When I first started writing, I was one of those people who naively think that writing is easy. I had an idea for a story. Inside my head, the story was brilliant. I had a lot of fun with it. Each word came to me like a gift, one word then another, sentences building up as I moved from the beginning to the end. The writing process was as easy as ABC. I felt satisfied. I thought, here is a thing I can spend time doing that will give me endless hours of enjoyment…
But somehow, with the passage of time, I’ve lost that easy way I once had with words. Writing has changed from something that flows out of me to something that needs to be chiselled out of rock. Sometimes, a single sentence takes twice as long to craft as that entire first story. Sometimes, I look at what I’ve spent hours writing and want to tear my hair out.
So, have I got worse at writing? Or is there something else at play?
The problem, of course, is entirely the opposite. I’ve got better. I’ve learnt about story structure and character depth and rhythm and tone and transferred epithets. I’ve read craft books and been to workshops. I’ve swapped stories for feedback. And because of this, my expectations when I sit down at the page are a whole lot higher than they were when I sat down to write that first story.
If that first story was a hundred metre race over the flat then I’m now attempting that same hundred metres but I’m jumping over hurdles while wearing a blindfold and balancing an ostrich egg on a cake fork. There are plenty of other writers either side of me who are running that same slightly bizarre race, each of us doing our best to jump and run and balance that blasted ostrich egg. And one thing I come across time and time again are writers who are frustrated that the hurdles-blindfold-ostrich-egg-cake-fork race comes less easily than the simple hundred metres they were running before. So many of us have sky-high expectations of ourselves. But I think it’s important that we practise a bit of self-care. Especially at this time of year. Especially after the last twelve months, the last twenty-four months, the last thirty-six months of pandemics and crises and general despair.
On comparing ourselves with our past selves
It’s easy to look back through rose-tinted glasses and think we were somehow better at writing in the past. I’ve certainly been guilty of this. Picking out an achievement from the past, we wonder why we can’t match that today. But we can. If every time we sat down to write, we wrote the same story, then that story would be a whole lot better today than it was when we first wrote it. But that isn’t how writing works. Each story is different. As writers, we are constantly evolving. We are constantly challenging ourselves. And even though it might not feel like it, we are becoming better, more versatile, more interesting in terms of the stories we are capable of putting on the page.
On comparing ourselves with others
Ah, that envious sideways glance! Why am I not as good as so-and-so? If X has achieved this and they’ve been writing for Y years, then why haven’t I achieved that too? It's so easy to fall into this trap of comparing ourselves to others, but it's never particularly helpful. Both the good comparisons (“I’m doing better than them”) and the bad comparisons (“I’m lagging behind”) can be very detrimental. While I might have started this article with an analogy about racing, none of us are actually in any kind of race. We might be told that we need to have our first book published by the time we’re a certain age, or that we should achieved A, B and C in the first five years of our writing careers, but in reality there isn’t a ticking clock. There isn’t even a finish line. And there certainly aren’t any competitors. Someone else’s achievements or lack of achievements have no effect on whether we might also be successful. So, next time you see another writer doing well, celebrate without feeling it has any bearing on your own journey.
On comparing ourselves to our goals and ambitions
When I first started submitting, all I wanted was to get a story published. When I’d achieved that, I wanted to get a story published in print. Then I wanted to get a story on a competition longlist. Then a shortlist. Then to win. Then I wanted a nomination for a Best Of list. Then I wanted to convert that nomination into inclusion on the list itself. Then I wanted to win a Pulitzer Prize. Then I wanted to be the Nobel Laureate for Literature.
None of these things are particularly true. Anyone who knows me will know that my ambitions tend to be very lowly. But others are much more driven by targets and goals. And there is nothing wrong with that. However bear in mind that putting too much pressure on ourselves to achieve a particular thing can create an unnecessary additional hurdle for us to overcome. The more pressure we feel, the harder it is to perform at our optimum level of creativity.
On paying attention to what we’ve achieved rather than always sitting on the conveyor belt of bigger, better, more
Sometimes, we can get so obsessed with the next goal and the next goal, that we forget to stop and revel in the things we do achieve, to look behind us and remember how far we’ve already come. I always compare the journey of improving as a writer to that of climbing a mountain. It can feel as though we are putting in a lot of effort and the summit never gets any closer. That’s why we should turn around from time to time and think about our successes both big and small. No one can ever take these away from us even if we never reach that mythical summit.
On allowing ourselves to wallow
Sometimes, things don’t go the way we want them to. We enter a story in a competition and it doesn’t make the longlist. We submit a story to a magazine that has previously loved our work and we get a form decline. We apply for a writing grant and get passed over. These things are frustrating and can knock us off our stride. Some people are very good at picking themselves back up. But others need time to wallow. And I’m a big believer in giving yourself that time if that is what you need. There is always tomorrow to get back to being your usual chirpy self.
On remembering the positives
One thing I find particularly useful in dealing with the inevitable writing slumps (or the rabble of rejections that arrive like unwanted guests at a party) is to have a reserve of positive points that might serve as a life raft. At the end of each week, I write down two or three things on little scraps of paper and pop them in a jar. It might be a nice comment someone has written about a story, or an acceptance email, or just an idea or turn of phrase that I’m particularly pleased with. When my creativity and resilience is at a low ebb, I take these scraps out of the jar and start reading, and it never fails to put a smile upon my face.
On realising that some things take longer than we expect and that success after failure generally tastes sweeter than success that comes without any sweat
I know a writer who entered a particular competition dozens of times and never made the longlist only to have a story win the competition on their twenty-seventh try. I know another writer who took two years to write a 360-word story (okay, this one was me!), taking that story through multiple, frustrating rewrites, but when it eventually found the right shape, the story did pretty well. Again, despite my opening analogy, writing is not a race. It takes as long as it takes. Yes, we will hear stories of writers who pen their novel in three and a half weeks. Good for them (see, “On comparing ourselves with others”) but realistically a novel takes a LONG time to write. Sometimes, a short story takes a long time to write. Sometimes, a piece of microfiction takes a long time to write. If it's taking a long time, it is generally because the story needs that time, not that we are failing as writers.
On realising that we do a lot of our writing away from the page
We need to live life in order to replicate life. So, if you went for a coffee with a friend, congratulations – you did some great writing! If you ate a big slice of chocolate cake and really savoured the flavour, congratulations – you did some great writing! If you sat on a park bench and watched the world go by, congratulations – you did some great writing! If you went for a run, if you visited a museum, if you spoke to your mother on the phone, if you mowed your lawn, if you did the washing up, or if you binge-watched Stranger Things, congratulations and congratulations again – you did some great writing!
I work with a lot of writers either as an editor or a teacher or a mentor and I am slowly coming to the conclusion that there is a strong correlation between being a writing superstar and being overburdened by self-expectation. It seems as though the more a writer progresses, the greater that tendency to put pressure on themselves. So, my plea as we approach the new year is for you to take a few deep breaths and push those pressures firmly away from you. Maybe 2023 will be the year you write the story that wins you a Nobel Prize, but I feel as though that is much less likely to happen if you start the year thinking that anything less than that will mean the year is a failure. If you are setting goals for yourself then make sure they are things within your control. For example, “have the courage to submit a story to the New Yorker” is within your control but “get a story accepted by the New Yorker” very much depends on outside forces.
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