Being a writer is a strange thing, full of contradictions.
One one hand, you think you have something worthwhile to say. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be writing. There’s a sense, deep inside of you, that you can tell stories in a way others can’t. You can sift and hum and weigh, and finally find it -that perfect word or sentence or phrase to express a previously inexpressible feeling. The worn-down feeling of a relationship on its last wobbling legs, the suffocating experience of being a mother to small children, the warm crush of close family, the hot rush of a sexual encounter.
On the other hand, your words are shit and your sentences are garbage and your sentiments are trite, overwrought, and pedestrian. You’re just repeating what other (better) writers have been saying (more skillfully) for decades.
The problem is that you often only hear about other writers having these experiences in retrospect. When you’re hustling, it’s bad form to focus on failure. When a writer has “made it”, however, they’ll pull back the curtain and lay bare the twelve rejection letters (J.K Rowling) or the inability to grasp hold of a novel’s arc despite six months of teeth-grinding effort (Margaret Atwood). Until that happens, you’re stuck alone with your words and your wavering convictions. Your delusions of grandeur.
Perspective is a funny thing, too, like the two sides of binoculars. When I tally my successes objectively, they recede into the distance and become shrunken and inconsequential, despite how large they loomed before they became mine. If you’d have told me when I was starting out that I’d one day have a well-reviewed book, a popular column in a national newspaper under my belt, and be earning a living solely through my writing, I would have been consumed with joy.
Yet now, I diminish these same accomplishments. I reason that the book was “just” about eco-friendly living – recipes for toothpaste and window spray are hardly on par with award-winning literature, after all. The column had a good run, but I haven’t written for The Guardian in over six months (my most recent pitch fell flat, as it should have, if I’m honest. It was premature and unsure of itself). I worry that I’m not earning as much as I need to be, nor writing enough. Especially here.
Writers spend a lot of time in their heads, which can be a uniquely hostile environment. Musing over things repetitively until feeling becomes suspicion and suspicion becomes fact. It takes an immense amount of mental resolve to keep going, to keep pounding away and trying to prove the voice wrong. Even when you do, it often doesn’t matter. You’ll always focus on the times it was right.
External feedback, unfortunately, doesn’t do much to tip the balance. We human beings are vocal about things we don’t like, rarely hesitating before leaving a bad review or arguing a point. When I had my column, those disagreeing with my article posted comments publicly. Those with something positive to say usually did it by sharing the article, which I couldn’t see, or they tracked me down privately to my twitter inbox or my email account.
Why is this? Even the tone of the messages was different. Positive ones began uncertainly:
“Dear Madeleine, I just wanted you to know…”
“Dear Madeleine, Sorry to bother you, I know you’re busy…”
“Dear Madeleine, I hope you don’t think it’s weird that I’m writing to you…”
Negative comments began bluntly. No introduction, just blustery, self-assured statements. If they did address me at all, it was usually at arm’s length, “Ms Somerville…”.
In some ways, I’m the worst kind of writer; precious about unfinished drafts and sensitive to criticism. I am not the writer who will push through twelve rejection letters with resolute determination. I’m not the writer who values their work enough to eke out a writing schedule, turning out pages like clockwork (not yet anyway). Instead I still, after fifteen years, wait for inspiration to hit before I write, rather than just sitting down and willing it forth with the force of my sheer dogged effort.
The most common piece of advice for writers is simple: keep writing. I wonder if younger writers know that this is as much a remedy for illness as a recipe for success.
Keep writing because it’s all you know how to do.
Keep writing because if you don’t give the words somewhere to go, they’ll consume you.
Keep writing because you’ll never be able to shut off the part of your mind that composes paragraphs as you walk, clean, shower, watch your daughter play on the swings, make love.
Keep writing because that feeling of a perfect sentence is better than any drug you’ve tried.
Keep writing because those messages, the kind ones sent hesitantly to your inbox, are everything. Everything.