A FEW DAYS AGO, I received an email from a young writer, who, after reading my last post, BLOG TO BOOK: A REPRISE, asked me three questions. First, she asked about pursuing an agent—when, who, how, and so on, including questions about drafting a book proposal. Second, she asked what she should do with a stubborn piece of writing: Do I continue to work on it? Do I trash it and start over with a new idea? Is there medication for such a thing? While I addressed each of her questions with some detail, the third question was the most telling, and drew from me the strongest response. That is the question I want to address here.
The question started with the preamble, "Sometimes I want to quit/hide/or trash it all (lol!)" Not convinced by the lol or its exclamation, I felt this one statement was the soul of her text, the true reason for writing me. By the way, exercising my own protective instincts, this post is a reassembly of my response to her, a variation on a theme. And I asked permission to write this, adding that not only her name would remain absent, but I would rewrite it altogether and in a more generic tone, omitting details that might be personal to her.
She used the word invisible to describe how she felt, that for all the heart and effort she puts into a piece, all the belief she invests, she feels at times as if no one notices or pays attention. The following is my response.
Because writing demands so much solitude (inspired or otherwise), so much self-examination, and often brutal self-reflection, it is easy for emotions to become vulnerable to assault. This is true at one time or another for all writers. Thomas Wolfe (1900-1937), one of my literary saints, for all his success and notoriety could be devastated by a bad review, leaving him sulking and impossible to live with for weeks. All serious writers feel this in one form or another, and at different levels of intensity.
A kind of nakedness, writing is a study in exposure. Ego strength, therefore, is an inescapable part of the equation. Daring to raise your voice in the marketplace invites opinion and commentary, some of it good, some of it not-good, most of it immediate and ill-informed. It can wreak havoc on the healthiest of egos. Because of the nature of wordcraft and the psychology that attends it, in a what-doesn't-kill-us-makes-us-stronger kind of way, discouragement in some form becomes a part of the process itself, or it seems so. The writer must learn to negotiate it, navigate around or through it, and/or discover ways to make it work for her advantage. This is one of the most difficult hurdles any writer has to suffer.
What doesn't kill us makes us stronger.
The fortunate writer has learned how to successfully negotiate commentary, good and bad. The seasoned writer has learned to look within themselves for encouragement, for something immovable. Others have looked elsewhere. In his book ON WRITING, Stephen King admits his abuse of various substances, including Nyquil. He said he hardly remembers writing CUJO, which suggested as well that the book reflected the rabid dog growling in him. The list of writers-turned-alcoholic is a sad but large one: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Edgar Allen Poe, and too many others. There are other reasons for the drink, certainly. Tennessee Williams would work on drafts in the evening (under the influence) only to make corrections the next morning.
You see, baby, after a glass or two of wine, I'm inclined to extravagance. I'm inclined to excess because I drink while I'm writing, so I'll blue pencil a lot the next day.
—Tennessee Williams, as quoted in THE WRITER'S DESK, by Jill Krementz
For the writer, discouragement is the mythical Sphinx. It poses its riddle and you must respond correctly in order to navigate around it and continue your journey. After all, that is where your blog or book lives, on the other side of discouragement. That said, and as suggested by the above rant, your greatest struggle as a writer will be with yourself. You are both David and Goliath. Many of us have the bruises to prove it.
By the way, I am not a self-help guru, nor do I pretend do be. I cannot speak to you on the science of good living or how to cultivate your best life. There are experts on those subjects, and it is well worth your time to invest in them. Even so, I want to suggest a solution to the problem of discouragement. It may sound simplistic, maybe even contrived, but here it is: I am convinced, and hope to remain convinced, that there is still a place in this world for great writing, the kind that takes your breath away, the jaw-dropping kind, with constructions of such delicacy and temper, with a word choice so common, unadorned, and accessible and yet elevated and grand at the same time, muted, lapidary, language that will have reach and power in the moment of impact and for generations long after you.
Your greatest struggle as a writer will be with yourself.
The best way around discouragement, therefore, is to have it stand down (perhaps along with your ego), to muzzle it, and the best way to do that, or my preferred way, is to do something amazing with language. If you have to scream, howl at the moon, walk around the block a few 100 times, pray until you drop, bounce the kid on your knees until she stutters, do not allow yourself to stay down. I am one to talk, I know. I have 6 published books behind me with major publishers, and I too feel invisible at times, too many times perhaps. It is certainly motivating, if in a bullying kind of way, but I have learned how to make that emotion work for me, as you must.
In the end, it is more important to me that I have produced something out of my gut that has power and reach, something of value, knowing that if it moves me to tears, or to laughter, to some extremity of feeling, that it has the power to do the same in a single reader, that they too can feel what I feel, see and hear what I see and hear. I can certainly live with that.
You are your own frontier, your own undiscover'd country.
Sure, you will have to fight for a place in line. We all do. But if you're packing, so to speak, that is, if you have heavy artillery (a fine, well-crafted post/series, or a book), all you need beyond that is patience and belief. I know that smacks of build-it-and-they-will-come, but there is an element of truth and inevitability about that.
I hope you find comfort in all this excess. Let me be your good angel for the moment and say this: “Be encouraged. You are not alone. Know that there are others out there as crazy as you, who understand your struggle to create.” What I hope for you is that you will turn to the writing, to the craft, to the work itself, that you will look into its soul and find your confidence there, your long sought-after jubilee.
Push yourself. But be gentle. Observe courtesy. Apply an even justice.
Great writing, like great music or love, cannot be forced. It must be summoned up gently but with authority, and with what powers you have. Right now you are becoming acquainted with those powers. Let them teach you. Every piece of writing you attempt offers small glimpses of who you are. I am convinced of that. You are your own frontier, your own undiscover'd country.