About Me, Beyond Categorization, The Writer's Life


This is not a hopeful post. Usually when I say something like that up front it’s just a clever (or not so clever) ruse; a setup for the inevitable twisty punchline that will leave you feeling strangely encouraged, despite having walked barefoot across the broken glass path of a none-too-pleasant publishing reality.

There is no clever twist this time.

Have you seen the movie, 500 Days of Summer? When it begins, you’re certain it’s going to be a love story, but then the voiceover says, without apology: “This is a story of boy meets girl. But…you should know up front, this is not a love story.”

This post is like that.

I haven’t touched any of my works-in-progress in months. That includes the middle-grade-though-maybe-it’s-really-for-adults novel, Stolen Things, that I believe is eminently publish-worthy, or maybe just a chapter-one-rewrite-away from being the kind of novel  that agents would fight Ronda Rousey for in order to represent me.

That doesn’t mean my brain hasn’t been busy. I mean apart from the editorial (ie: paying) work that consumes my days and nights and eats my vacation dreams for breakfast. I have had plenty of Really Good New Ideas for short stories and novellas and novels pop into my head during this time of writerly despair.

But those are just ideas. Ideas come easy for me. Go ahead, give me a prompt, any prompt, and I’ll have a story idea for it in a matter of minutes.

This isn’t a post about ideas. It’s a post about writing. About being a writer. And about not doing the former and struggling to see myself as the latter.

My writerly despair isn’t just about rejection, though I have had my share. (Here’s how to deal with rejection: Let it sting, feel its bite, then move on.)

And it’s not just the fact that time is an inexorable asshole, layering age lines on top of age lines until I wonder who the old man in my mirror is and why hasn’t he done anything meaningful with his life?

It’s also not just about clinical depression, though I am intimately familiar with that Liar-In-Residence.

This is a post about discouragement. About the kind of failures that don’t make us stronger or count toward some cosmic tally that will ultimately tip the scale in favor of some grand success. (“You’ve hit 53 rejections! Congratulations! The next agent to read your book will love it and so will the whole world and Neil Gaiman will refer to it as ‘unexpectedly brilliant’ the same day Steven Spielberg options the movie rights.”)

It’s about thinking you can’t do it anymore. I mean write, but I also mean “believe you can write.” The former is a familiar place for all writers. We look at our words, no matter where they are in the editorial process, and whisper or shout, “I can’t write.”

That’s normal. That’s expected. And that doesn’t scare me one bit.

What does scare me is thinking that I may have lost the ability to believe in myself. Oh sure, there are others who believe in me. At least two or three. And I don’t mean to disparage them for their generosity and kindness.

But to be a writer you have to have at least an inkling of belief that you can do this thing. And I am currently inkling-less.

That’s it.

No, really. That’s the end of the post.

Feeling a little uncomfortable? Anxious? Nervous? You really want me to end this with a tease of hope, don’t you.

I warned you this wasn’t a hopeful post.

Sometimes you just have to own your despair.

And then see what happens tomorrow.

(What’s that? The last sentence looks a little like hope to you? Well, that’s all you, my friend. All you.)


11 thoughts on “Dis-Encouragement

  1. Thanks for sharing. I think it’s important to clear the air and say it.

    I’ve recently started reading “On Writer’s Block” and found her views/interpretations/sub-categories interesting and helpful. You might, too.
    You might also feel better from daily walks. Something about that helps get things moving, though they likely will feel crappy for a while.

    Good luck– I know it sucks.

  2. Sympathies. I just spent a summer feeling miserable: even *knowing* I can’t write in summer, it was hard to keep from losing faith in myself. The best advice I got was from someone, not a writer, who said that sometimes things take a long time to grow silently under the ground before they begin to flower. Sometimes you need the waiting as much as the writing. Keep holding on, I believe in you.

  3. In the last twenty-four hours, my brain, which has nothing better to do than torture me, has told me I am going to die of some as yet unknown disease, my home will become infected with bugs, the other shoe is going to fall so hard it will squish me into a mass of quivering pulp, and the reason my beta readers haven’t gotten back to me is because they hate my novel so much they are speechless. Yet, here I am and that in itself make me a writer. That is all I’d ever hoped for. Well maybe not all…

  4. Does it help that I’ve been saving for two years to hire you as my editor? Probably not. I know it’s the other, paying-side of you. But note, it was your writing that made the connection for me. Which has something to do with belief.

    I was born melancholic and haven’t dislodged it yet. The big change (after years of analysis) was writing every single day, rain or shine. No matter what happens. Whether I believe in myself or not. And I only stipulate this: write one good sentence. Only on my worst days does that happen. Most of the time, it will lead to a page or two. I’ve averaged about 15 to 30 minutes / day, and about 100,000 words / year.

    Still fight depression, anxiety, insomnia–the whole psychic bag.

    Harvesting age lines and white hair from my chin.

    46, by the way.

  5. Steven, I’ve been reading you for years and YOU ARE A WRITER. You may not have written today but it will return. It’s deep in your soul. I love your words-even these dis-encouragement words. Buck up. It’ll come back. Pinkie swear.

  6. Thank you for this. Sometimes it’s actually so nice to read something that is not an uplifting cheerleading you-can-do it article. I live in Nepal and after the initial post-earthquake adrenaline I’ve been completely unfocused and feeling useless, not just in my writing, but in a lot of other areas of my life. I’ve had a lot of blank thoughts and a few deep ones, but have written nearly nothing. I also realized that my novel, which I’ve been thinking of as unfinished, is actually pretty complete, but just lousy or at least not a fraction as good as I wanted. Sometimes it’s nice to know you’re not the only one, so while I do hope you feel better soon, I thank you for writing this. It helped me.

  7. Own your despair. All we have is right now. We have all heard the phrase “this too shall pass” from people trying to console you and make you feel better. But in order for this statement to have any effect, first we must fully focus on the first part of it. “This too.” Despair… this too. Failure… this too. Hope… this too. Shall pass. Only once you fully embrace something as it is can you hope to gain the perspective of how transient it really is. How transient all things are. Unfold like a flower, my friend. In your own time.

  8. Thank you for your dark honesty, Steve. You have made a big difference in my writing life, and I appreciate you so much. I really hope that you are able to force yourself to get outside, push yourself to go for a daily walk, and let some light in. We all go through our periods of self-doubt. Remember to focus on the people who have read your work and love it.

  9. I hear you. Spent 18 months working on a book that started out as a simple idea, grew to encompass a huge cast of characters, all with their own stories, until I felt like I was wrestling with a unwieldy mass of bread dough with an excess of yeast. And then, thanks to a passing comment from my agent, it occurred to me that I was writing the same sort of book that my previous three had been–none of which she had been able to sell. I stopped writing–for three months. Slowly, a new idea using only 3 or 4 of the characters started to grow. It would require some research; found one book to start with and got it out of the local library. Ideas have started to pop into my head at odd moments. I think maybe I am ready to start writing again–and face the fear that the page will remain blank.

    (Like you, I am a freelance editor, and I have found that sometimes working so much on what other people write saps me all of interest in working on my own material. So there’s that.)

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