Among the many stops on what I call the Road to Getting Serious About Writing is a frank conversation I had with a close friend many years ago. He had just finished assembling materials for a book idea he’d been kicking around for years, and admitted to me that he was nervous about starting.
“Why?” I asked. “You’ve obviously got the knowledge, you’re passionate about the subject, you’re a skilled writer. What are you worried about?”
“Well,” he said, “this is my life’s work… what if I put in all that work and it isn’t any good?”
I winced because I’d felt the same way, many times. This particular fear often comes to haunt me in the wolf’s hour, when it’s three in the morning and I can’t get to sleep because of the parade of morbid thoughts stomping over my ribcage. It rears its deformed head when I’m in the midst of an editing problem of Gordian proportions. It bites my ankles in the evening hours when I’m behind deadline and my inspiration has gone as limp as overcooked linguine. It peers over my shoulder and paraphrases the bitchy girlfriend from Happy Gilmore: “All you ever talk about is being a writer. But there’s a problem. You’re not any good!” This is the worst of all, because apparently my taunting psychopomp enjoys Adam Sandler movies, and therefore so do I. If that’s not an eldritch blasted heath of the soul, I don’t know what is.
This fear is not only natural, it’s fairly endemic to writers in general. I have yet to meet a writer who hasn’t white-knuckled their way through spasms of self-doubt at least once. But ultimately, it’s like any other psychological terror: you either let it stop you, or you work through it. Here are some things to keep in mind that might help you banish the lurking fear back to the unholy terror dimension from whence it came.
You’ll fail for sure if you don’t try.
This is so obvious it circles the drain of empty platitudes, but it’s true enough that it bears repeating. If you write a bad book, then you write a bad book. Or short story, or screenplay, or whatever. But if you write nothing, then you’ve got nothing. Whenever I start thinking about giving up because trying’s just too damn much work, I recall a favorite quote from Al Pacino in Glengarry Glenn Ross: “In this life, you regret the things you don’t do.” Granted, he was a crooked real estate salesman trying to hoodwink a potential mark, but… well… shut up! It’s motivational, okay?
“Not any good” isn’t an ending, it’s an obstacle.
Life isn’t like a movie. In real life, couples who finally get together after a series of hilarious misunderstandings have to learn to get along. Likewise, giving up on your book isn’t going to end with you laying on the floor in defeat and the camera slowly zooming out while the theme from Requiem for a Dream swells in the background. You’re going to have to live with yourself for the full run, so you might as well learn from your mistakes and get back in the game.
A bad book can be fixed. You can learn craft. You can learn to edit. You can get better. You have awesome opposable thumbs and the capacity to absorb new knowledge. Expecting perfection the first time around is a rookie mistake, Millhouse. Get shut of it and embrace the joyous torment of revision.
Maybe this isn’t your life’s work.
The very words “life’s work” can carry a heavy load for a writer. Certainly you have to invest emotionally in your work to get to the finish line, but it’s easy to get overly invested and start defining yourself by the quality of your prose. All the passion in the world won’t do you any good if you spook yourself into never writing again.
Accept imperfection as inevitable and don’t raise the bar so high for yourself that you can no longer spot it in the clouds. Chances are you have many more stories in you, so don’t hang the world on this one. I used to think every writer out there just polished their first book until they sold it, but a lot of them don’t. Some have written as many as twenty books before making a successful sale. So don’t write off the rest of your creative future just yet.
Like Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, the lurking fears of writing can never truly be defeated. They await, dead but dreaming, for the moment when the stars are right. And when “the stars are right,” I mean when you’ve run out of coffee and you’ve been staring at the blank page for an hour and listening to the sussurrus of your hair falling out. But you can dispel these fears long enough to get your work done.
Fortunately, that’s all the time you really need.