Monday, August 29, 2011

Why What We Do Is Hard

You know it. I know it. And very often, we start to let the difficulty of writing give birth to insecurities that plague our whole existence. It isn't bad enough, apparently, to consider giving up on writing; we must also degrade ourselves into believing we are bad at life in general.

The funny thing is, this problem seems to extend well beyond the glorious milestones of representation and publication. Beth Revis, author of Across the Universe, admits to her insecurities on her blog, here. Jody Hedlund, award winning author, shares many of hers here. And the Authoress of Miss Snark's First Victim confesses her own fears here.

I recently read a Slate article by Michael Agger which shed some light on this widespread issue of self-doubt in writers. In it, Agger explains what should be a very simple and obvious fact to those of us who write: writing is hard. Here are some highlights from that article:

"Writing extended texts for publication is a major cognitive challenge, even for professionals who compose for a living... Serious writing is at once a thinking task, a language task, and a memory task." (Ronald Kellogg, Professional Writing Expertise)

It requires the same kind of mental effort as a high-level chess match or an expert musical performance... Kellogg terms the highest level of writing as "knowledge-crafting." In that state, the writer's brain is juggling three things: the actual text, what you plan to say next, and—most crucially—theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what's being written. A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience. (Link)

I don't know about you, but I find these passages to be both comforting and liberating. Writing is a highly solitary craft, and when you hold yourself to a high standard, it is quite easy to become discouraged; you rarely have someone next to you all the time to pat you on the back and say, "Hey, you're doing just fine! This is hard stuff, you know!" And the moment you indulge the whiny little voice in your head complaining about how difficult writing is, you start to feel like a wimp.

But isn't it nice to hear someone else verify that, yes, this is in fact a complicated thing you're trying to do?

It's easy to start feeling like a dunce when your work isn't measuring up to what you want it to be, but sometimes you have to remind yourself that it's okay to be where you are right now

That doesn't mean we should cut ourselves any slack in what we expect from our (slightly overtaxed) brains. It just means we shouldn't start allowing ourselves to feel inadequate just because it takes us awhile to get to where we want to be. Because if we continue to work at it, we will continue to make progress. And despite the insecurities, despite the difficulty of it all, writing is in fact very rewarding work. Otherwise, why in blazes would we be doing it?

Take this advice from Lois Peterson: "The more you write, the easier it gets; the more you write, the better it gets. So just write the damn thing!"

What about you? Regardless of where you are in your writing journey, do you feel plagued by insecurities from time to time? How do you cope with them? And what do you do when you discover that writing is indeed very hard?


  1. Thank you. Great post. When I get insecure, I stop writing. And then I start to get sad and depressed because I'm not writing. So I need to just write!

    Just yesterday I was thinking that writing is in fact hard, it is work, but that's ok with me because I still like it.


  2. Yes, I noticed over the course of the year while I look at old blog posts that they tend to do something of a roller coaster ride- up one minute, down the next. t'is the life of a writer. Great post!

  3. It's an interesting topic today. I can see, now (through my own experiences) why so many famous writers of the past created a the cliche of drunken degenerates. I never give in to my own negative feelings about my writing in a self-destructive manner, but I can fully understand the desire to seek solace in a bottle of whiskey.

    I still don't know how I cope, especially when it seems like it's against the rules to talk about the frustrations of the process pre-publication. It's an extreme faux pas to "whine and complain" about how hard it is because it "gives the impression of unprofessional immaturity." But, dang it! Writing is hard, and very few of us are moving at the pace we would truly like.

    This is a very encouraging post! Thank you so much for taking the time to put it together :D

  4. Amie: I sort of do the same thing. It's a lot like being insecure around a person: I just avoid them in order to avoid the discomfort of my insecurity. But avoiding writing IS depressing. That's when "just write the damn thing" becomes so helpful. :)

    CQG: Oh, that roller-coaster. Sometimes I think if I could just turn off my emotional responses to the stages of the journey, being a writer would be nothing but awesome all the time. But then I suppose there'd be nothing to write about, eh?

    Giles: It seems a dangerous profession, given the history of writers, doesn't it? :)

    I think it's nice, every now and again, to gather quietly, just we few aspiring (slightly exhausted) pre-published folk, and listen to each other whine. Does us a bit of good, I think. Reminds us we're not alone... Then we can get over it and get back to work!

  5. This was a perfect time to read this, because I was just in the middle of giving myself a pile of grief because
    1. Come on, this can't be that hard!
    2. People do this every day!
    3. People who started writing their books when I started writing mine have finished several books in the time it's taken me to write ONE! - and so on.
    So a pleasant thanks to you. I needed that :)

  6. Lily: I'm glad the timing was good. I tend to give myself piles of grief on this subject, too... We are our harshest (cruelest, most ruthless, slave-driving-est) critics, aren't we?

    Take heart!

  7. I feel a bit like a dunce in writing and in art.
    It really is difficult to convey the message you want to others and have them recieve it the way you intended.
    I think that's one of the reasons I blanche at putting myself out there.
    There are so many people who don't care about art or care too much about it and are over critical for these reasons.
    My biggest fear? Someone looking at my creations and saying "well, I could do that... but it's so horrible why the heck would I want to?"
    But today I was looking up folk art and outsider art... it's funny how people who aren't even trying make the rest of us look silly for stressing out so much. :)

  8. @ Giles Hash
    I think a little whining is good sometimes. Just to get out your frustrations to someone who knows what you're talking about.
    Then you both can say "damn this is harsh, let's take a coffee break and come back to push through it."

  9. I do have my insecurities. And the work of a writer does not stop post, publication which is what I wrote about drives me insane!

    Dropping by via the #writecampaign, and hope to frequent your blog from now on.

  10. Lauren (@CloverHoney): I think you hit the nail on the head with "It really is difficult to convey the message you want to others and have them receive it the way you intended." That seems to be the greatest difficulty (and the defining characteristic) of all art. Everyone interprets things differently, and when our art isn't interpreted the way we intended, we start to feel like we've failed. I think the goal (which is not an easy one) is to ultimately reach a place where you yourself are pleased with your final product, and therefore able to accept other people's varying views on what you've produced.

    Damyanti: Sometimes I think the curse of the artist is insecurity... which is so ironic, because we typically produce art for the freedom of self the act of creating inspires. Ah well. Onward! I'm glad you stopped by!

  11. Hi, new to this blog -- is there really an insecure writers group? Because I would like to join it please.
    Hanna wrote: "we start to let the difficulty of writing give birth to insecurities that plague our whole existence. ... we must also degrade ourselves into believing we are bad at life in general."
    That describes the way that I react to not writing perfectly.

    @CloverHoney -- yes! that is my biggest fear too. Your post reminds me of the lyrics to the song Breathe 2am "if I get it all down on paper it's no longer inside of me threatening the life it belongs to.... these words are my diary screaming out loud and I know that you'll use them however you want to...." I think as artists we have to be okay with letting our words soar once we are done -- maybe becoming something we didn't intend. That can be a good thing.

    When I get stuck in a funk about my writing, I usually pick up one of my writing/inspiration books. The most recent one that I have found helpful is "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield.

  12. ShelleyKay: There actually is! I didn't know it when I published this post, but if you go to this website, you will indeed find the Insecure Writers' Support Group.

    Fascinating, no?

  13. I'm back to invite you over to my place for bloffee this morning:)

  14. Hi Hanna. My friend Katie (Creepy) told me I should check out your blog. I did, and now I'm following.

    Nice to meet you!

    As to your post, it can be so hard, but it's WAY harder when you don't have any writer friends you can vent to, and who understand. Before I met all the wonderful people I network with online, I was ready to give up.

    It still gets hard at times, but I will never give up now that I have friends who have achieved their goals, and more importantly, who get it.

  15. I feel plagued by insecurity (relative to my writing) most of the time. I try to push through it; easier some days than others.