Monday, October 20, 2014

Always Believe in Your Writing (While You're Writing It)

Image courtesy of Graur Codrin at
Orson Scott Card, well-known author of the Ender’s Game books, has this to say on the topic of a writer’s self-image:

Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things:

1.       The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English.
2.       The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.  (109)

He says this is how a writer should think during the submission for publication process, as a way to stay motivated and positive. 

It’s best if you believe both these things simultaneously, so that you can call on Belief 1 when you’re deciding whether to mail the story out, Belief 2 when going over the story to revise it, Belief 1 when choosing which market to submit it to, Belief 2 when the story is rejected (of course, I expected to get this back), and Belief 1 again when you put it back in an envelope and mail it to the next-best market. (109, emphasis original)

However, I think it has some very good applications for the writing process itself.

 If you’re a young writer who listens to a lot of writers who are older than you, you’ll probably hear at least one of them say something like this: “Oh, yeah, I found something I had written when I was in high school.  It was absolutely terrible.  It was so terrible that I laughed the whole time I was reading it—and it was a little embarrassing, because I remember at the time thinking that I was just the hottest writer ever.”

Actually, that’s what you’ll hear me say.  The first draft I wrote of The Tower Key was worthless drivel.  But at the time, I seriously thought I was every bit as cool as J.R.R. Tolkien.

This might make a young writer feel self-conscious.  If older writers think their work was terrible when they were your age, then is there the possibility that your work is terrible? 

The answer is yes.

And no.

This is where Card’s principle comes into play.  I, however, would like to present a modified form of it:

Always believe in your writing (while you’re writing it).

Say that a couple of times.  Let it really sink in. 

When you are writing, you’ve got to believe in yourself.  You are the bomb, you are the single greatest writer who ever lived, people will be knocking down your door for autographs, and you’ll be swimming in so many acclamations that people centuries from now will still weep with joy at the mere mention of your name.  Because you are that cool. Write the way you want to; have confidence in your writing.  With every key stroke, believe that you really are writing “the greatest work of genius ever written in English.”

However, notice that little parenthetical note: “while you’re writing it.” While. This means that when you are done (and have allowed yourself a week or so of glowing victory), you have to stop believing blindly in the quality of your work. Card would say that you should switch to believing that your story is “worthless drivel.”  While I get what he’s saying, I think that can create an unhealthy pattern of all-or-nothing thinking. 

What I would say is that you should simply stop blindly believing in your work.  Instead, you switch to interrogating it, the way a prosecutor would in a court room.  You cross-examine it.  You no longer trust that it is super-duper awesome.  You become aware that your super-awesome story is actually not so totally awesome after all.  You might, depending on how long you go before going back to cross-examine it, find it to be embarrassingly bad.  

After you’ve interrogated and cross-examined and otherwise discovered your story is not the hottest thing in the history of all things hot, you need to switch to editing and re-writing.

Re-writing is writing.  What’s the rule for writing?  When you’re writing, you go back to believing in your work.  Sure, it was bad, but just look at all these awesome changes!  This story was pretty promising before—now it’s going to be so amazing that the Dalai Lama is going to have glorious religious visions while reading it!

Once you’ve finished editing and re-writing, you switch back to being an attorney cross-examining a witness. You don’t hate your work or think it’s worthless, but you don’t trust it, either.

The idea is to repeat this process until even the skeptical mindset says, “Yeah, this is actually pretty decent, and I’m proud of this.”  You want to be proud and confident, but not operating under any delusions of grandeur. You do still need to espouse the idea that you can always improve.

Nevertheless, you should honestly believe that what you have is pretty solid.  Then, you can restart the process, following Card’s guidelines for submitting your writing for publication.                                           

Always believe in your writing (while you’re writing it).

If you don’t have this positive attitude while writing, it is really easy to get so depressed that you quit writing for months at a time.  At least, that’s how it is for me.  My default setting when writing is “mean, nasty critic.” Once I learned how to embrace this idea of believing in myself while I was writing, I found that my productivity soared.  It really is amazing what self-confidence can do.  Then, when it’s time to evaluate the work, I let out my mean, nasty critic for a play day.  Once I’ve evaluated my writing, I shut the critic back up in its jail cell and go back to my positive attitude.

If I’m writing and run into a rough spot, or I keep thinking that maybe what I’m writing is awful, I find it helpful to repeat the rule to myself like a mantra:  Always believe in your writing (while you’re writing it).

So, if you’re worried that your writing project might be terrible, don’t.  Is there a chance you’ll look back on it and dislike it? Yes.  But that doesn’t matter while you’re writing it. Tell your mean, nasty critic to shut up, because you’re busy writing something that will give the Dalai Lama a religious vision.

Because yes—you are that awesome.

Do you find yourself doubting your writing abilities?  Do you think that this advice might work for you? If not, what are some steps you can take to boost your confidence while you are writing? Share any thoughts or questions in the comments.

Work cited: Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1990.

Like my blog? Use the form in the sidebar to subscribe.

No comments:

Post a Comment