Happy New Year, everyone! As part of my reflections, I’ve been reviewing some of my writing weaknesses and trying to pinpoint a specific one on which I should work to improve in the new year. Usually the selection is overwhelming, but this year, one particular concept has been tugging at me for some time.
When I sit down to write, I’ve usually got a basic idea of what I intend to put on the screen. I might not know every character that will show up, how to get from point A to point B, or even what the ultimate twist in the story is, but those are all aspects of my narrative that unfold over time, revealed to me as I write and brainstorm. When I’m writing a first draft, my main concern—for the most part—is making sure that the story is coming out in a manner that gives me the possibility of returning to rewrite or edit. The writing of it should be enjoyable, which, to me, is the point of the first draft. The second and all following drafts, however, are meant to be enjoyable to read.
But something sinister occasionally stirs into the mix when I’m working on any draft. Something with the power to stop me mid-word, to drive me away from my desk, to deflate the balloon of excitement and adventure that normally propels me forward. Something that, in short, burns my zeppelin out of the sky.
According to the all-knowing interwebs, Socrates is alleged to have said, “What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.” While I personally dislike the translation’s choice of words (I just can’t imagine Socrates using the Greek slang equivalent of “screw up,” but I could be wrong), the sentiment expressed has long resonated with me. I’m a planner—not when it comes to the practice of writing; I’m more of a plantser there—that person who has a one-week, one-month, one-year, ten-year plan. Do my plans work out as I want them to? Hardly, and most of the time, that’s for the better. But I rarely grant myself grace in failure. My disappointment is real when I don’t live up to the expectations I have placed upon myself. Not only is it painful, it can have lasting, crippling effects.
Take, for instance, the expectation that I would be published by age eighteen. Or by age twenty-one. Or by age twenty-five. Or at least by now. I put those pressures on myself, and they do nothing to spur me forward—they just make me feel an overwhelming sense of guilt when I’m not working toward them, and ultimately when I fail to meet my self-ascribed deadlines. The pressure makes it hard to write. There is so much riding on every word I include in a manuscript. On occasion, the shame of past failures comes back to haunt me, even when I’m actively doing my best toward publication.
Those are just the expectations that I place on myself. Now consider that others around me have expectations, suppositions, and opinions that might have to do with the rate at which I’m published, but also have to do with the content I publish, the way I write, the ideas I express, the kinds of characters I introduce, the scenes I explore, and all the other myriad little personal nitpicks that can drive a person insane. Normally, I use writing as a way to escape the world, but sometimes, especially when I know I will one day share that writing with the world, I freeze up with fear. Midway through a sentence, I might doubt that what I’m writing is appropriate to share with others. They might get the wrong impression. They might realize they had the wrong idea about me all along. They might recognize that I’m a fraud and that I have no real idea of what I’m doing.
Let’s face it. Writing is a risky business. Sharing your writing—an idea or summary, an excerpt, or the full manuscript—is the ultimate act of vulnerability. It requires a kind of bravery most people don’t ever have to think of using. It’s putting yourself out there, come renown or ridicule or, perhaps worst of all, indifference. It’s an expression of pride subjected to the most humbling reactions. It hurts sometimes.
It’s easy to get lost in the critique and the suggestions, to let doubt invade. That doubt obstructs your ability to do your best, which—at least in my case—can impel me on a downward spiral of despair. I have, for so long, “expected” to be a professional writer… but if certain people don’t like my story, then how can I ever be good enough to make it? My desire to become a bestselling author sometimes morphs into a desperation: I have to be a bestselling author. I have to make money so I can live this lifestyle I’ve envisioned for myself. I have to be well-respected in the writing community, active and well-known, so that I can grasp all the opportunities I’ve long wanted. That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone who has never published before, and even for someone who has!
The point is that people’s opinions—and the bestseller lists—are not things you can control. The only thing you can control is doing the best you can do at what you do. Not in what you think you should be doing. Not what the bestselling author in your genre is doing. Not what you perceive others will want you to do. It has to be distinctly your own; anything else cheapens the effort and often sabotages the writing itself.
Writing for others is dangerous. We are not mind readers, and we cannot predict the fickle market. Writing to please others robs us of the fun of discovering a new world the way we want to. After all, “You can’t please everyone.” We frequently feel an expectation that something has to be a certain way, not because we as the writers want it that way or because the story demands it be that way, but because we perceive the audience wants it to be that way. Our writing suffers as a result, and we churn out something that hardly brushes the limits of our potential.
But if we write for ourselves with the intentions of making our story enjoyable for both us as the writer and us as the reader—without the pressure of having to make money or earn an award or top a list, all things we have relatively little control over—the practice of writing will be more fulfilling as a whole. That’s not to say that you should eschew editors’ or beta readers’ suggestions to fix parts of your story—that’s important, too. But stay sincere and true to your voice, your mode of expression, and your vision, and use them as the framework on which you build your narrative.
This is my goal for myself as a writer this year. I’m committing to sharing my work–no matter what others might think of it–and implementing suggestions and advice without compromising my intentions for my work. I may never make millions, chart on bestseller lists, or find myself at the receiving end of a movie deal, but I will enjoy what I do. I can own it. If I can drop those expectations, if I can free myself of the worry about pleasing others or following their perceptions of what should be, if I stop writing for “them” and start writing for me, I can find peace and joy in writing. And that’s the whole point.
May you have a wordy and fulfilling 2018!