It wasn’t procrastination. Not exactly.
I’ve known I wanted to be a writer — an author — since early in high school. Some of my first memories revolved around reading the newspaper with my father, and I can’t remember actually learning to read. It was just a fact of life, and writing didn’t come far behind.
The idea that I had at least one book in me came early. I wanted that feeling of knowing that people could read what I wrote and enjoy it the same way as I did with the works of my literary heroes. I wanted to be part of that system.
I didn’t feel ready, though. I believed I needed to put some miles on life’s odometer before I had anything of lasting value to say.
The years went on, and the experiences — both good and bad — came. The idea of writing a book stayed with me, and I had all the emotional baggage I felt necessary to finally write that book.
And yet, I didn’t.
I toyed with the idea, made some false starts and poked it with the metaphorical stick, but somewhere around page 20, the idea would always fall apart, crumbling before my eyes.
It wasn’t a lack of know-how. I had been writing in one form or another throughout my career — journalism, marketing, advertising, editing — and at the risk of sounding conceited, I’d been good at my job. Writing a book, however, seemed to be something beyond my capacity.
I turned my attention to other things, trying to fill the void that I knew — I knew — should be filled by a novel. I tried music, screen printing, photography and a host of other creative pursuits, but ultimately I came to the conclusion that I was a writer — an author. Still, I was running from it.
Why on earth would I run from what, at the core of my being, I truly was?
I bounced this notion around in my head and looked at it from every angle.
Finally, it came down to one word:
Fear that I would fail.
Fear that I would be rejected.
Fear that I might not actually be an author.
Not writing, but knowing one day that I could, seemed the safest path. I could still consider myself an author, just one who hadn’t yet written his book. It was coming, to be sure. I could start next month. Or the month after. Sometime next year could work great.
That kind of thinking is death-by-inches for the soul.
I’d see authors get multimillion dollar publishing and movie deals for work that was of… questionable quality. “I could write something better than that,” I’d say, either to friends or to myself.
One day, however, some part of my soul actually answered back.
So why don’t you? it asked. If you’ve got no skin in the game, you’ve got no right to complain.
The truth of that simple statement stung, but in the best way possible. I started to face the fear and came up with actual answers to the hypothetical questions.
- What if they (whoever the hell “they” are) don’t like it? — If I never write the book, they’ll never have the opportunity to like it.
- What if it’s rejected? —It has to exist to be rejected. I’m rejecting it myself if I never put the words down.
- What if I’m not really an author? — An author is someone who has written a book. If you haven’t written a book, you are, by definition, not an author. Your book might be life changing or it might be godawful, but as long as it exists, you’re an author.
Once I pulled the fear out of the shadows, kicking and screaming, into the light, everything got a lot simpler. I had always believed that procrastination was my problem. The real problem was fear and, unless your physical being is in jeopardy, that’s rarely a good basis on which to plan a career or a life.
Those fears are still there — I believe they’re there for most creatives — but I finally managed to face them down.
In the past three years, I’ve written three novels, co-written a non-fiction book, and put together four volumes of photography/flash fiction. It’s still not my main occupation, but with every word, I’m getting closer to where I want to be in life. And there’s one title that no one — not even myself — can take away from me.
I’m a novelist.
I found that the following five ideas helped me defeat the worst of my self-doubt and self-sabotaging behaviors.
It’s Not “Do or Die”; It’s a Process
Your first novel will probably not be the Great American Novel (or novel of whatever country you call home). Once you divorce yourself from the belief that “if it’s not great then it’s a disaster,” you unlock many of the mental shackles that will hold you back. If your first attempt at writing a book doesn’t go well, so what? Learn from it and try again. Your first book should be your worst book. Even if you’re a writer for your day job, writing a novel is a different skill set. An Olympic-level sprinter probably didn’t win a marathon on his or her first attempt. Don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself.
Write, and enjoy the process. If it helps, come up with a plan, first. Once you’ve written your first book, the second will come easier because you’ve seen where the process takes you, where the most difficult parts will be and what it takes to push through to “The End.”
Weigh the Cost/Weigh the Loss
Here’s the truth: The easiest thing in the world to do is not write a novel. Under the best of circumstances it’s a test of endurance — and the “best of circumstances” never come.
It’s actually a simple equation: Is your desire to write a novel greater than your desire to sit on the sidelines?
That’s not a value judgement, by the way; “no” is a perfectly valid answer. Writing a book because you feel you should isn’t a great place to start a massive project, so until you can answer that question with an emphatic “yes,” it might not be your time. But keep asking the question. If it’s something that’s truly in your heart, that “yes” will come, but you have to keep checking.
Don’t go through your life waiting to start. There are a lot of great novels that their authors took with them to the grave.
Yes, It’s Scary But It’s Also Worth It
Your thoughts will be out there in the world on their own – existing on paper or electronic ink – and the words have to stand up for themselves. You’re not going to be behind the reader to explain what you really meant. While readers and authors have a lot more opportunity to connect in our social media-fueled world, the act of reading is in itself a one-way process. Your thoughts are sent into your reader’s mind and imagination. Authors put themselves out there on display, while the reader risks nothing of themselves.
Putting writing out there is like walking out on a stage naked, and for introverts — something many of us authors will self-identify as — that’s frightening. But that’s how it should be. That’s writing. It’s worth it.
Not Everyone will Like It (and That’s Okay)
Trying to write a book that will please everyone is a sure-fire way of never finishing. Even your mom might not like your book (although she’ll probably tell you she does). Write it anyway. Write something you like, and you’ll find an audience. That being said, be brutally honest with yourself and don’t take shortcuts. If something falls flat for you, it’ll fall flat for your readers. A clunker of a plot for you will be a clunker for them.
Once you get it to a place you’re happy with, however, it’s time to let it go.
This is Probably Going to Take a While
The media loves to tout new writers who come out of nowhere and take the world by storm, but the reality is that there are very few overnight successes. That “debut” novel often has three or four older brothers and sisters on a hard drive somewhere. If you have it in your soul to be an author, be in it for the long haul. Be a student of the game.
Keep writing. Keep improving. Each novel is easier than the last. Keep going.
First published on Hidden Gems blog.