An open letter to writers from another writer

Dear Writer,

Yes, you. The one looking at their latest chapter and thinking, “God, this sucks so much. I’m a terrible writer. In fact, I shouldn’t even call myself a writer. Every sentence is crap. Look at that purple prose, the stilted dialogue and the wooden characters. I’m not a writer; I’m just faking it. That’s what I am: a great big fake. I should give up right now and go tend alpacas in the Andes, or something.”

Dear Writer, you are me. You are also J.K. Rowling. You are Stephen King. You are G.R.R. Martin. You are every other writer who ever existed, at some point in their lives. Every single writer experiences self-doubt, gets bogged down and thinks, “Oh, who am I trying to kid?” Yep, even the famous and successful ones.

What separates the famous and successful ones from the likes of you and I when it comes to self-doubt is one thing. It’s not that they have money and can afford a good editor. It’s not that they’re ‘lucky’ enough to have a great publisher. It’s this one very simple little thing:

They keep writing.

They look at that not-so-great chapter and think, “Okay, well it isn’t my best work, but I can fix it. I’m just gonna keep going.” Their motto is BOCHOK = Butt On Chair, Hands On Keyboard.

“But I really DO suck!” I hear you cry. “Everything I do is utter crap!”

Is it? Really? Or are you looking at it through your glasses of self-doubt? Have you considered giving that chapter to an impartial reader, someone you can trust to be honest with you about what you’ve written? (This usually precludes friends, who – because they like you and care about you – are unwilling to point out anything ‘bad’ that you really do need to work on.)

If your immediate response to that suggestion is, “Oh god, I can’t! It’s so bad; they’ll hate me!” then you are looking at it through those self-doubt glasses. And those specs, my dear Writer, aren’t rose-tinted; they’re dark and semi-opaque. They hide the good that’s really there and they only let you see those bad bits.

Let’s just analyse your thought patterns here, shall we? Some of the words and phrases you might use are:

  • I suck
  • My writing sucks
  • I’m a terrible writer
  • Everything I write is all wrong
  • Everybody will hate it
  • I’m not good enough
  • I’m so stupid. Why would anyone want to read what I write?

You’ve heard of affirmations, yes? Those vaguely-embarrassing self-help books that tell you to stand in front of the bathroom mirror and tell yourself that you’re beautiful ten times a day. Well, if you tell yourself something often enough you’ll begin to believe it. Okay, maybe not about the being-beautiful thing (that can feel just a bit too squirmy-uncomfortable for some of us), but affirmations DO work. And it’s not only positive affirmations or affirmations spoken out loud that work.

Negative words are also affirmations. Negative thoughts are affirmations. Tell yourself that you suck often enough, and guess what? You’ll feel even worse, and you really will believe that you suck.

Now I want you to imagine that you’ve been given two small children to look after as part of a scientific behavioural experiment. They’re just adorable wee toddlers and you’ve been tasked with raising them. You’ve been told to treat one of them with kindness and patience, but you have to treat the other one with harsh words.

So you do as you’re told. You treat one toddler with love and infinite patience. When she tries to walk or to speak you’re there for her, encouraging her and holding her hand. You praise her when she does well, but you don’t scold her when she falls down or gets a word wrong; instead you help her back onto her feet or give her a kiss and tell her the right word.

You treat the second toddler differently. When she gets a word wrong, you tell her, “Oh, you’re useless. You’re terrible at this.” When she’s trying to walk and falls over, you tell her, “You’re doing it all wrong! You suck! You’re so stupid; why would anyone want to help you?”

Those little toddlers reach childhood and it’s time for the researchers to come back and assess them. You did as you were told, and the researchers have had their hypotheses confirmed.

The toddler you treated with love and kindness is a happy, well-balanced, confident little child. She knows that it’s okay to make mistakes sometimes, to not be perfect. She knows there’s a second chance to do things right.

The toddler you treated with unkindness and harsh words is a small, frightened, sad little thing. She’s scared to do anything because nothing she does is right. Mistakes are bad, and that means she must be bad.

Those two little toddlers are your creativity and the way you treat them will define how you feel about your writing.

Treat your creativity with love and kindness, understand that it’s okay not to be perfect, that you can make mistakes and there’s always a second chance to go back and put things right (that’s what editing is for!) and you’ll find it much easier to be a happy, well-balanced, confident writer.

Treat your creativity with unkindness and harsh words, tell it that it’s terrible, that it’s all wrong, that it’s stupid and nobody will ever want to help it (aka: read it) and guess what? Your writing will suffer and you’ll become that small, scared, sad little child.

Be kind to yourself. Enlist the help of someone impartial who will be honest with you; someone who doesn’t wear those glasses of self-doubt that prevent you from seeing the good in what you do. Forgive your mistakes. Know that you can always put them right (again, that’s what editing is for!), and if you fall down… pick yourself up and keep going.

Nurture, don’t torture. Trust yourself. Now go write down some words :)

Love,

Your Fellow Writer xxx

Footnote

This post hasn’t been prompted by any one specific incident or person. I’ve been writing for 30 or so years and I’ve been writing online for almost 20 of those years. I’ve seen this kind of behaviour and attitude time and time again and each time I see it, no matter where it is, I just want to take it by the hand and fix it. Sadly, I just can’t devote my time and emotional energy to helping everyone I see who has this kind of attitude about themselves. All I can do is write occasional posts like this in whatever writing sphere I happen to be moving in at the time and hope that those people can take something away from it.

Sometimes they do, sometimes they think I’m picking on them, and sometimes they read and understand but their immediate response is, “Yes, but…”

When you add a ‘but’ to anything like that, my dear Writer, you are absolving yourself of any responsibility to fix this thing yourself. You’re saying, “I can’t help it,” and that is just self-defeating and self-limiting. If you really can’t take the responsibility for being loving, kind, and forgiving to the toddler that is your creativity, then take a step back – and I say this with kindness – and find something else to do that you can love wholeheartedly.

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