All right. It’s Sunday and the last couple of weeks were kind of a miserable failure write-a-thon wise. Naturally, I am duty-bound to tell you the whole pathetic story. For my life is nothing if not a big weepy pile of self-caused angst.
My plan for this was: 1 week to write a story, 1 week to edit the same story, pick a market, and submit. But I went most of the week before last just not getting anything to take off. I poked at some of my ideas in my idea file, but it was largely a dispiriting and unproductive experience. Then on Saturday of last week I finally managed to kick out something that was more or less a story. It was okay, I thought, but it was missing something. You know, like a sauce that’s too bland.
I have a problem with short stories — they seem kind of all or nothing to me. Like it either comes out almost right all at once on the first draft or no amount of working on it seems to make it worthwhile. I have not had much success thus far creating a short story according to a plan or outline, or in turning those little idea sparks on file into an actual finished story. But this story seemed so close, at first, that I was sure I could pump some life into it somehow. Also, it seemed like a really dumb handicap to have if I ever wanted to be a professional in this business, so I figured I needed to work at overcoming it. I needed to work on being able to build a short story, you know, craft it and all that.
But yesterday morning, after a week of doing that, the story didn’t seem much better. In fact, I was starting to suspect that I was wrong the whole time about it being a viable story at all. So I left it alone for a while and went downtown and did a favor for Paul and bought myself my birthday Nook. We went to Big Time Brewery so I could use free wifi to register and add a few things to the device. One of the books I added was The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass, because I had been thinking about ordering it anyway, and I also thought it might help me identify what was wrong with the recalcitrant story.
I started reading it and got as far as his attempt to distinguish between “status seekers” and “storytellers” — people whose passion is to be published, vs. those whose passion is to tell stories. For highly personal and idiosyncratic reasons this started to rub me the wrong way. Because honestly, no matter how much you are driven by a desire to write, unless you are at *some* point driven by a desire to publish as well, how on earth does anybody except your close personal friends ever get to read your fiction? He’s an agent, he knows full well that publication fairies do not steal into your house in the middle of the night and take your manuscripts down to Tor. But in this section he’s talking about writers trying to get published “too soon” and making it sound like a *bad* idea to keep plugging away at submitting, because the reason you’re getting rejected is most likely that you’re just not that good yet.
GREAT THANK YOU THAT’S JUST EXACTLY WHAT I NEEDED TO HEAR RIGHT NOW.
So I was a little grumpy and decided that instead what I needed to do was set about the task of figuring out how to format my own files to put them on the Nook. I was just outputting the werewolf novel and getting mildly frustrated with the PDF files produced by Scrivener beta, when I was suddenly doubled over by a sick, overwhelming feeling of shame. As if I had done something horrifically shameful by writing this novel and was just shaming myself more by trying to get it published. I was shaming myself by trying to get anything published.
Reading the little scraps of it here and there, I became so embarrassed that any of those words had come out of my head. I hated them. I hated myself for having produced them. They were ugly and unforgivably stupid, how was it possible that I didn’t know better? How was it possible that I had done such a shameful and awful thing?
So then I found myself weeping violently with the overwhelming force of this shame. And I did that for a while. Wept violently, I mean. It’s deeply unpleasant — a little like dry heaves. Then I tried to get back to the other stuff I was trying to do, but I’m still kind of weepy and dumb and hopeless and also have this weird squeezy headache that I always get from crying, so I decided to write about the experience. Which I am now doing. With words that will probably someday strike me as unforgivably stupid and horrible.
I swear, it’s like I have an arch-nemesis who torpedoes me with these ANGST RAYS every time she thinks I might be getting close to getting any of my fiction published. I can be doing the most ordinary part of the process, polishing a short story or outputting stuff to PDF files, and BLAMMO! Crippling angst!
I guess that feeling of shame is part of why I find rejection so incredibly painful. It never feels like I failed to get this one work published this one place this one time — it feels more like I’ve failed everything forever.
So, who is this nemesis of mine? Why is she so determined to keep me from a fiction career? Why is crippling angst her attack method?
I have no idea. But I am putting together a superhero team. We are going to hunt this bitch down and take her out, I swear.
If I can get a suit of power armour or the power to sic swarms of bees on people, you can count me in your superhero team.
Sorry things aren’t going so well for you. Keep it up though.
Yeah, thanks. The thing that drives me crazy about my own emotional state is that I can be gobsmacked by negative emotions like that even when nothing has actually changed in any way.
I guess it’s like bumping an existing bruise or something. You know, you’ve recovered from the initial blow and think you’re okay, then suddenly OWWWWW.
I get you. Sounds to me like what’s happening to you is, as one person put it, you’re being sodomised by your own brain chemistry. Still, keep going.
Or just put down the pen, head out for a few cold ones and put it out of your mind for a while. Either’s good ;-)
Yes, I do seem to get attacked regularly by my own brain for reasons that remain rather obscure to me. I mean, it seems quite sideways from just being a person with a tendency to get depressed, although that is certainly part of the mix.
It’s a clear response to an action stimulus, but it’s a peculiar response. It would almost make sense if I had childhood abuse issues or something, but I don’t. I mean, aside from the usual “geeks get picked on” stuff.
You know, although I do care about getting published, I most care about telling stories. Specifically: stories I would like to read that no one else has written. In fact, sometimes I read something by someone else where it is a story I could have/should have written (but done better, of course) and I get a bit jealous.
But, leaving all that aside, I’d like to focus on what you say about hating your own writing: wait a bit. Put it down. Let it age. Then re-read it.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I pick up an old story of mine after giving it enough time so that it is no longer fresh in my head I am struck by just how good that story is. How good a job I did telling it. It isn’t like I can’t find things that need fixing, but I am always surprised by how much I did right.
It’s like there are three stages: (1) Just finished and it is the best thing you’ve ever written (2) Go over something you wrote recently and it is an awful pile of crap (3) Re-read something that has aged a while and find that you really can tell a good story after all
So I’m thinking that you can’t really kill stage (2). It is just a normal experience and one that nearly everyone has. In fact, it is so natural a response it is probably necessary to the creative process.
Jack, I think you might be right about the three stages being inevitable.
Also, if I’m feeling mega-bummed and hate my writing, I don’t take it that seriously unless I still hate whatever it is when I’m in a better mood. Usually when I still hate something when I’m in a better mood, I don’t hate it in the same gut-churning same way. It’s more of a “eh, this is kind of dull” feeling which I think is more likely to be critically meaningful.
Dang, I wish I had a superpower so I could be on your superhero team.
Different people need different advice at different points in their careers, so that bit about trying to submit too soon was probably the right advice for some people somewhere who aren’t you. Bad luck that you stumbled on it right in the middle of trying to overcome a phobia.
I am currently trying to overcome resume-phobia in which the thought of trying to finish my resume makes me panicky. Of course, that hardly makes me unique- I think at least half the people I know have serious job hunting fear.
Your superpower is being reasonable! It’s one of the less flashy superpowers, sure, but you are already on my superhero team.
Yes, upon reflection, I think he was most likely trying to address people who keep plugging away at trying to get published *without* ever trying to improve their writing. When, realistically, I think both probably have to be happening at the same time, at at some point the two efforts come together.
That panicky feeling — yeah, it’s awful. Because there doesn’t seem to be any good way to prevent it, and because it’s (at least temporarily) incapacitating. I’m sure they’re related, the resume-phobia and the submit-a-phobia.
I’m also sure they’re related to our keen awareness of our relative status in the tribe — as yet another bit of evolutionary psychology that gets weirdly distorted and abstract in the modern world. We seem to have a built-in anxiety about failure and letting people down and losing status and all that.
I understand this feeling pretty well. There’s nothing fun about sudden fear-of-being-an-absolute-failure-at-all-everything syndrome. I’m sorry you had a bad bout of it, and yes, our lizard brains or evil twins or what have you are out to destroy us. I’m really not sure why, but I will totally be on your superhero team to stop them. Just as soon as I quit calling myself an idiot out loud for no reason at all. Any day now.
But I know you’ll feel better, and then you’ll be better able to look at the story and be rational about it. I believe in you!
Thanks for the support. I’m glad I’m not the only one…
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