This morning started with an article from The Writer Magazine in my inbox. Now, I don’t normally read the newsletter-ish sorts of emails that spam my inbox, but this headline caught my pre-coffee brain. Why are Writers so Prone to Self-Doubt?
It made me immediately ask, “Am I prone to self-doubt?” Which is hilarious because I am so anxiety-riddled on a daily basis I can hardly make appointments for basic things and am a constant over-thinker. Of course I’m prone to self-doubt! I’m so prone to it I don’t even recognize it any more!
Anyway, it’s a lengthy article that looks at the various sources of anxiety and doubt for us Writer Types and it got me thinking about what my writerly doubts are and how I’ve coped with them. And since it’s early, and my brain is chugging away at something meaty, I thought I’d share.
The Big One: Rejection
One thing that the non-writers in my life seem to struggle with is when I tell them I’ve had a story rejected. Usually we’re mid-conversation (or dinner or movie or or or…) and I stop engaging to look at my phone. I’ve received an email from that market that’s had my story for months, and of course the subject line is just “RE: SUBMISSION”.
Now, I know the odds. Trust me, I’ve received enough rejections (and a few acceptances) at this point to know I am almost certainly looking at a rejection. But there’s that tiny part of me, the Writer who never gives in, that bubbles up in my chest and says, “What if…?”
So I hold my breath (I always do, I can’t help it) and open the email. And — oh look — a rejection. Exhale, screen off, return to the conversation (or dinner or movie or or or…). Of course now I realize how incredibly rude I’ve just been and say, “sorry, just got a rejection.”
Their face does that little crumply frown of concern. “Oh no! I’m so sorry!”
I wave them off. “It’s fine, I just need to remember to send it out again when I get home.” And that just confuses them. And that confused me for a long time. I mean, yes, rejection sucks but it is part of the process if you want your work published. There’s no avoiding it. So, early on, I just sort of braced for impact and gritted my teeth. Ate some ice cream while I spent 15-20 minutes looking for the next market, and then sent it off again.
Now I don’t even bother with the ice cream.
But for folks unaccustomed to rejection, this is one of their biggest fears. Sharing something they worked hard on, put their soul into and are proud of, only to be told it isn’t good enough. I mean, looking at it like that, it does sound miserable. But… it just doesn’t feel like that anymore. Part of it is the practice, right? You submit, get rejected, submit again and that builds armor. There’s a whole ding-dang blog about it! (Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy is a super neat site that likens rejection to a class in D&D and how you level up and gain armor, etc. Check it out!)
The other part is realizing what I do and don’t have control over. Now, part of being an incredibly Anxious™ person is a desperate need to feel in control of most things. Relinquishing said control is… difficult. But, with publishing there’s no control to be relinquished. I never had any to start with. The only thing I can control is the writing and where I choose to send it. So, to “ease” my anxiety over the whole process, the story must be as good as I can possibly make it and I need to research and carefully choose what markets I submit to. That’s it. That’s all I can do.
It’s all any of us can do. And that’s why I don’t mind rejections. They aren’t personal, they are an inseparable part of the process.
So, What About My Writing do I Doubt?
Oh man. Well, for awhile, during the pandemic, I actually started to doubt my idea generation. That’s never been an issue for me in the past, but my brain was so creatively empty for so long that I started to wonder if I was tapped out. I now know that I’m fine and have plenty of ideas — my creative brain just decided to take a sabbatical.
I doubt my ability to write really powerful, literary Speculative Fiction. I’m thinking N.K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, and Sam J. Miller here. They are freaking powerhouses writing story after story, novel after novel that just consistently blow my mind. I doubt my ability to blow anyone’s mind, either with plot or craft. That doesn’t mean I’m not trying! I am. Like I said in my post last week, I keep reaching and trying new things because 1. it’s fun, and 2. it’s going to help me grow as a writer.
Kevin Hearne said it best on his short-lived podcast Ask the Bards, “Write more, write different, write better.”
But, my biggest doubt, or maybe my biggest fear is that I’m too transparent in my work. I don’t realize it while I’m writing, but when I go back to revise so many little things from my life are staring back up at me. To me they are SO. PAINFULLY. OBVIOUS. Anyone who knows me at all is going to read that and see all of me in those lines. Even the parts I don’t typically share. Maybe especially those parts.
We call that vulnerability and I hate it. Anxiety Brain, remember? I can’t control how others perceive me through my writing. Writing is a two-way street, an art experiment that is only complete when read by an audience. I can do my damndest to be clear with my themes and subjects and characters, but ultimately the final interpretation happens within the reader.
And that I cannot control.
I try. Oh, do I ever try. I am very selective about who gets to read my drafts. Seeing the work before it’s “finished” is probably the biggest declaration of trust I can ever make. Trust and that I value your opinion. It’s me opening a door into my consciousness and saying, “come on in! Sorry about the mess.”
But even this flex of control is just a balm. Because once a story is published, it is out of my hands. I can’t control who does or doesn’t read it, how they react to it. If they like it. Or how it might change their perception of me. Writer Brittany and World Brittany are two very different people.
At least, I think they are.
One is meant for public consumption, the face I present at work, in my community, even to my friends to some extent. Writer Brittany is… well she’s real weird, all right? She thinks about death a lot, and about love too. She imagines tentacled, spectral moose monsters attacking subway trains and thinks it’s funny. And she seems kind of obsessed with characters whose decisions lead to isolation and loneliness, because they won’t open up to the people who care about them.
There’s that vulnerability again. I still hate it. But if it’s there on the page then, yes, people will read it. They’ll see it. But most importantly, they’ll feel it. And they’ll know that, in some ways, the story was real.
That’s called authenticity, and in fiction it is everything.
The conclusion then is that our doubts and/or fears are probably pointing to areas in our work that we need to embrace. That we should emphasize and focus on. Because what makes us uncomfortable makes us grow, right?
I don’t know, man. Take from that what you will. I have a novel to edit.