As a writer, my emotional state seems to vacillate between two settings. Setting 1 is being supremely confident in my own abilities: I know what I’m doing, I’m doing it well, and woooh boy am I ever good at writing things! Setting 2 is being absolutely sure that I’m a talentless hack who shouldn’t ever be allowed to string a single sentence together. At any point in time, I will then turn the knob between these two extremes, hitting various degrees of confidence and crippling self-doubt in the process.
From talking to other writers, and reading what other writers – even the very famous ones – have to say on this subject, it would seem as if most writers deal with this roller-coaster ride. And somehow, it is a comforting thought that I share this condition with so many others. Simply knowing that others deal with the same fears, doubts, and demons as I do, really can help put things in perspective.
For example, the fact that Gustave Flaubert (a teller of exquisite tales) said this really resonates with me:
“I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.”
This is exactly how I feel on those days when I have a story in my mind, but the words aren’t flowing at all, and yet I’m still writing, but whatever I put down on paper seems to be all wrong angles and ill-fitting phrases.
And Hemingway, that demi-god of modern literature, was referring to something similar when he said:
“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”
“…like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges”. I can relate. Probably, most writers can relate. We all have those days. And at the end of those days, you might sit there with, like, two sentences that are worth something and still be grateful.
William Goldman – novelist, screenwriter and playwright – the man who wrote both the book and the screenplay for ‘The Princess Bride’ (among other things) also knows these hard truths:
“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”
Again, I think any writer knows exactly what he speaks of here. I know for sure that I have that very same Demon sitting on my shoulder some days.
Maybe the most poignant and heart-rending statement from any writer about the fear, doubts and demons of writing come from this telegram, sent by the famous Dorothy Parker to her editor.
“…all I have is a pile of paper covered with wrong words… Don’t know why it is so terribly difficult or I so terribly incompetant [sic].”
What I take away from all this is that most writers – even the greats who are now admired and seen as almost peerless masters of the craft – struggle at some point: they, too, dealt with self-doubt and wondered if they were good enough. Probably, they wouldn’t have been as great or as successful as writers if they didn’t feel some of that.
Just because we can’t capture the words in our minds some days, just because the Demon whispers in our ears occasionally, just because we spend some days at our keyboards drilling rock and blasting charges, and just because we think our papers are covered with wrong words, it doesn’t mean that we are worthless, useless hacks. The struggle is part of the work. And for myself, I hope for a day of sublime over-confidence, when I will write blissfully and confidently and almost as though I were divinely inspired… and then cut away most of that crap the next day, when I can see more clearly.
Like Dorothy Parker says in that telegram/cry from the heart: “Can only keep at it and hope to heaven to get it done.” Here’s to keeping at it, and putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before.