When I was young, I dreamed of being a published writer, my novels on shelves of stores, interviewed by important people like Oprah. Such fantasies were easy to conjure because I knew what my writing end-goal looked like: a hardcover novel you could hold between your hands, with pages that smelled of ink and time and anticipation.
This fantasy was an inexhaustible vehicle for my creative intentions. I found no issue tucking myself away in my bedroom while the rest of my family hung out in the kitchen, talking about everything other than reading or writing. At school during indoor recess, instead of playing Scrabble I was working on a murder mystery. My stories filled dozens of notebooks and journals. In other words—the act of writing, being motivated to write, clearly wasn’t a problem.
Rather, I was stymied that I couldn’t just become a published novelist because that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. Plenty of other people get to be what they wanted to be when they grew up … why couldn’t I? I mean, I was doing the work, paying the dues. How come things aren’t happening the way I dreamed they would?
Well, I was never forewarned that my success would be highly dependent on what other people think and if they like what I wrote (that writers don’t get published simply by sending in a completed, proofread manuscript and waiting your turn—did anyone else think that’s how it happened? Rejections and query letters—nope, not something I knew about at the tender age of fourteen, the height of my dreaming).
I didn’t have a mentor to guide me, someone to tell me, “Dreams are great! Now you have to think about how you’re going to make it possible, because to make a dream come true you need a plan.”
Unfortunately, I went sideways a bit when I kept hitting these strange roadblocks on my writing journey otherwise known as “literary agents.”
What the hell is going on? I couldn’t figure out the problem. I’d been taking workshops and reading plenty of How-to-Write books and attending my fair share of conferences. Why couldn’t I make things work? Why don’t people like what I’m writing?
My difficulty finding success made me think I had no talent.
And then the torrent of bad thoughts swooped in. Writing is as impossible as breeding unicorns. I should go back to school for paper shuffling, because I’m super-good at that. I hit my first real writer’s block, paralyzed, no doubt, by the fear of having no talent. These people don’t like what I’m writing because I’m untalented.
This is the moment where I began to see the set of rules I once operated by were no longer effective, if in fact, they even existed outside of my own magical thinking. Much like a child’s subsequent breakdown and assimilation of reality upon learning there really is no such thing as Santa Claus, I lost faith that I could ever be what I wanted to be when I grew up.
All because I was looking at my work through someone else’s eyes.
The subjectivity of art, and how I allow that to manipulate my own thought process, is what makes writing hard for me. My worst flaw is putting the brakes on a project when I get one dose of negative feedback. Conversely, when I receive ten doses of positive comments on the same project, I will tell myself, “Mm, I should still send it out to other readers.” Why is that? Why do I allow one person’s dislike of my work stall me out, but encouragement and cheers from ten readers aren’t enough to make me think my book works?
Of course, this ridiculous behavior boils down to fear of not being accepted by general society. This fear I can point, in all certainty, to my childhood and adolescence. I was the quintessential outcast because I was Miss Goody Two-Shoes and a bookworm. Add the sad fact my mother liked to dress me in bright-red corduroys printed with blue French horns or frilly calico dresses with petticoats and stockings. I was not the popular kid. I was usually picked last for PE teams (and not because I wasn’t athletic enough, but because I wasn’t liked enough). To avoid awkward social situations, I buried myself in my writing. But choosing to hide away with stories rather than be snubbed socializing only worsened my social status.
Vicious cycle is established.
Taking a page from my psych courses in college, I theorize that, somewhere in my subconscious, I have blamed my writing for my lack of social acceptance. Ergo, my writing will never be socially accepted.
A while back, a young writer paid some money to have a very popular blogger/writing teacher read and provide feedback on the first fifty pages of her manuscript. She did not choose the help frivolously; she thought she had picked wisely based on this person’s witty blog posts, hard-nosed writing advice, and because her website has won a number of awards (not the kind bloggers give each other, but handed out by high-status writers–you know, like from one popular person to another …).
The popular, award-winning blogger/writing teacher TORE this young writer’s pages apart. Having no premise or synopsis to work from, edits and comments were made on pure guesswork of what the story was about. Added to that was an overall snarky, pompous, degrading attitude that backhanded the writer into next week; an attitude that this particular “teacher” actually brags about as being “effective”—as if the truth is supposed to hurt, otherwise it can’t possibly be the truth. The kind of person who gets off on their own half-wit—I’m sure we’ve all met someone like that.
By the time this writer came to me, she was leveled. She thought her writing was no good, all because someone on their high horse took advantage of an opportunity. To me, it seemed as if this teacher had personal unresolved writing aggressions and abused their position of authority because they happened to be well-liked, even lauded, in the blogging world.
Sounds just like middle school, doesn’t it?
But creativity is hardy stuff, fellow writers.
The cruel comments might have knocked her down, but they didn’t destroy her. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have come to me for writing help. Over time (and lots of wine), not only did she gain a clearer, stronger, healthier perspective on herself, but I learned something too.
Maybe subjectivity can be a positive force. We are human, so we will make art that sucks and we will make art that soars. The fact some people will like what others don’t like (and vice versa) should serve to remind us that there is room to grow and improve and learn, if we so choose. Or we can opt to simply enjoy the experience, and take it day by day, and see where our journeys lure us.
Subjectivity allows us that freedom, because, in this realm, there are no steadfast rules by which to operate. Here, magical thinking is actually a buffer, a cushion to rest upon when you need to reassess or rejuvenate. What you believe will differ from what I believe will differ from what Conroy or Follett or Hoffman believe. And they all count.
You know how much room to play that actually allows us? We are not stuck to meeting one expectation; there is a spectrum of possibilities at our whim. We are free to take our time, mold our lumps of words however we see fit, and find the right readership that make us feel good about the work we’ve done. A readership we want to write for again.
I could see the victimized writer’s talent, where another writer couldn’t.
Art is subjective, after all.
How about you, fellow writer? What’s hard about writing for you?