Hugh, your response is valuable to a lot of us. As you say, it’s definitely a good time to be a writer, and the opportunities are exciting. Can you offer your thoughts on how to deal with the feeling of needing to reinvent yourself as a writer. What I mean is, I imagine many aspiring writers have regular jobs and regular lives and writing is something done privately, very much on the side. Suddenly faced with the need/desire to get their work out there, they are faced with an uneasy disconnect between these two worlds–worried about criticism, or questions about their decision to share their art. It sounds ridiculous to think of being controlled by what others might think of you, but I think it’s a fear that sits just beneath the surface sabatoging dreams. Anyway, not sure if this is something you’ve dealt with, but curious how you might respond. Thanks!
That’s a great question, Eddy. I can only speak for myself, but the fear of publishing is almost crippling. I dread putting my work out there for others to critique. I always assume people will hate it, even as I pass my manuscript to my wife and mother for them to go over. When I first realized that strangers were reading my work, it kept me up at night. This is why you will never find me saying anything like: “My book is awesome; you should read it.” It’s not something I believe.
I don’t think this is true of all writers, but I don’t think it’s uncommon either. I meet writers all the time who know their work is great. Justin Cronin had that confidence about him, and deservedly so. Maybe getting your MFA and surviving the gauntlet of so much professorial and peer-based criticism hones your craft and your confidence. Many of us who are hobbyists don’t have that rigorous training. We go from writing on the side to announcing to friends and family that we’ve produced a novel. We go straight from this to making our works available to the world. There is very little build-up. There isn’t much time to come to grips with the idea of being a writer.
My method of bridging this gap was to start small and start with people I knew and trusted. I pounded out my first novel in very little time. When I realized I’d written a book — a lifelong dream — I began the process of convincing the world (and myself) that I was a writer. While editing my work to make it suitable for digestion, I started a blog, a website, a Twitter account, and later a Facebook page. I initially used these to write from the perspective of my main character, to share chapters and writing samples, and to make short stories and autobiographical accounts freely available. I also sent my manuscript to anyone who would read it. I didn’t concern myself with copyrights, the chance of ideas being stolen, the fear of giving away my work. I simply put myself out there in dribs and drabs, starting with the people closest to me.
Getting anyone to read my work was a chore. I think this helps. You combat the fear of people reading your stuff by the reality that nobody really wants to. This gets you begging them to give it a shot. “Here. It’s not very good. I have a lot of work to do on it. But what do you think?” You slowly get used to not hearing back from people, from hearing that it’s merely okay, and then — maybe — that they really liked something.
My first cousin Lisa was an early fan of the Molly books. She raved. She made her mother and friends read my manuscript, and they raved. This gave me the strength to get the work out there. However — and this has been the hardest thing to work on (I haven’t made much progress) — thinking that my work sucks makes it easy to discount the raves from those who think otherwise and even easier to believe the criticisms, however harsh. I don’t have good advice on how to handle this. The answer is probably to stop looking at what people say about your work, but this is difficult.
As painful as the process can be, having dreams stifled — as you point out in your question — is far worse. This is where we overcome our fears. For most of us who write, I think we can’t *not* write. It’s a compulsion. It starts from our being avid readers and wanting to concoct our own stories. We have a dream of writing a novel one day. And the high that comes from completing this journey, which anyone who has finished a book can attest to, is usually enough to move our baby out into the world.
What’s amazing is how quickly you will go from being terrified that anyone will see your words to convinced that nobody ever will, and from there to asking the next question every writer faces. What begins as crippling self-doubt and fear of exposure normally graduates to insecure self-promotion and the fear of obscurity. How to have your work discovered becomes the next major hurdle. You may loathe the day that your words are freely available to the eyes of strangers, but you’ll get used to the idea of putting yourself out there while nobody is really looking. So by the time they finally do, you’ll have braced your soul for impact. Besides, the worser danger is never giving yourself a chance to fail, however painful.