Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Defeating the Inner Naysayer

I can't recall how many times I have walked by my computer, frowned, and asked myself what the hell am I doing?  Why am I even bothering to write?  I mean, everything worth saying has already been said and it has been said much better than I could ever convey.  So what's the point?  I would then find things to fill the time that I should have spent writing.  DVDs needed to be organized, that new spin-off of a show I never really liked was starting in a few minutes, or that new first person shooter game was released today and I needed to pick it up.

It wasn't that there were things that needed to be done, there are always things that need to be done, I was scared, terrified of letting others see the faults in my writing which translated to faults with me.  If I write anything, except in the most private journal complete with heart-shaped lock and bejeweled key to keep out all prying eyes, then I was writing not just for myself, but ultimately for viewing by others.  The moment before pressing the "Send" button or hitting "Publish Post" my heart would race and I would consider pulling back to hole up into the infinite loop of revision where nothing ever gets done.  (See my earlier post here on writing a first novel or Paul's excellent piece on first drafts here).

Looking back, if Junior High taught me anything, it was the self-doubt and fear of having my faults pointed out and now, twenty plus years later, I'm opening myself up to further scrutiny.  How do I push past the fear and manage to get anything down on a page?  It's difficult, don't get me wrong, but at the same time I love writing, it gives me joy, it's part of my life and who I am.  Why would I ever let something so ridiculous as fear of rejection prevent me from doing that which makes me happy?

It's best to recount a day in my high school English class, where we were required to write a short three or four page story which was gathered, shuffled and read anonymously.  My story consisted of a hero, a princess, a dragon, a mummy and a quest of some sort that I had pieced together with a twist.  Even under a shroud of anonymity, that old junior high doubt sent chills careening down my spine and sweat beading on my forehead as the first sentence was read.  The class was silent for the duration, but at the end everyone cheered.  They cheered for something that I had created, and more importantly, they cheered for something that I had enjoyed writing.  That is the feeling I want to remember, my little victory, that is where I needed to be focusing my attention.

So how do I get past the you can't write, you suck, why bother periods?  Stubbornness definitely has something to do with it, but mostly I remember how fulfilling art is to my life, and good or bad I am committed to that which makes me happy.  I also know that to do this I need to be professional in my approach and to work at it every day in all manner of formats.  I make time for my writing (see an earlier post about that here), it is a priority.  I intentionally do not allow myself the out of being too tired at night to write or too busy to find the time.  Also, if I am to be professional about my art, I need to get it out in public for everyone to see.  If I continue to be meek, little Don McMillan, then there really is no point in my efforts and I might as well go back to playing video games and watching sitcoms.

At this past Wondercon in San Francisco, I attended a panel with one of my favorite creators, Terry Moore (I mention his panel at Donist World).  During the hour talk, he stated, "Don't wait, start now and grow up in public."  This was a powerful message on both doubting yourself and the resulting procrastination that comes from fear.  You have to get your work out there, even if you do not feel you are ready (I will always fight this feeling), you need to learn from both constructive criticism and from your errors.  Mr. Moore also stated "Inside me is a steel tower that really believes I can do it," and although I am nowhere near that degree of confidence in my work, my goal is to someday reach that point.

Fear and doubt have been part of my make-up for twenty-six years; I have been waging war on that negativity for the past two.  Changing old habits takes time, but I make sure I am always moving forward on projects and that I always have ideas tucked away for later use.  More importantly, I now go against my shy, meek nature and post my writing to my writing groups, to the blog or to the Comics Experience Workshop forums to be judged and critiqued.  If response comes back negative from sources that I trust, then I have some work to do.  If I receive applause to what I have written...well, there is probably still some work to do, but little can replace the feeling of joy from others liking my stories--even if they are about mummies and maidens.  But in order to receive any feedback, I have to conquer my fear and doubt, get my work out there, and grow up in public.  If I never get past my self-constructed blockades, then my writing is little more than a "Dear Diary" entry, and what fun is there in that?

I would love to hear how you deal with your own self-created roadblocks, or if you are one of those rare individuals who has always been able to move past the fear and doubt let me know about that too.


  1. I battle this all the time. And often, when I find I've run myself down too far, that sense of "what I am doing, kidding myself that I can be a WRITER?" rears up and slaps me in the face. But then, I find myself revising a first draft of something I've written, and there's always SOMETHING hiding in there that I can't believe I wrote. An evocative sentence, an idea, something that shows me: "yeah, I can do this." And I keep going.

    As you write, stubbornness helps a lot, and I've got that in spades. And being professional about it. Sit down, every day, and do the work. Just keep pushing forward, because the best way for one's writing to improve is to write. It sounds simple, but it took me a little while to see that that is actually true.

  2. Chris, I agree. Being stubborn -- or maybe persistent? Or tenacious? -- seems to be a key factor. Some days I feel like that's all I've got going for me, but that's enough! (ha)

  3. Or maybe I should have said "...that's enough to keep me going for that day." Takes more than that to write, in general, of course. (Writers...always revising...)

  4. Hi Chris. Just yesterday I woke up not in the best of moods, but instead of lying in bed until it was time to head off to the day job, I forced myself to get up and get in front of the computer to work on my project. The doubts were there, but I forced them aside and began writing. It took about fifteen minutes to get into the flow and be happy to work on something important to me. When I reach that point, the problem is no longer self doubt but the dreaded 7:30 AM that means I have to stop.

  5. Even if I'm not particularly thrilled with what I produced, it's a better feeling than if I had just stayed in bed, dreading turning on the shower. There's always rewrites to make everything shiny.

  6. @Rob: Tenacity. I like that.

    @Don: I know what you mean. it's that initial hump you need to crest to get in the flow. Then I wonder what I was balking at. And I always feel better after I've written. I've also found, now, that when I don't write for a few days, I just become a bear. And my wife will call me on it. And then I write, and all that tension that was building up is gone.