Finding a reason to pursue a beloved passion
May 2, 2017 7:44 AM   Subscribe

I have an opportunity to write right now, but 1.) have to find a way to overcome self-doubt and pessimism and, having done that, 2.) have to find an audience. How do I do these things?

I write short stories (heavily influenced by short stories from the likes of Norton readers and anthologies) and fantasy (which I've been writing since I was twelve years old, influenced by a ton of stuff from the fantasy and sci fi worlds of the 80's and 90's.) I also read and have read extensively as far back as I can remember. When I was younger, it was a lot of fiction, especially children's and young adult novels (favorites were Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Monica Furlong, series like the Babysitter's Club, and my much older brother's required reading books, like Flowers for Algernon.) As I grew older I developed a rule that I would (and I do) read anything, on any topic, fiction or non fiction, so long as it is engaging and well written. I am not trying to be a snob, just express that I have had a lot of extraordinary "teachers" in the form of the writers themselves, and that this is where I am coming from in asking this question. I have also worked in bookstores and libraries for years so I have a certain idea of what is popular reading material and what isn't and why.

I have always loved writing. Teachers in school, all the way through college, responded well to and encouraged my writing. STRONGLY encouraged it. My family and friends, however, always responded with "meh...." My family especially was very, "that's cute, dear, but really that won't lead to much will it?" Their influence was very important to me so I let them talk me into doing anything BUT write. Years later I have done a lot of this and that, nothing special, and nothing leading anywhere meaningful. Now I finally have time, space, and support to write, but instead of doing that I find myself cleaning the bathroom or mowing the lawn or working out. Whenever I try and write for more than a few minutes my mind seizes up with the most incredible negative thoughts. Primarily I am concerned people will not like what I write. I think what I write is readable, even interesting and engaging if I hit the right stride, but it is hard to hit any stride when all I can think of is how nasty people can be to writing when they don't like it or have an issue with it. I don't need 100 percent praise from everyone or expect it, but I feel like people just look at anything I write with skepticism. I focus so much on people's doubts and potential nastiness that I just go and spend my time watching youtube videos on how to fix the sink which is always stopping up. I have in fact fixed two sinks in this time and they are both draining perfectly (!).

Now, even if I get over this fear of what people think, the next negative thought is "but it's so hard to get published/noticed..." even as I write this I think of solutions: I could submit stories to writing magazines, I could move to New York and get an editing job, I could try and publish an e-book... but then my mind loops back to "but nothing I write is worth bothering with anyway so why make the effort?" I understand this is a self-pitying, self-defeating attitude. I need help breaking the cycle. One, to believe in my own work regardless what people say or think, and two, maintain that belief in the face of the harshness of rejection/indifference. Suggestions? Thank you!
posted by Crystal Fox to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
You could try writing on Wattpad; you get rapid feedback and it may help you get over the fear of negative comments by giving you practice. I'd say start with a story you aren't going to care about as much; don't plan your magnum opus there, but something like fanfic or a short plot bunny would let you "start writing", expose you to feedback, but you could always temper the sting of criticism by saying "well of course this isn't my REAL work, this is just fanfic for practice. "
posted by The otter lady at 7:51 AM on May 2, 2017

I think you need to 100% separate the act of writing from the idea of your writing being read. Write as a practice. Write because you want to write. Commit to writing two pages or 500 words or something, and don't let your pen or your fingers stop until you've done it. Write notebooks full of terrible shit. Maybe writing crap feels like wasting time, and maybe it *is* more of a waste of time than fixing the sink (bravo!) but it's certainly no more of a waste of time than staring at a screen and not writing (much less, really, because it gets you in the habit of writing, and *writing* is a necessary part of *writing well*).

Try The Artist's Way and Writing Down the Bones and Bird by Bird.

Ultimately, I think you have to come to find writing to be something worth doing for itself. Most people's writing doesn't really get read much, even good writing! And lots of bad writing does get read, sooo....
posted by mskyle at 7:59 AM on May 2, 2017 [7 favorites]

Best answer: The main thing is; the only way to "be a writer" is to write. It's like you can't give birth without getting pregnant and dealing with morning sickness etc. If you have something written, send it out to anyone you can think of; put it on Wattpad, self publish on Amazon. And write more. Keep doing it. Some people will like it. Some won't. Don't quit your day job. Don't move to New York on spec. Just write and send it out to be read and keep doing that, no matter what. That's all anyone can do. Do that, and you're doing it right.
posted by The otter lady at 8:02 AM on May 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

On preview, I also agree with mskyle. Write because you want to. If having it read is important to you, send it out; but there's much to be said for just writing for yourself. I paint paintings that will never be seen outside my home and that is great with me; they give me joy without ever being validated by someone else. Writing for yourself can be just as fun! And you can always decide to publish later if you want!
posted by The otter lady at 8:06 AM on May 2, 2017

Don't think about other people—write the story you want to read. Once you've done that a bunch of times, you can start thinking about trying to get other people to read it.
posted by ejs at 8:07 AM on May 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: From Dear Sugar's Write Like A Motherfucker:

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you –,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.
posted by moiraine at 8:07 AM on May 2, 2017 [7 favorites]

Very very very bad (not advice) story I got from an old hand tech writer at NAB one year, she'd moved into tech writing from other fields, related how this famous sportswriter (golf?) who when I was grouching about -- well what you're asking about -- described this writer waited until the weekend before a deadline making his editors crazy and locked himself up with a several fifths of whiskey and typed straight through, resulting in great articles on monday morning deadline. DO NOT DO THIS. But find a deadline. Don't think. Listen to Yoda, just make words.
posted by sammyo at 8:10 AM on May 2, 2017

I think Wattpad (and writing publicly before you've gotten your sea legs) might make this a whole lot worse.

Pen names are a thing. You never have to tell anyone your pen name(s) if you don't want to.

Right now you are paralyzed by the thought of a future that doesn't exist. So, treat it like something you can plausibly deny or ignore or walk away from. Write as someone else, or for someone else. Sometimes constraints help -- pic a narrow subgenre that you're familiar with, and write that. Just treat it like an experiment, or an exercise, but finish it. Keep doing that, using whatever constraints help -- a pen name, writing as a character, a narrow subgenre, a ridiculous deadline so that no matter what it's just something you wrote in 2 weeks and thus isn't supposed to be good, whatever -- and keep doing it until you know you can make yourself write.

Your first however many books will probably be bad, or at least not good. That's just how it works. (I've heard a million words, which seems like a lot, but sure, why not; anyway, short stories are not novels, and I wouldn't expect your experience there to transfer to breaking a novel length story. The only thing that teaches you how to write novels is writing novels, over and over again.)

Accept that you have a lot of writing practice and exercise ahead of you before you have to worry about being good. If you worry about being good from your first book or collection, you probably won't ever write it. Treat it like disposable practice, or whatever you need to do to actually write and finish what you write.

Side note: this kind of concern seems pretty common, and it's the reason I get pretty angry at writers who misrepresent their own process or professional arcs. Lots of them lie to make themselves look cool. Most of them work their asses off for a long time first.
posted by schadenfrau at 8:13 AM on May 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

The idea that you are going to first overcome self-doubt and pessimism, then, after that, you can begin: that's very wrong. You're only going to overcome those things by working.
posted by thelonius at 8:19 AM on May 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

I strongly recommend David Bayles' book Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking.
posted by FencingGal at 8:21 AM on May 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Ralph Keyes' The Courage to Write is very on-point for this.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:21 AM on May 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also Ralph Keyes' The Writer's Book of Hope for your fears about never getting published.
posted by FencingGal at 8:23 AM on May 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Have you tried writing fanfiction?

It's creative and fun, and it's actual writing, but it's also low stakes, and in some ways, lower effort. You're not required to do lots of convincing worldbuilding and character development; it's perfectly OK to simply write a two-page vignette about, say, Christmas stockings on the Starship Enterprise.

I have many friends who honed their writing skills in fanfiction and now happily write their own original works. And I have other friends who write only fanfiction and get a lot of joy and fulfillment from it, especially from their involvement in the fandom writing communities.
posted by cadge at 8:48 AM on May 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: This Ira Glass bit about the distance between taste and ability is kind of a cliche now, but it's worth watching if you haven't seen it. (There's a punchier version here, but I like the full one where he mercilessly drags his own past reporting.)
posted by theodolite at 8:59 AM on May 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Have you tried writing fanfiction?

This is what I came to recommend, as well. Like you, I read a lot, and a lot of great books, starting from a very young age, and I also started writing my own fiction (mostly short stories, some longer works) when I was growing up. Although I did read some fanfiction at that age, I'll admit that I kind of looked down on it as "cheating" or something.*

But then, as an adult, fanfiction was the thing that really got me back into writing again. I think knowing that this wasn't going to be something that had to be perfect and submitted to publisher's and was something I did purely for fun made it easier to just dive in. (I had always had a big problem with endlessly editing and changing and fussing over every word written.) And because the characters and setting are already established, it's easier to just start writing.

Another nice thing about fanfiction is that there are plenty of platforms to put your work out there and get feedback (archive of our own is the primary one I use). It's really nice to have people read and enjoy your work, and people who leave comments are generally very generous and positive.

It kind of put the joy back into writing for me, and it also got me used to putting my work out there. And as cadge mentioned, there are a lot of fanfiction writers who go on to publish original works.

*This is obviously not how I feel now. But I had weird hang ups about it at first.
posted by litera scripta manet at 9:29 AM on May 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You've heard of the movie The Martian, yeah? That movie where Matt Damon is playing an astronaut who accidentally gets abandoned on Mars and uses his wits to keep himself alive? It probably comes as no surprise that that was based on a book. But I bet that it will come as a surprise to read that that book....was based on an amateur author's blog posts. Andy Weir was a computer programmer who liked to write, and so he started a blog where he could post his short stories. His blog slowly got a following. And one day he started posting The Martian on there, writing and posting a chapter at a time. It was such a big hit he started a tip jar so people could pay him. And then he got an offer from a publisher to publish the whole thing, and next thing he knew Matt Damon was in the movie.

And it all started from him just starting a blog, writing stories and banging them up there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:42 AM on May 2, 2017 [7 favorites]

Heck, Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fanfic! :)
posted by The otter lady at 9:46 AM on May 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I struggle with this too, as a singer-songwriter who generally works alone. Things that have helped me get over my internal barriers include:

1. I think of all the existing music that I dislike. Sometimes I'll listen to someone else's song or their whole album, and man, I will just not like it at all. Even artists I normally enjoy and respect will occasionally release music that doesn't appeal to me. But that doesn't stop anyone of them from doing it. So if I write a song that some people don't like, so what? As long as I like the song, I should create the song.

2. I try not to get discouraged if, in the middle of writing a song, I decide I don't like it. Maybe the song is salvageable, or maybe I just scrap the whole thing and work on something else. Maybe I save it to come back to later, or never. That is OK. Just the practice of writing helps one evolve as a writer.

3. Prioritize writing. Try to set aside a solid chunk of time on most days to do at least a little writing, if only an hour to start with.

It's hard to predict which things you create will really connect with other people. Try not to worry about that so much.

While we're recommending books, I just read Bleaker House and enjoyed it. You might find it relevant to your situation.
posted by bananana at 10:57 AM on May 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was/am you - always a good writer, totally paralyzed and unable to actually sit down and write despite wanting to, or at least desperately wanting to want to. For like a solid decade I was like this.

In the past two years I've gotten my fiction writing from 'I hate everything I've ever written' to 'published authors are encouraging me to submit my original work for publication and also I actually ENJOY sitting down to write' and it was 100% because I started writing fanfic. Hand to god. I would have thought this was dumb advice two years ago, I honestly though fanfic was kind of ridiculous, but it has changed everything about my writing life.

And I should add that none of the things commonly recommended for this problem ever worked for me. Sitting down in front of a blank page every day. Lying to myself that it didn't matter to me what other people thought. Doing exercises out of books. Those things made me give up in frustration every time I tried them.

I will seriously come back when I'm on a computer and write an entire screed about this because the typical approach to teaching writing turns out to be 180 degrees different from what works for me and I never would have figured that out without fanfic.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:13 AM on May 2, 2017 [9 favorites]

Check out Barry Eisler and JA Konrath's blogs, they talk a lot about self-publishing. See also: leanpub
posted by rhizome at 11:18 AM on May 2, 2017

Here's the promised screed. Buckle up because this got long. But, tl;dr – the thing that changed for me when I started writing fanfic was that I stopped trying to write and started trying to tell stories, and suddenly I actually wanted to fucking do it.


In school, from the time I was a little kid through the end of college, I was always great at writing and English. And I didn’t really have to try at it. Anything I was taught in English class I pretty much just picked up immediately, and I generally out-wrote my peers even in advanced classes. These days I’m a grant writer, and some months I write over a hundred pages of content for grant reports, and while the schedule can be exhausting, the writing itself still comes easily to me.

But, oh god, when I tried to write fiction it did NOT work that way. I took my first fiction-writing class in high school, and while I noodled out a couple of stories and poems that were probably fine from a technical perspective, I just didn’t like them. I had zero investment in them on any level, emotional or artistic or anything. The same thing happened when I took another creative writing course in college, only then it was even worse because I was trying to ape short literary fiction (which I do not read) and wound up with a story about a women in her 40s travelling to West Virginia to bury her alcoholic sister, which, I was a 20 year old who had never experienced a death in the family or been to West Virginia, and it was all just excruciating.

Maybe 5 years later I found a speculative fiction writing group and started going to critiques, and I decided I’d finally try writing something and submitting it, and I did, and it was… ok. I wasn’t wild about it, the group liked some parts a lot and other parts not so much, and I took their critique notes and put them in a drawer someplace and just kinda never edited the story. And then I didn’t write anything else for another three years or so.

So I had sort of given up on fiction. And then some internets friends (on this very website in fact) convinced me to try writing some Hannibal fanfic, and I thought “well that sounds like a ridiculous thing to spend time on, but I DO have this one idea, so I guess I’ll give it a try. It’ll probably be like 5,000 words or something and then I’ll get it out of my system.”

Now it’s a year and a half and 80,000 words of fanfic later, and I’m writing original short speculative fiction and sending it to the group for critique again, and this time around, I actually like what I’m writing. And I like the writing part. And I’m getting critiques from published authors telling me to start submitting my pieces. When I compare the first and second story I submitted to that group, it’s like they weren’t even written by the same person.

So what happened? Well, all that practice made me a better writer, which I’ll go into in a while (god this is long). But why was I suddenly willing to practice? And how did that willingness translate into a willingness to write original fiction?

There were a lot of assumptions I had about writing that turned out not to be quite true, but the number one thing that I took away from writing my first fanfic was this:

1. I can’t believe that it never occurred to me, and that no one ever told me, how much of a difference it would make to actually want to tell the stupid story.

Before this, every time I tried to write fiction, it was because I was supposed to - either because it was a class assignment, or because I felt like I ought to be writing something, because I am a good writer and so it was my destiny and/or obligation.

But for this thing, I didn’t ‘want to write’ – I wanted a particular story to exist. The reason I decided to write that first story was because the show had just ended, and everyone in the fandom was writing stories about what might happen after the finale. I had never read much fanfic, but I read a few of those, and I started to get annoyed, because to me they were all just… wrong. They didn’t mesh with what I thought would happen. And that made me start thinking about what I did think would happen, and then, with some urging, I decided I’d try getting it out of my head and writing it all out.

It was easy to start, because I already cared about the characters and they were already ‘real,’ and because I already knew essentially what I wanted to happen. All I wanted was to make it as plausible as I could. And because I was approaching it as an exercise in speculation rather than an exercise in writing, I found I was getting way less hung up on whether or not the writing was good. The actual words were a means to an end, that was all.

So, I got some flow going. I was actually having fun. I was basically saying what I wanted to say, and I was pleased with that.

And then people started reading it and commenting on it.

2. Here is the second assumption I had always taken for granted, because so many people seem to say it: “write for yourself, and don’t worry about what other people think.”

Here is the thing I have figured out about writing fiction. For me personally, the entire point of writing is to take the things I see inside my head and put them inside other peoples’ heads. I’m really not interested in ‘expressing myself’ just for the sake of doing it. When I started writing that first fic, it was because I wanted to tell people what I thought would happen. If I hadn’t felt the need to tell them, I wouldn’t have written the thing, because I already knew what I thought would happen. There would have been no point whatsoever in just writing it for myself. This is the thing I find satisfying about nonfiction, too: conveying information. Making my nonfiction writing flow well, using memorable turns of phrase, whatever - those things don't matter to me in and of themselves, they're all in service of the goal of informing or persuading.

So when people started responding, it was incredibly satisfying. It was working! People heard the thing I was trying to tell them, and they were persuaded by it! They didn’t really care about the way it was written – though my existing nonfiction skills and love of literature meant it was passably well-written – they cared about whether it felt true, and as it turns out, it did. It felt true to them and it felt true to me.

That first fic was around 6,000 words long. I sort of thought that I was done after that. But then I kept thinking about where the story might go after the end of that fic, and also I kept seeing new comments from people saying how much they’d liked reading it, so I thought, well, let me see…

The sequel fic wound up being 25,000 words long. It is superior in pretty much every way to the first one, for a whole bunch of reasons, but the core reason is that I knew people were reading it. Knowing that people were actually reading it as I wrote it made me take it so much more seriously. It made me consider what I was planning to write so much more carefully. It made me try so much harder to keep everyone in character and describe things as evocatively as I could and sit down to write on a (somewhat) regular basis. It made me think more and it made me care more.

And when I read that someone had laughed or been genuinely surprised or been emotionally affected by something I’d written, it was like a fucking drug. Is that bad? The conventional wisdom seems to think so, but that just plain doesn’t make sense to me. Seeing that people were responding to my writing meant that my writing had worked, which gave me a reason to keep doing it.

3. Write every day.

Ok, look. I’m not saying this isn’t a good thing to do. But jesus fucking christ, the fact that this is given as gospel advice to even beginning writers is kind of mind-boggling. What this meant, to me, was “your unwillingness to rearrange your entire life and make major sacrifices in order to learn to write means that you are not suited to be a writer, so just don't fucking bother.”

People have shit to do, you know? People have jobs and families and lives and other hobbies and interests, and having those things – and even prioritizing them over writing – doesn’t mean you don’t have what it takes and never will.

When people start learning to bake, people don’t tell them that they have to bake every single day.

I started doing this as a hobby, and I do it when I have time to do it. I am currently working my way up to writing more frequently, and since I have the side benefit of actually enjoying it now, I have started to get antsy when I don't write for too long. I would love to get to the point where I write every day. But I’m not doing that now and I’m still writing good shit.

4. Sit down in front of a blank document and write, even if you don’t feel like writing and have no ideas.

Again, I’m sure this is great advice for a lot of people, but for me, it resulted over the years in about 50 days’ worth of emo journal entries interspersed with boring descriptions of whatever happened to be sitting on my desk.

When I started the first fic, I already knew more or less what was going to happen, so writing the first bit was pretty easy, and then once I started writing it, I just kept thinking about it. Mostly at times when I had little else to do and my mind was free to wander, like on the subway, in the shower, falling asleep. And as I did this, little bits of it started to coalesce, and they were all over the place in terms of their placement in the story. Like, oh, of course, in this situation [x] would obviously happen, and [y], and oh hey, what if this other thing happened. Here’s a very vague concept of a scene, and a specific piece of dialogue for another scene, and the outline of an action to a question I had for myself about how to resolve some future issue. Here’s some specific room we’ll see in chapter 7, and a broad outline of the penultimate confrontation in chapter 18, and hey, when those two characters talk in that one scene, one of them should have this little physical quirk.

So I started taking notes. Notes on the train, notes in the shower, notes as I was falling asleep. There would be periods of a couple of weeks where this was all I did – no scheduled writing times, no blank page, no attempts to generate actual prose. Just daydreaming and taking notes, in random places and at random times of day. Then I’d periodically take these notes and dump them into a word doc in roughly chronological order, and then after a while I’d have like 1000-2000 words of assorted notes for my next chapter, and then I would sit down in front of the computer and write. This happened whenever I felt like I’d thought about it enough and whenever I had time to do it, not on any kind of schedule and never ever without a solid idea of what I was going to be writing. I probably only actually wrote-wrote maybe 3-6 nights a month.

And, well, it worked! I’ve written on average about 5,000 words a month since I started, which isn’t pro-writer level but it’s 5,000 words more per month than I’d ever written in my life before.

Ok, you might say, but just because you started to enjoy writing doesn’t necessarily mean you got better at writing. Which, on the one hand, fair! Maybe not everyone would. But I did.

Because I hadn’t written much fiction, I had no idea what I was good at and what I was bad at, what kind of things I liked writing, what kinds of themes I gravitated toward. And I only figured those things out because I wasn’t looking for them – they just kind of happened on the page as I told the story in my head. So I started to get to know myself as a writer and I learned all kinds of shit. I’m good at character motivations and plotting stories out logically. I’m bad at action scenes and I abuse the fuck out of semicolons and dashes, both of which I’m not constantly working to address. I have to remind myself to include scene-setting descriptions, which don’t come as easily to me as dialogue. I don’t like writing romance all that much. I like putting characters in impossible situations and seeing how they get out of them. I like writing dark psychological shit, much darker than I realized when I started all this, enough that it turns some people off. I didn’t know any of this before (well, maybe the semicolon thing), and knowing it has been so incredibly useful as I’ve started writing original fiction. I’m not just casting around looking for ideas that seem objectively good on paper and then trying to force them to exist. I’m thinking of ideas that fit what I know about myself as a writer (or that push against the boundaries of those things), and then telling those stories in a way that feels personal and satisfying.

And there’s something else, too – I just plain know that I can do it now. I know I’m capable of writing a good story. So now when I come up with a new idea and sit down to write it, I don’t feel like a ridiculous fraud

Nothing I have written is perfect. But for the first time, that fact doesn’t make me want to quit. It makes me want to keep writing so that I can get better, because now I know I can get better. And because, as it turns out, I find it fun and interesting and satisfying to write fiction. I sure didn’t know that before.

So yeah fanfic is great. Recommended.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:39 PM on May 3, 2017 [14 favorites]

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