Why You Aren't Writing
It's a little known secret, but it should be immediately obvious, that everyone is their own worst critic. Well, to be more precise: Everyone mis-estimates their own worth. These miscalculations fit into two categories:
- People who drastically overestimate how great they are (and you know who they are, it's just that they don't know it. It's like being tone deaf.)
- People who drastically underestimate how great they are (this is probably you.)
Now, in the former category, these are the people that crap out words on a page, or crap out a song, or crap out a movie, and you read/listen to/watch it and think to yourself: "Wow, that was crap. They just crapped that out. Did they even try? It's the crappiest thing I've ever seen/heard/watched. On the scale of crap, it's crap to the power of a million. I can't believe they wasted their time making it. I can't believe I wasted time watching it. I want that time back that I just wasted. I could spend five minutes and two brain cells and come up with something better than that in my sleep."
Ouch. I mean, nothing is more bitter than the bitterness of the unfulfilled dreamer.
But it begs an important question: So why didn't you?
There's a long list of excuses, and let's be clear, that's what they are: Excuses. Here's the top three that I can think of.
- I don't have time.
- I don't know the right people.
- I am not really very good.
In the case of the first two excuses, many discussions have been had about this problem. But to quickly address them: There's always time, you just might have to make room for it by sacrificing something else. In the case of the second, well, there's the internet. You can get your ideas in front of people easier than ever before. No cigar-smoking publisher can stop you.
Much hay is made about Stephanie Meyer, about the Twilight series, and people seem to enjoy talking about what a wretched series of books she wrote (sorry, Stephanie, don't kill the messenger), but the fact of the matter is, like it or not, she's popular. She didn't sit there worrying if she was any good or not. She just made the time, wrote something, and kids (and an astonishing number of older people, too) liked it.
Then came the publishing, the movie deals, and our jealousy.
Good or bad, you don't know if people will like it until you put it out there. If you don't put it out there, you have no right to complain that people haven't recognized your unexpressed genius.
"The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." Plato said that, and I just included it to show how smart I am.
No, actually, I included it because I think there's a corollary to that advice for artists. The price you pay for not putting your work out there, is to be forced to read the work of lesser artists and watch them receive all of the praise that you could have received. Stings, don't it?
It seems like really simple, pithy advice, but it held me back for years.
Justin Bieber started on YouTube, and now look at him. No, wait, don't look at him. Just look at his accomplishments, what an amazing phenomenon he turned into in such a relatively short time, at such a tender young age. Whether you like his music or not, he still became famous with a bit of effort, just by putting himself out there.
Now you can complain about the art of Stephanie Mayer, you can pooh-pooh the music of Justin Bieber all you want, and if you're in the position of being a critic, or a passive consumer of books and music, this might be valid.
If you're complaining because you're an aspiring musician, or an aspiring writer, and you haven't even put anything out there yet, then your problem is jealousy, and probably a healthy dose of self-doubt, too.
Now that I've spent all this time telling you what your problem is, without even knowing you, this is the part where I own up to being the very "you" that I'm criticizing. One day I just got tired of telling people about my secret dream of being an author, and reading other works where I thought I could do better, and decided to put my work out there, which is the website you're reading now.
I am as guilty of harsh self-criticism as anyone. Writing is a lot of work. Writing something good, something that meets my impossible standards, something that holds up when you read it again weeks or months later, that's hard. I'm not that hard on other authors, so why so hard on myself?
Remember what I said at the beginning? We're too close to it to be objective. We will almost always overestimate or underestimate our skills, and since we're a bunch of sensitive artsy sorts, the tendency is towards underestimation. We'll cut ourselves off at the knees before the critics even get the chance. There are certainly pompous writers out there, but most really good authors seem bewildered by their fandom, endlessly humbled by the praise they receive, as if they can never quite believe that people are talking about them when they themselves are fans of others whose work they feel is far, far better than anything they could ever write.
It's every creator's secret fear: I'm a hack, and one day they'll find out. For some of us, it feels like it's better to not let anyone find out in the first place. The problem is that we'll never find out if anyone thinks we're a star, either.
I got a real eye-opener recently. I started out this journey with the idea that I'd just put my first drafts out there, and let everyone know it was a first draft. This freed me in a few ways, because I don't have to be too personally-invested in the quality of the work, I don't have to tell people that this is the final version, or feel like I'm being judged on the very best that I can do. This helped me, and for me, this approach works. Not everyone has that luxury, but I still think it's good advice. Write the first draft knowing that it can be improved later, it doesn't matter if it sucks now.
There are gems there, but you have to fill the page with rocks first before you can mine them out.
Once I started commissioning art, and spending time on DeviantArt talking with visual artists, I realized how many of them are critical of their work, devotedly follow other artists and praise them, learn from them, and provide suggestions and helpful critiques to their fellows. ("You should try coptic pens, they are awesome! Maybe if you adjusted the perspective on the arms... Here's a video I made for how to draw eyes, it might help you!" )
It's a really positive atmosphere, and artists that feel like their work isn't very good? They still post it anyway. They don't care that it's not perfect, they own right up to their mistakes, and others will look at it and go, "Wait, you think there's mistakes in here? How critical you're being! This is amazing! I love this! It's my favorite! It's now my desktop wallpaper! <3 <3 <3!!!1!!11!"
Visual artists have it easier in some ways. They can get immediate feedback on their work. It doesn't take long to look at a piece of art, or a sketch, and give some kind of critique on it.
Getting people to read your 43 chapter manuscript in a timely fashion and give you feedback on it is a much greater investment in someone's time. Even a single chapter is going to take way more of their attention span than even the most intricate piece of visual art.
(Note, I'm not saying that writing is a better art form. It's just different.)
So stop trying to be perfect. It's the flaws that make a diamond. Just have fun with it, write something that interests you and trust that others will be interested as well.
If you get it wrong, you can always get it right later, either in a revision, or in a future work. If someone says something mean and hurtful to you about your work, or rejects it, well, just tell yourself what I do: It's not really done yet. This is just one of my works, there are others coming.
An artist is only as good, they say, as his (or her) last work. Do it for the right reasons: For the love of it, because the story is begging to get out, because you just want to see what you can do.
Don't try to second-guess your audience. Don't try to write something because you think that people will like it, or because you think it's what people want. Write for yourself, first, foremost, and always, and follow the story wherever it leads. If you're not interested in writing it, you can't expect readers to be interested in reading it. But if you are having fun, it's likely the readers will have fun, too.
The rewards to your soul will be greater than any stack of writing awards you could ever receive, and if it's good enough, it will outlast your body and inspire future generations. If not? Well, you made art. You are now a writer. You may be an author seeking to improve, but you still get to call yourself a writer. It will make all the future works you write so much easier.
But before all of that, there's the first draft. Write it, and move on, and don't get too attached to it. Remember: You can always make it perfect later. In the meantime, until that happens, people will judge your work based on its imperfections.
And that's okay. If they don't like it, they can crap out something better.