Taking On Insecurity And Kicking It To The Ground

Insecurity is part of being a writer as much as fascination and frustration, and even the toughest, most acclaimed authors share this horrible absence of confidence now and then. There’s no way to outrun it, the best chance we have is to learn how to deal with that inner voice in our own way.

But it turns out there is quite a variety of ways in which we can feel insecure. Writers are creative with their fears (who’da thunk it) and each experiences his very own brand of low. Some worry they’re untalented impostors, others that they’ll never finish what they started, some that they’ll never be published by a major house, others that they’ll never be famous like so-and-so and win awards.

There’s even an Insecure Writer’s Support Group, hosted by Alex J. Cavenaugh, that rounds up writers / bloggers who share their insecurities and support each other every first Wednesday of the month. I’m sure you’ve come across their posts every now and then, and the majority of these people are very open and very supportive.

It’s important to note that those gloomy thoughts we have about our talent and our work do not reflect reality. We cannot be objective judges of our own artistic output, it’s impossible. We will either love what we do, or hate it, but we’ll never judge it impartially. A good way to know if we’re going in the right direction, if we’re accomplishing what we set out to do in a satisfactory (hell, even extraordinary) way, is to compare ourselves with those who’ve gone before us. To look at the writers who’ve done it, and check how well we’re on our way.

Aaah… but the writer’s brain is a creative bastard, and this is just another opportunity for that frothing creativity to come tear up our mojo’s ass.

What we compare ourselves and our work to will determine whether we feel smugly superior and indolent, motivated and eager, or intimidated and utterly crushed. The writers we admire and the books we love may be wonderful, but they may be very different from us and our work, and trying to draw parallels may be irrational. This is particularly true for science-fiction where the subgenres differ enormously, and where the writers are sometimes as similar to each other as ravens are to writing desks. If you write science-fiction romance, don’t try to compare your talent and work with that of a hard science-fiction writer. Or if you write psychological thrillers, like me, don’t look at space opera writers for correspondence, there is none. None that is constructive and useful, at least.

I’m no stranger to insecurity. In fact, at the moment, I’m pretty much convinced my work of this past year is nothing but utterly ludicrous drivel. And it’s a tough job to pull myself together and get back to work. But I think I know what the problem is, and my experience tells me it always helps to unpack one’s own attitudes and thoughts, and look at them with a critical eye.

I’ve been making unsuitable comparisons, and it almost brought my momentum to a painful, screeching halt. Over this past month I dug into space operas and alien encounter epics, and even though I love them, really luurve their greatness and vastness, they are fundamentally dissimilar to what I write and hugely surpass my scope. Closing a book like Pandora’s Star and going back to my revision felt like trading places with an earthworm. I suddenly found myself squirming through muck, nearsighted and insignificant, and totally discouraged. I thought, my novel is nothing like the awesome books I’ve read, it’s so much smaller in scope, so much narrower in coverage… it’s never gonna measure up.

Epics with casts of dozens, exploring an entire society with all its layers, hinging on events that affect millions, possibly several species, and spread leisurely over 800+ pages, are nothing like what I write. I mean—holy crap! Do you know how freakin amazing most of those books are? The sheer imaginative power, the groundbreaking ideas and heart-stopping discoveries, the amplitude of the vision and the weight of the implications and repercussions… so very daunting. How can anyone hope to reach that level, let alone with a debut novel? It’s ridiculous. What was I thinking? I can’t write to that level. *sobs and blows snot bubbles*

But the thing is, I don’t have to. I don’t write that kind of books. SO WHAT if they’re awesome? It’s not like the world has a limited supply of awesome, and it’s already been tapped and distributed by a selected few. There’s demand in the world for all kinds of awesome. There’s demand for my kind of awesome as well—for all our awesome!

I know that most insecurities in life come from using the wrong measuring rod.Β  This is true in our personal life, in our family and our professional life, and it’s equally true in the day-to-day work of writing fiction. What we compare ourselves to can stall us in our development, it can motivate us, or it can demoralize and crush us.

For example, it won’t get us anywhere to compare ourselves to some shmuck and his masterpiece about how Joe Everybody contemplates himself without the aid of intellectual lubricant, or how Jane Shallow conquered true love with no other opposition than her lack of perfect shoes. Even knowing for certain we can do much better than that doesn’t help us improve. It might make our chest stick out for a moment, but the lazy confidence resulting from comparing ourselves to those below us on a daily basis, is not conductive to progress. Equally, comparing ourselves to masters of craft and story who dominate other areas of literature, other genres or other times, can smother our creativity and personality. It happens far too often that fresh writers lose their own voice even before they fully develop it, because their vision inadvertently transforms into star-gazing.

The only healthy way I see that we can truly measure and motivate ourselves, is to understand what we are writing, to fully understand what our own talent is, and then make sure we damn right excel at it. To be true to ourselves at all times,Β and work hard—always work hard—to be better than the draft before.

Reading authors who write stories of similar scopes and sizes like ours, and understanding what their talent is and how they used that to make their stories unique, can teach us the importance of our own skills and the confidence to use them. The most important lesson we can learn is to follow our own hearts and imaginations. Our strength lies in what makes us unique, not in how close we come to being like someone else, however much we admire them.

 

21 Replies to “Taking On Insecurity And Kicking It To The Ground”

  1. I like reading the one star book reviews of authors I respect. It reminds how reading is subjective and partial to individual tastes. With the exception of troll reviews, there’s generally some good learning in them, and they help me to accept and learn from my own one star reviews.

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    1. Reviews can be helpful, that’s true, even if they’re naturally biased.

      I only check them before buying a book, and usually the 3-4 star reviews (those in the middle of the spectrum) to see what the readers were disappointed in, and what they found redeeming. They’re the shortest reviews, less adoring/offended, and they mention only the most important pros and cons. πŸ™‚

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    1. There’d have to also be the long lost heir on his journey to defeat the incarnation of pure evil, but otherwise Yes, Space Opera. *slams palm on desk for emphasis*

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  2. Repeat after me: THOU SHALT NOT compare the first, second … Nth draft to a completed, edited, and published work. Its different game. πŸ™‚

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    1. Ah hell, yeah, right, definitely, totally escaped me! I was thinking more in terms of plot, cast and size, but you’re absolutely right — it’s a different beast altogether. Thanks for the duh!

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  3. Well said, as usual. For some reason, almost every IWSG post I’ve taken a gander at today has been about someone’s insecurity with their novel-in-progress and whether or not it’s any good. That just goes to show you how common those worries are.

    But what you’ve said here is so true. It’s ridiculous that we compare ourselves to the authors who inspire us, if inevitable. Not only are those books at wildly different stages of development (and as you mentioned, often in different genres or subgenres altogether), but the only information we usually have is that awesome, polished behemoth of a book in our hands. We don’t know what that author went through to get it in our hands, how much they struggled and worried, how many times they failed before they managed to unleash their greatness on the world.

    A friend of mine writes and reads epic fantasy, and as such is a big fan of Brandon Sanderson. Now, right there, you’re probably seeing where this is going. Why would any aspiring fantasy writer use a juggernaut like Sanderson as your measuring stick? Talk about setting the bar high. But she just couldn’t help it, as she reads his stuff religiously. I don’t think she realized the folly in this until I pointed out to her once that Brandon Sanderson wrote thirteen novels before he ever got published, or even got an agent. Thirteen. And here she was comparing the first draft of her first novel-length work to Mistborn and The Wheel of Time. That’s just plain dangerous.

    I think the best thing to measure your work against, especially if you have trouble nailing down similar genres and circumstances from other authors, is your own stuff. Granted, this is something that only gets more effective as you keep working at it, but if you think your second or third effort sucks, try looking back at your first. Or better yet, try looking back at that novel you never even finished. Or that story you wrote in high school. You’ll feel like a genius! Or maybe that’s just me. πŸ˜›

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    1. Nah, it’s not just you, when I look at that novel I didn’t finish my hair stands on end. It’s gruesome to read! But it proves how far I’ve come, and that’s something. My current draft is already much better than what I had a couple of months ago, and the next will be even better. Whenever I get impatient (which is often), I try to remind myself that it’s never important how fast we finish a project, but that we do, and that we strive for quality. Thanks! πŸ™‚

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    2. J.W. Alden, you write, “I think the best thing to measure your work against, especially if you have trouble nailing down similar genres and circumstances from other authors, is your own stuff.” I agree. We must read other works, see other lives, to calibrate our own, to learn and know generally where our work fits in, but ultimately the measure is against yourself.

      Do we even have a choice? If we think we are measuring against another author’s work, we are probably measuring against our own interpretation of the other author’s work. “Star-gazing” is a form of subjectivity. Vero writes, “We cannot be objective judges of our own artistic output, it’s impossible.” True. But can we really be objective judges of other artistic works?

      Whose thoughts are we really working with, if not our own. All the time. I’m not suggesting there’s no objectivity. But we are talking about art here, right? Maybe the most objective I can be about art is to “to be true to [my]self at all times” while I’m experiencing it.

      And Vero, I too believe “What we compare ourselves to can stall us in our development.” True in everything in life. So true. You make reference to “finding our own voice”. Yes! I believe that’s the path to the magic. It’s the most frightening, but the most rewarding.

      Thanks for your cutting and honest work!

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      1. We’re never objective in a sense that an unfeeling robot is objective. But we can reach objectivity when we choose not to take things personal and not to be too affected in our endeavors by the partial results (or failures) we get along the way — but keep the goal in mind instead.

        It’s good to remind ourselves of how far we’ve come, and it’s a boost to see that other writers (especially successful ones) had it hard too, and how they got over it and pushed on. But orienting ourselves on others entirely isn’t healthy. “Be true to ourselves,” that’s exactly it, as you pointed out yourself. πŸ™‚

        Thanks a lot for the thoughtful comment, and for stopping by! πŸ™‚

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  4. I sooo needed to read this right now. I am stalling on the revision of my completed manuscript, consoling myself with thoughts of what a shitty a writer I am anyway so who cares if I write today. I can’t possibly come close to the superior writing of every Tom, Dick and Harriet out there so why try!?

    I need to grab those bootstraps, kick myself in the ass and realize that I have taken on a huge project. The fact that I may fail is not an issue. Of course I will fail! The point is that I keep getting back up, dusting my keyboard off and trying again. I AM undertaking a Space Opera of sorts. My story spans 4000 years, has 8 main characters and multiple intertwining plot lines. It’s hard to stay focused! I have to keep a log of all the new creatures I create, the new plants I ‘discover’ and roles I create for my characters. It’s exhausting, demanding, difficult work that I wouldn’t give up for the world.

    Thanks for this post, Veronica. I needed it.

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    1. Revisions are great and horrible at the same time. On one hand you have all this material and don’t need to concoct it on the spot anymore, you can mold it and expand it or trim is as much as you like. On the other hand, you have all this material and look at it and think “who wrote this shit?!”

      We have to keep going. We have to. Aubrey, you have your wide-span epic, I have my gut-twisting crucible, but more importantly, we both have the drive and it’ll help us get through this damn revision! πŸ˜€

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  5. How kick-ass true this is, Vero. “Their vision inadvertently transforms into star-gazing”–I think I’m going to copy that one and put it on a post-it on the edge of my screen. How very very brilliant. Indeed, most (if not all) insecurity comes from using the wrong measuring rod. If we find our genre, our niche so to speak, and identify the master writers *in that genre* (or as close as possible), observe their own journey, analyze their own skills and talents, and how those are harnessed to create great literature, we have a much better chance of seeing both the lessons from these writers that will help us, as well as identifying our *own* talents, and our *own* way of harnessing them into our *own* greatness. Excellent post, as always.

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    1. Oh you’ve just made my day, Guilie! I haven’t been able to get any writing done today because of da job and other worldly duties, so I was starting to fidget like a crack addict lost in the Antarctic. Feeling much better now! πŸ˜‰

      Thank you so much for the appreciation! *beaming*

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  6. You write some amazing posts, my friend. I especially love your “absence of confidence” phrase and your realization that there are no limits on the amount of awesomeness that can exist in the world. Well done, and thanks for the confidence boost.

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  7. I think your last paragraph of advice is probably the greatest you can give anyone creating art. Whether you’re a writer, painter, musician, or actor, if you try to follow your influences you will find yourself highly disappointed by the results. I used to hate what I wrote because it didn’t sound like Ray Bradbury, it didn’t remind me of something he would write. I couldn’t compare my writing to anyone and then one day it dawned on me: “This is not a weakness, it is a virtue and I would be a fool not to embrace it. I’m me, I’m unique.”

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