I’ve often said to my students: The biggest hurdle we writers face is not mastering the craft, or navigating the industry, or even finding the time and money to carry on writing.
Those are all real challenges, for sure. But they’re not the ones that threaten to scuttle the ship.
No. The biggest hurdle is managing our anxiety about the work. The inner monologue goes something like this:
Is it good? Am I good? Or at least, good enough? Will this be the book that gets finished? Will this be the one that lands me an agent? Will this be one that breaks out? Am I doing this writer thing right? Should I even be doing it at all?
The list goes on. Writers never seem to get writer’s block when it comes to penning words of self-doubt and second-guessing.
Why so? It’s a big question. Here’s my short answer: The very nature of writing simulates consciousness. The voice in my head that feels like "me” finds expression in the words on the page that are also, somehow, me.
This makes the whole exercise impossibly personal. Writing is intertwined with our sense of self in a way that I don’t imagine other forms of creation can get near.
In reality, there are no stakes — no one ever died of a sh*tty first draft — but the stakes feel so high as to be existential. French philosopher René Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am.” Writing is a kind of thinking, and cogito, ergo sum can easily turn to scribo, ergo sum.
We write, therefore we are. This puts an awful lot of pressure on our sh*tty first drafts! Thanks for nothing, Descartes!
A personal perspective: An essential part of my artistic education came while I was a child laying sprawled on my belly on the living room floor, reading the Sunday New York Times. My dad would go out each Sunday morning and bring the paper home, along with a large box of donuts.
We were a decidedly unhip family in a modest suburban town, far away from the cultural mothership of Manhattan. The Arts & Leisure section and the book review in particular were like a window to a whole other world. Theatre and music, literature and art! Page after page, Sunday after Sunday, I read about things I had never seen and could scarcely understand. Yet I knew someday that would be my world, too.
At 17, I made my move and went to NYU to study acting. At 19, it was my picture on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section, in the form of an Al Hirschfeld drawing celebrating the opening the Broadway musical I had improbably been cast in.
Call it ten years from dreaming kid to living-the-dream teen. Not a bad start, right? Yet my appearances in the Times in the decades since have been scant. A book mention here, a cameo appearance in a friend’s wedding notice there.
Until today. Thirty-nine years after that Hirschfeld, my latest book, Alice’s Farm, A Rabbit’s Tale, received a half-page review in the book review section of the Sunday New York Times.
Kid-me with the donut-filled belly, teen-me with the Broadway dreams, and today-me with fourteen published novels under my belt all had a good laugh together today, courtesy of the paper of record. Meanwhile, writer-me already has her head in the next book, because that’s what writers do.
Is it good? Or at least, good enough? Am I doing this writer thing right?
A writing career is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a long game, and a long and winding path we writers walk, and that’s a good thing. Wisdom comes slowly, and the world needs wise books.
Everything you experience along the way becomes grist for the mill. There are dead ends and unexpected pivots. Rushes of transformative insight and slow years of implementation. Books that sink and books that soar. And files of ideas, patiently waiting their turn.
There’s no rush. Wherever you are on your own journey is exactly where you need to be.
Did I have a donut this morning to celebrate? I sure did.
TIP: The writer’s life is a marathon, not a sprint. Treasure the journey you’re on. Your timing is perfect!