Thursday, July 22, 2021

The Confidence Game

I've had a lot of writing-related stuff on my mind lately, as you can probably tell from all the essays. I've been sharing a lot of it on the blog because I'm hoping it will help other writers. Being an author can be an emotionally and psychologically complex experience. I hope that what I have to say will help writers in their journey of understanding how they relate to their work and their audience.

Recent occurrences have led me to the realization that I have been chronically stressed about my writing because I have been lacking confidence in my abilities as a writer. And I'm not okay with this, because at its core I love writing, and I don't think God gave me these creative talents as a source of stress; I think He wants me to fully enjoy what is supposed to be an enjoyable process. Laborious, yes, but enjoyable, not anxiety-inducing.

Let me start with some background. Growing up, I never wanted to be a writer. In high school and junior high, I wanted to be a scientist. In high school, I changed my career ambition to graphic novelist. In college, I studied for a degree in animation production because I knew it had an overlapping skillset with illustration and storytelling. But I was not one of those kids who wrote all the time. I liked telling stories, sure, but most of the time my stories were more visual than verbal (comics, character designs, etc.).

So I think when I started writing novels in earnest after college, I started out with impostor syndrome. I felt like a "fake" compared to other people my age who had spent their entire life doing "real" "writing writing". I felt like I had a lot to catch up on to get to their level--assuming I could ever reach their level. It didn't help that I had some "real writer" friends who were very critical of my work, and of course, since they were "writer lifers" compared to my bumbling amateurism, I took their word as gospel.

But after nearly a decade spent writing novels (and copious amounts of fanfiction in-between), I still felt that way. I still had a tape running in my head with stuff like "I'm not good enough yet", "I still have so much to learn before I can be a 'real' writer", and "I'm sure there's plenty that's terribly wrong with this manuscript". I felt like I hadn't yet earned the right to feel confident about my work.

And perhaps just as damaging, I decided that other people were the ones responsible for deciding when I reached that point. When anyone had anything critical to say about my writing - even if it was a matter of pure personal taste - I became deeply disappointed in myself for doing it "wrong". When someone praised my writing, I was elated--but then I would begin to fall into the trap of people-pleasing, trying desperately to get them to like more of my work. 

Both results were very stressful. I grew to simultaneously dread and hunger for feedback. I had to keep knowing what was wrong with my work, I thought, despite all the emotional anguish it caused me. I had to keep hammering out the flaws and nitpicking until everything was so completely perfect that no one could find any fault with it. And, I read tons of articles about writing, clicking on every relevant link in an attempt to learn everything about what I could do better with my work, and often just ending up confused at all the strange and sometimes conflicting information on my computer screen.

Well, I can tell you right now that going about my writing career like that was not making me a happy writer. It was making me a stressed, dissatisfied, frustrated writer.

Very recently, however, I came to two important realizations, viz.:

1) I have a very difficult time taking criticism. I always have. Even after plenty of research on how to receive criticism as a writer, it's still very emotionally taxing for me. I can count on one hand - and not even use all the fingers on that hand - the number of editors I've worked with whose feedback has helped me feel better about my work rather than worse. Those editors have been very, very good at couching their comments in an extremely gentle and encouraging manner. They also were big fans of my work to begin with, so I knew they were not coming from a place of eyeing my writing skeptically and just slogging through it for the money.

2) If something is consistently upsetting me, despite my repeated attempts to minimize my emotional reaction, then... (wait for it, this is going to sound crazy) ... maybe I need to stop exposing myself to it. Whoa. Mind blown.

Writers, I'm here to tell you that your emotions are important and are usually trying to tell you something. If anything about your writing keeps giving you a bad gut reaction, it's worth a serious second look. This holds true even for things that you've been told are "necessary", such as marketing, social media, or on-trend book covers. Or even getting lots of feedback.

Okay, don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying my first draft is ready to go to print. I highly value the expertise of a skilled story editor and a skilled proofreader to catch things that my own eyes and mind just miss. 

What I am saying is that I don't actually need everyone's opinion on my writing. Because most of the time, it's not going to affect my work. If you don't like my books, you don't like my books. It's not my fault, it's not your fault. It's just a difference in taste. There are plenty of books I dislike as a matter of personal taste. With so many different personalities in the world, I know it's impossible to write a book that everybody will understand and find appealing. Someone subjectively disliking an element of my books is a non-issue for me--so much of a non-issue that it does nothing to help me be a better writer, and thus I do not feel at all compelled anymore to pay attention to it.

For example, I've gotten some feedback that the Passerim in the Azhnar Duology sound unintelligent because they have Southern accents. The idea that a Southern accent denotes a lack of intelligence is 100% opinion. Would I change their accents just because some readers hold that opinion? Definitely not. (Also, I'm half Texan, so ouch.) 

Another time, one reader mentioned that they didn't care much for a character who held a lot of personal meaning for me. Does that make me want to change the character? Not at all, because that character says important things to me and I think their message is relevant to anyone else who feels similarly, and it was obvious that this reader just didn't connect with this character's personality and challenges. Again, not a problem, just a difference in personality and taste.

So, with these thoughts in mind, I've committed to caring a lot less about what other people think of my writing. I've also committed to feeling better about my writing. My ideas are unique, but that doesn't make them bad or "less than" anyone else's ideas. I've been at this for long enough that I think I have a pretty good grasp of plot structure, character development, and prose composition.

It's time for me to stop feeling bad about my work and stop trying to find ways that it's inferior. I don't want to feel like an inferior writer anymore. Not a perfect writer, sure - no mortal is - but definitely not a writer who deserves to keep mentally beating herself up over flaws. (Actually, no writer deserves that, no matter where you are in your journey.) It's time for me to stop second-guessing everything I write.

It's okay for me to write something, enjoy it, think it turned out pretty great, and hand it over to the editor expecting them to not say it's total trash and needs a complete rehaul. It's okay for me to turn out relatively polished first drafts. (Although, behind those first drafts are months and sometimes years of notes and plot outlines.) It's okay for me to be good at writing, and embrace that fact. Because not doing so was not actually doing anything productive for my career--it was just lowering my self-esteem and generating unnecessary stress.

Is my writing not for everyone? Sure. Reviews have shown that. But I think that as long as I know and feel that my work is technically sound, the opinions don't matter to me. I wrote a thing that I liked, and I'm putting it out there for other people to enjoy if it's up their alley. If it's not up their alley, well, there's literally hundreds of other authors in my genre, each with a unique writing voice and stories to tell.

So I'm just going to keep writing, and from now on I'm going to enjoy it without the shadow of "I'm not good enough" creating lingering background tension. If you write a review of one of my books and want me to look at it, that's just fine. But I certainly don't believe anymore that reviews are the authority on how I should feel about my writing. If my work is pleasing to God, and says what He and I want it to say in a technically well-executed manner, then I'm happy with it and proud of it.

Oh, and those fifty jillion writing articles online? I've realized that 75-80% of them are seriously just someone's opinion and should not be taken as ground truth. The Internet is a crazy place where people can say whatever they want. It doesn't mean they're right or that their opinions are fact. (I once read an article that claimed you should never mention your characters' eye colors. I, personally, as a reader, have never once read a book where I wished the author had not mentioned the characters' eye colors. This article was 100% opinion all around.)

Writers, love yourselves, love your work. You deserve it.

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