves, is to understand what we are writing, to fully understand what our own talent is, and then make sure we damn right excel at it. To be true to ourselves at all times, and work hard—always work hard—to be better than the draft before.
Reading authors who write stories of similar scopes and sizes like ours, and understanding what their talent is and how they used that to make their stories unique, can teach us the importance of our own skills and the confidence to use them. The most important lesson we can learn is to follow our own hearts and imaginations. Our strength lies in what makes us unique, not in how close we come to being like someone else, however much we admire them.