Why is depression so often associated with writers? I mean, seriously, it’s become a morbid joke how many classic authors were alcoholics and committed suicide. But it’s really no joke. Very few of you are going to escape those bouts of frustrated depression in which you’re sure every story you write is a guaranteed failure.
You know how it goes. One minute you’re flying high and having fun. Your story is a delight; your characters are your best friends. The words are zipping from your fingers to your keyboard and into immortality. With everything in you, you genuinely believe agents, editors, and readers are going to eat this thing up.
Then you come back to the story to read it a few weeks later, perhaps after someone has gently suggested some improvements. And, suddenly, the joy has fizzed right out of you. This story isn’t beautiful. It’s a big fat mess. No reader is going to enjoy this. In fact, anyone who reads this is going to immediately know the author is a hopeless wannabe hack with shallow, silly daydreams.
Sound sorta familiar? In How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Orson Scott Card comments on this ubiquitous phenomenon:
Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things:
The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English.
The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.
Writing Lows Are Not Logical
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about, not just improving my writing, but dealing with the highs and lows of the writing life. I’m happy to tell you, they do get better. There comes a point in your career when you can look at what you’ve accomplished and take comfort that there’s a body of proof to counterbalance your doubts of your writing worthlessness.
But that doesn’t mean the lows go away.
Feelings of insecurity hit writers of every personality type and skill level. In general, I’m pretty even-keeled. I’m a fix it or forget it kind of person, not a wallower. I don’t usually freak out over problems, even catastrophic ones. But writing lows are about the only thing in my life that truly knocks the wind out of me. As someone who, in general, is pretty unemotional, this great big swirl of emotion always leaves me groping for logical answers.
But as someone who’s been around this merry go-round more times than I like to count, I’m here to tell you writing lows are not logical. In the first place, the subjectivity of art makes it darned hard to dig down to any kind of solid truth about the quality of your writing. And even if you can objectively say your writing is awesome, you’re never going to get around the fact that some readers are still going to hate it. (But, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, having readers dislike your work doesn’t actually make your writing a failure.)
No matter how many great facts you may come up with to prove your latest story isn’t a failure, you’re never going to kill the demon of doubt. Know why?
Because your latest story is a failure.
Why Every Story You Write Is a Guaranteed Failure
Writing isn’t like baking a cake. You can’t just grab the chocolate mix off the pantry shelf, throw in some eggs and milk, stick it in the oven for the required amount of time, and—voila!—another perfect cake. Unlike appreciative gourmands, readers are never (let me say that again: NEVER!) going to smack their lips, roll their eyes in bliss, and say, “I don’t believe it! Another perfect book! How do you do it every single time?”
They’re not going to say that because you’re never going to write a perfect book. There’s no such thing. The fallibility of humankind aside, the very subjectivity of art denies any hope of perfection.
No wonder we get all “woe is me” on occasion. No wonder we’re never 100% happy with our stories. We’re drinking ourselves into early graves because we’re mad at ourselves for not being able to accomplish the impossible.
And you know what’s really ridiculous? Readers don’t care. Aside from a few inevitable jerks (who, inevitably, have their own problems at the core of their behavior), readers will not think the less of you as a person for writing a book they don’t like. In fact, they might not even think the less of your book! Just a few minutes before writing this post, Marie Hogebrandt on Twitter commented,
@KMWeiland I’ve been reading two of my favourite authors. One of them is prone to info dumps, the other likes “you probably won’t know …”
— Marie Hogebrandt (@melindrea82) June 22, 2014
These authors messed up. They committed what many of us consider flagrant “newbie” mistakes. And, yet, did you catch the key word there? These authors are still her “favorites”! Readers are rarely going to be harder on us than we are on ourselves. And they’re certainly not going to melt into depressed puddles just because a story isn’t spot-on. They leave that to us, while they go on with their happy lives, probably not giving us a second thought.
The Guide to Guaranteed Authorial Happiness
The next time you’re feeling depressed about a story and convinced you’re never going to be the next William Faulkner, ask yourself the following question:
Question: Why do you believe your story is terrible?
If your answer is “I don’t knoooooww! It just iiiiiiissss!” then see Solution 2.a.
If your answer is “Because this and this and this aren’t working” then see Solution 2.b.
Solution 2.a: Chin up. You have no good reason to feel like a failure.
Solution 2.b: Chin up. You already know how to make your story un-terrible.
You’re never going to write a perfect story. Stop trying. Seriously. You’re just making yourself miserable.
But you can write a better story than you wrote last time. Keep learning about the craft, but, most of all, have fun. Make every story the best you know how to make it and don’t worry about the rest. Perfection isn’t the name of the game. Effectiveness is. And, believe me, many a broken story has charmed readers, earned millions, and even, on occasion, changed the world.
Tell me your opinion: What is discouraging you about your current story? How do you overcome that discouragement?
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