the struggle

Is this a thing for everyone?

Writing creatively catches me up in a depressive fever. There are times (although not exactly often) when I take joy in the act of writing and when the things that I have written make me feel proud and/or good about myself. But usually I am living in a shadow of recriminations, self-doubt, and stress that I’m spread to thin and not doing anything right. It puts me in a pretty constant black mood, easy to irritate or inflame but also guilty about my irritability and questioning whether any creative project is worth the negative effects my attitude has on people around me as well as myself.

This emotional storm was one of the reasons I stopped writing two years ago when I went on a self-imposed hiatus. I have definitely felt good about the fact that I’ve gone back to writing these last five months. The hiatus made me sad and the novel I was trying to write then made me sad (or maybe a bigger, more malaise-y kind of upset than sad) for going unwritten. Now I’m sad that the fact that I’m writing it doesn’t mean it’s any good, and that I’m not doing it justice.

I’m not sure how much of it is to do with my job–maybe the fact that my job in particular is hard to juggle at the same time a creative writing endeavor, which creates a sense that I’m not doing either well. Or maybe better to say it creates a terrible resentment toward my job if I prioritize that over my writing, and a terrible guilt toward my job when I prioritize my writing.

I have often come back to the having one’s cake conversation in my head. I have a job I love and that I’m good at. It’s something I still want to be doing in 20 or 30 or 50 years. Which is why throwing it aside to focus on a creative project just seems … foolish, selfish, short-sighted, privileged, silly. Especially when the project is of extremely questionable merit. But how much of that is because I’m not applying myself whole-heartedly or doing right by it? Am I actually missing my true calling?

No one can answer this question for me. I know that. I can’t answer it for myself, although I really need to try harder to do so.

I am curious though if other people go through this. My co-worker told me a few days ago that he never had these kinds of feelings; he never doubted that he would have a novel published someday. I asked him what the key to finding such confidence in sense of purpose. He snorted, told me to quit my job, sign up for an MFA, and spend two years reading and thinking about craft. I know he didn’t mean it the way I took it (he may even have been being facetious), but to me it sounded like a reminder that I didn’t deserve to write a book, because I hadn’t paid my dues to the process–which honestly resonated very deeply. It is something I have often thought about other people who think writing a book is an easy thing, a hobby.

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3 Responses to the struggle

  1. K says:

    Many things to say here…

    1. Every writer struggles with self-doubt. The ones who don’t probably aren’t very good writers. Partially because being an artist is to never be static, is to be constantly evolving, and how can you evolve if you already think you’ve already arrived and are perfect? There’s no room for improvement. But balancing that, paradoxically, is that to a certain degree, every writer believes they’ll make it. Or if not, that they *deserve* to make it. Or that they *can* make it. You have to simultaneously believe you’re awful and also simultaneously believe that there’s no way in hell you won’t make it. It’s the only way to stay sane. So doubt is not not-normal. It’s perfectly normal. In fact, the more you write, the more you’ll doubt. The better you get, the more you become aware how far you have to go. You become more and more aware of the odds .But you know what? You also become more aware of how many writers DO make it (I mean, you know, you’re an editor) and how many shitty books make it. At the end of the day the only thing that matters is that you love your project and it excites you and changes you and makes you weep and makes you happy and that you believe it needs to be out there in the world. You have no control over anything else; you barely even have control over how well the book is received, or the limits to your skill, but you have control of what you focus on, and I think, as long as it’s something you love, it’s worth it.

    2. How do you get that confidence that you will write a book? Just stop thinking so hard. You don’t need an MFA or whatnot. It’s not about “paying dues”, it’s about creating a life in which you’ve promised yourself that this is an important part of your life. I think the problem you have is that you have one foot in and one foot out. This isn’t to say you can’t be both an editor and a writer (there are plenty of editors who are writers, no?); it’s about you giving yourself permission to be both. There isn’t some magical formula here for you to figure out — the only thing you have to do is tell yourself: YES I AM AN EDITOR and YES I AM A WRITER. If you tell yourself you’re a fake, you’re going to feel like a fake, and if you feel like a fake, then you are a fake. If you tell yourself that you are devoting a portion of your psyche and heart to being a writer, then you will feel like a writer, and then you will be a writer. Being a writer isn’t about publishing; it’s a fucking mindset. So stop having the mindset that just because you are worried you aren’t doing your book justice, that that means you’re not a writer. There are SO MANY bad books but I bet you anything those authors always believed they would publish. And they will tell you happily that they gave what they could to those books. And you know what? Good for them. You can apply yourself wholeheartedly to both. Few writers get the luxury of devoting their lives ENTIRELY to writing. If it’s not editing and writing, it’s teaching and writing. Sure some of us have throwaway dayjobs, but with that comes a whole other slew of issues. So don’t be misled. Don’t let it be an excuse for your insecurities.

    3. You’re too hard on yourself. I’ve said this a bunch of times, but you are. No one believes they are doing their material justice — they just muddle through and do the best they can. Like I said, love your work, believe in it, believe it is a story that must be told, and a story that must be told by you. That’s it. That’s all there is. That’s the only certainty we get as writers. And it’s the only reason we should write. Not for glory or vanity or prizes. But because there is a story that only we can tell. Your family’s story is your story. Nobody else can do it any more justice than you because it’s YOUR story. So already you’re miles ahead of the curve here. The rest of it is just buckling down. Giving yourself room to dream on a page. Let it be fun. Let it wreck you. Remember why you like to write — it should be something that is an outlet, that brings you joy, that moves you. Let it be that. If you’re clutching on too tightly, if you’re trying to control it too hard, it can’t possibly be, and that’s why you’re going to despise it. Give it room to be what it’s going to be and give yourself room to fuck up. Half of being an artist is fucking up. Sometimes fucking up creates the best accidents that turn into turns of brilliance. Stop worrying. Just let it be.

    4. ^ Once you do that — I think writing becomes the best thing. On my worst days, on days I hate life, or I’m in a bad mood, or I’m sad about something — the last thing I want to do is write. But usually if I force myself to, at the end, life is great. I feel happy. I feel lighter. It doesn’t matter if I didn’t get anything amazing down; if I just let loose and wrote a scene and had fun with it and invested myself in it, my whole mood shifts. It doesn’t make other tangible problems disappear but it makes them feel less like they matter. That’s what writing should be. Not a job, not a chore, but a solace. It took me two years out of my MFA to remember that, to reclaim it. For a long time, every time I sat down to write, I ended up in sobs. And it was because I expected too much out of myself. It was because I started seeing my writing as something that I HAD TO DO in a way that had to make it worth all the investment I made in leaving my career and putting myself in debt. And it wasn’t fun anymore. It wasn’t enjoyable anymore. I didn’t care about anything I wrote about but I was trying to force myself to. I cared about characters only as words on paper, instead of being invested in them, and telling their tales, and channeling them. It took two years to undo that. For those two years I felt toxic, I hated life, I hated writing, I was bitter and unhappy at my the idea of writing. Now I know better. Any time I feel that old panic coming on, I remind myself — I do this because I love it, because this story matters to me. That’s all. That’s all that matters. I may not be Pulitzer Prize winning, I may never be one of the best, but I’m doing the best I can, and I’m doing it with joy.

    You are far too hard on yourself. You are a great writer. All you have to do is learn to let go of your fear.


  2. K says:

    Also, I once struggled with being a writer — bc I too thought it was selfish and privileged. To a degree it is — we’re not curing cancer here — but believe that words change lives. Believe that it matters, if not just to you, but to others. That there are important and valuable things to be learned and felt from the stories you have to tell. Don’t sell your project short. If you really feel that your project is selfish and privileged, then you shouldn’t be doing it because writing a novel requires you to believe absolutely in its importance and for you to be taken by it. But I think you DO believe in your project. So now, can you please, for the sake of your project, believe in yourself too? Because it’s really quite unfair to it to have its leader being all self-hatey. I mean imagine if your mother ran around at every turn, while she’s raising you and cooking for you and teaching you multiplication tables all the while muttering, I never should have been a mother, I’m a terrible mother, another mother would be better at this than me, I can’t believe they let me have children, how selfish of me to have children, how can I possibly raise these kids — like ALL the time. Yeah, that’s what you’re doing to your novel. So stop it!

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