Advice for the Despairing Writer (or What The Past 14 Months Have Taught Me)

I’ve been filled with doubt about whether any of what I’m doing writing is worth it, and quietly angsting — well, relatively speaking.  In corresponding with a fellow writer who is also playing the head game with themselves (and when are any of us NOT playing the head game on some level with ourselves, really?), I wrote the following…and realized I’ve come farther in all of this than I’ve really comprehended so far.  It summarizes a great deal of my  philosophy on the subject of how to cope.  Some comes from recent experience, and some is drawn from other areas of life which have yielded sound principles.  For whatever it’s worth….


This all sounds like really, really familiar territory.  Where to begin?

Sometimes one’s art seems as much a curse as a blessing.  We all start out as appreciators of our art — music, writing, drawing, sculpting, dancing, acting, etc., and if we’re inspired enough by it, we can be moved to engage in it and create our own original works…or attempt to.  All art starts from an impulse to communicate something of ourselves….feelings, values, vision…*something*…so it’s always first and foremost about us, but there comes a point where if we’re not able to actually communicate it for whatever reason…lack of audience, lack of skill on our part, whatever, we’re going to start experiencing heavy-duty cognitive dissonance and frustration if we continue to expend the energy but the connection with others isn’t made.  That’s the paradox — you need to enjoy doing it for it’s own sake and you’re supposed to be committed enough to continue doing it even if the only person who gives a shit is you, and yet…and yet…if we don’t get some kind of validation at some point (at the very least feedback, good or bad), we start doubting our own efforts and wonder if we’re crazy, narcissistic, wasting our time….all kinds of things.

I would venture to say, based on what you’ve said about having close to a dozen works in progress at any one time that you push yourself really damned hard.  You asked me if writing is my life…writing has been my life for about the last year or so straight.  It wasn’t before that time, though.  Over the years, whenever I did work on something, I would be preoccupied with it, but never for this long and to the exclusion of all else.   Because when things became too stressful or not fun anymore, I either switched focus and worked on something else, or put it away for a while and did somethine else entirely.  I never tried to push through all the things I believed were holding me back from finishing.  I know I suffered some angst with performance anxiety and the harp, but I don’t think it was anything like this…I never ripped myself so thoroughly apart for my failings with it.  The nice thing about music is that even without external validation from someone else, you can generally hear your own improvement…and if you get too wound up about it and lose perspective, you generally don’t have to step away too terribly long to get it back.  Writing is more complicated…you’re trying to reproduce the experience of living someone else’s life on the page and then get it across in such a way that it is more or less interpreted correctly regardless of the reader’s subjective state of mind or taste…those variables are daunting right there.  The sheer number of moving parts and various sleight-of-mind acts required to achieve verisimilitude of this order are staggering.

Doing too much beta reading, especially early on when your own skills are still flux, will make you feel like you’re trapped in a hall of mirrors.  First of all, you’re reading unpolished stuff, which at best tends to be not all that pleasurable, at worst is sheer torture. Second of all, you’re reading to analyze, which means that’s not going to be pleasurable after a while either…and will actually fuck up your pleasure reading, too.  Being an editor, you’re probably already acutely aware of this.  I know the first couple years I was court reporting and editing all these transcripts, checking for grammatical and punctuation errors became such a habit it was like I had OCD.  Frankly, absorbing too much of other people’s stuff and paying attention so acutely will mess you up, even if it’s not writing per se.  Court reporters are supposed to get everything down verbatim, and here in Illinois that means being able to take dictation at a minimum of 225 words per minute…but let’s be realistic, when you’re listening to people rapid-fire argue and scream over each other, you’re talking more like 300 wpm or more…extremely stressful and requires a lot of focus.  When you’re so bent on something, so obsessed on something so difficult for so long, it screws with your synapses for a while.  Once I got up to a certain speed on the steno machine, I noticed that I would have trouble talking afterward…I literally could not engage my mouth, and once I did I often stuttered or couldn’t form words or even find them…I felt like a stroke victim.  Frankly, I was rewiring my brain and that takes time to adapt to all those changes.  It’s really scary and depressing at first, though.  When you push yourself hard to do something, especially something as complicated as ripping apart writing, yours or others, and trying to analyze all those components and then osmose them, you rip the foundations of your understanding — and your relationship to your own writing — to shreds for a while…much like tearing a muscle when you exercise, and it takes time to sink in, heal over, and reintegrate the new state of being.

I cannot tell you how many times I obsessively tried to work something out on the harp, some difficult passage, that I would never quite get, no matter how hard I pushed myself, and then finally I would exhaust myself to the point I had no choice to to walk away or lose my mind, and then when I’d come back to it a week later, a month, a couple months sometimes (a lot of times the longer I was away, the more striking the difference I saw), I would sit down and play FLAWLESSLY…like something magically assembled itself in my brain while I was resting it…just like the body repairs itself when it rests…and just like our minds integrate, collate, and correlate all the data we’ve taken in when we’re awake so that it’ll make sense to us later.

It’s hard to walk away when you’re driven, though, and when something is a habit.  First it’s hard to control yourself and force yourself away from going back to it, to have that resolve.  Then once you calm down about it, you start to worry that maybe you’ll get too distracted and never go back to it.  Hard to let go.  There are conscious and unconscious parts to mastery of any art…or perhaps left- and right-brained components to it.  Scrutinization and tiny details, and then more relaxed, big-picture flow states…and we need to function in both realms to truly know what we’re doing…sometimes just learning to flip between the two is a HUGE skill in and of itself.  Just like those dichotomies of left- and right-brain functions, conscious and unconscious, control vs. surrender is another one that’s tied in to those, and it’s a crucial one to navigate…and eventually modulate.

I doubt your writing is suffering a degradation in quality.  If it is, it’s an illusion and temporary — not one due to lack of feedback, it’s because you’ve picked everything apart past the point of stability and exhausted yourself, and you need to rest.  There’s a point where continuing to work on something, even when you still have the energy and willingness to do so, will do you no good because you’ve exceeded your carrying capacity for the time being and need to let it sink in; otherwise it’s just more static to drive you nuts.

Another hard lesson is that even the people who care about us and are close to us have their own carrying capacity for reading over and critiquing our stuff and we have to be careful not to burn them out on it.  As important as we may be to them, what we produce is not us, and will never be as important to them as we ourselves are.  It would probably be good to find a local critique group that meets regularly and in person…generally anyone who shows up is willing to reciprocate, and also it’s in smaller doses.  You can learn a lot more from a focused critique of just a chapter…or even a few paragraphs, than you can from someone trying to critique your whole novel — plus the critiquer remains fresher and focused throughout and gives much more detailed feedback than they would for an entire work, and small samples are generally enough to give you a good idea of the principles involved and how to apply them to everything you’re doing, not just the passage in question.  And a lot of times it’s better for you, too…not nearly as exhausting to take things in smaller chunks, rather than worrying that your whole novel is a hopeless wasteland.

You edit, so you probably already are aware of all of this stuff.  Sometimes it helps to revisit it.

You’ll get better…it just takes time and some recuperation.  Rome wasn’t built in a day (and shouldn’t have been, even with the best and most ambitious of intentions).  It’s hard to be patient when you feel that inspiration from other people’s writing and can sense all the unrealized potential in yourself.

I would suggest maybe working on some flash or short stories with no aim to publish or specifically tackle something to get better, just to play and have fun with your own genius with no demands or pressure on yourself….to reconnect with the things that inspire you to write and which bring you the joy of it — and of yourself.  Try to learn to read for true pleasure again, too, and turn off the hyperanalysis.

I’ve been struggling with all these same issues on and off for the past fourteen months, so I’ve been giving them a lot of thought for the sake of my own sanity (which tends to be questionable at times).  Hope it helps.


Writer, harpist, genealogist, language geek, Hibernophile, astrologer, recovering court reporter...

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