Last week, a young writer asked if I had any insecurities about my writing. My initial response was, yes, of course I have insecurities. I wouldn’t be a writer if I wasn’t on some level insecure about my writing (and in general about everything for always and forever).
However, after some retrospection, I realized I’m in a much better place than I was when I started.
Let’s assume you’re Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or William Faulkner or Anne Rice or Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver or Amy Tan or Denis Johnson, I’m sure you have a level of self-awareness with which the anxiety we all confront about whether our work is any good or not dissolves.
So those writers are on one end of a spectrum. On the other end is someone starting their very first story and isn’t delusional enough to think their work will be as good and well-regarded as those writers he or she idolizes. (The person that is that delusional is in for a rough time.)
With each piece, your confidence grows. If you’re a hopeless romantic zen hippy like me, you could even break this down to each word, each edit, each second you spend thinking about your writerly pursuits. Of course, everyone is different, and perhaps even after winning a Pulitzer, Pushcart, Hugo, or Stoker, there might be some imposter syndrome or whatever wherein you question your accomplishment.
That’s all natural.
The point is, if you have insecurities about your writing and can’t see yourself having confidence in your work, trust me that you will. From what I’ve observed in other writers and in my own experience, the more words you put to paper, the more your confidence grows. It isn’t a linear progression, and there may be other factors at play (such as age feeding into a general indifference to what other people think), but I do believe it is a constant. Some writers will struggle with it their whole lives, while it may only be a slight anxiety for others. I doubt it ever fully goes away for any of us, but I do think it gets better. I also believe, to grow and progress as a writer, you will come to terms with your insecurity because you have to.
Be earnest and honest with yourself and in your writing.
I have a BA in English (with a concentration in creative writing!). When I graduated, I found myself expecting perfection and restricting my exploration of genre even though I was no longer under the influence of outside forces exerting those expectations onto me. I did still have some friends who reinforced those expectations. As a result, I didn’t write anything for almost four years.
Then, one day, I decided I was going to write a novel, and that novel was going to be about zombies in space. It was a ridiculous idea, but I realized I hadn’t written in so long because I wasn’t allowing myself to have fun, and I wasn’t allowing myself to have fun because I was supposed to be making art, and I was supposed to be making art because, well, literary institutions say so? Whatever. All of that pressure I felt had crushed my willingness to write what I loved because I was insecure about it. I learned I had to let that go because my insecurities were mine. No one else was making me feel insecure. That was on me.
So, I had this idea that I thought was silly but also fun, and I decided I would do it as legitimately and earnestly as possible. I decided I really wanted to write that story because I believed in it and it was fun and it was awesome and I like awesome things and that’s okay because that’s part of what makes me who I am.
Your work has value. Full stop.
When I finished that novel (it’s that one I called Carrier), I felt that it was probably a 3/5-star book. I didn’t expect to rocket into literary legend status. But it was as good as it was going to be, and I loved it for its strengths more than I was ashamed of its weaknesses and imperfections. Either I was going to sit on it, or I was going to share it. I chose the latter because it seemed necessary to move on, but some writers get all the satisfaction they need out of the writing itself.
Publishing was freeing in a sense because I was proud of something, and I knew I would only get better and continue to be proud of the things I made. For me, it wasn’t the only book I was going to publish. It was the start of something.
I realized it’s all bull shit: the expectations, the standards, the cultural pressures to do things others consider art. Art is in one’s ability to appreciate a work, not in one’s ability to create it. Art happens when an artist connects with an audience. It does not solely lie with the artist.
This means there is value in your work. <—period
Live as a writer.
If you’re seeking advice about how to become a writer, you will read all too often that, to be a good writer, you must write a lot and read a lot. That’s true, but it’s also important to live a lot.
As writers, we have our eyes on the wrong thing if our goal is to produce a great work and we admonish ourselves and each other for not achieving perfection. Our goal should be to live a meaningful writer life. Doing so also helps build confidence, and that means taking pride in any writer pursuit in which you succeed (even a blog post like this, which remains to be judged as successful).
And for most of us, this means coming to terms with the fact that we will probably never make a living on our fiction writing.
So, when you let go of the expectations and let your true writer self out, when you recognize your work has value regardless of what anyone says, and when you realize it’s more important to live as a writer than it is to write to live, there is some kind of homeostasis that I, at least, have discovered.
This is what gives me confidence in my work. I want to be great, and I want to be accomplished. I want to win awards, and I want to sell a novel for six figures and be on the NY Times Bestsellers list. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
It’s okay that those things haven’t come to pass yet. Maybe I’ll get there. Maybe I won’t. My story isn’t finished, and yours isn’t either. We keep writing, hoping we each strike the match with one of our pieces, but until then, we find satisfaction and fulfillment in the work we do produce through earnest efforts and honest creativity. We put ourselves onto pages and send them into the indifferent universe with no expectations because, in completing that act, we have already met those expectations.
And maybe we make some friends along the way.
That, to me, is the point to all of this, and it far overshadows the fact that I am not yet a great writer or accomplished. We’re all at different mile markers of different roads, but we all have one thing in common: we’re moving forward, and that also gives me confidence.
Here’s my new story. Maybe it’s not as good as my last one, but guess what. It’s another story in my body of work, and I like it. It’s okay if you don’t, because I have others, and I will write others still.