Monday, April 05, 2010

Letter to a young writer

I recently wrote the letter below to an incredibly talented but unhappy young writer who was doubting his abilities. It occurred to me that it had some general applications so I am reproducing it here, slightly modified:

First of all, you are NOT a bad writer at all; you may be a brilliant one. What you are is first an original, which is never appreciated by any reading establishment. Second, you carry the normal writer’s self-consciousness to an alarming extent, perhaps because you are a perfectionist.

Believe me, there is not a writer on earth or at least any writer who is not a hack writing to formula in the market who has not felt like this, or doesn’t feel like this somewhere in the back of his mind every time he begins or continues a new work. There is not an emotion or feeling of self-criticism you have mentioned that has not been felt by every serious writer.

I have had something of a block the last year to six months caused by perhaps by a combination of lack of response from editors, depression, and the physical symptoms of my undiagnosed Parkinson’s, which makes it difficult to hold a pen or pencil (I usually compose my first drafts that way) and impossible to type without typos in every line.

In some way I realize that these are excuses for myself. The interesting writer Steven Pressfield, author of Gates of Fire, the realistic best seller about Thermopylae, calls this phenomenon “resistance.”

Recently I have started writing again with physical difficulty but not mental. Pressfield has written a little book called The War of Art. It is more a collection of aphorisms than a self-help book which I would despise. I found the first half in particular a brilliant analysis of the roadblocks that we put in our own way as writers. It took my about an hour to read the entire book by the way, and I recommend it highly to any blocked or overly self-critical writer.

You’re a better writer than you think, and somewhere you know this. Keep writing. Think of Pressfield who wrote about four novels before he sold one in his forties; of Conrad, who started writing IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE in his forties; and Annie Proulx who published nothing until her fifties. It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.


Tovar Cerulli said...

Thanks for posting this. It is a good reminder.

As a good writer once told me, only a few people in every generation have the Gift of Great Literature, words spilling out as easily as music spilled from Mozart. The rest of us mere mortals have to work at it.

Matt Mullenix said...

Amen. I'm almost ready to take up writing myself. I expect I’ll be glad to have waited until my 40s so as not to embarrass myself.

Tovar Cerulli said...

I hope your writing experiences prove less embarrassing than mine, Matt.

We're about the same age and my capacity for writing material about which I later feel embarrassed shows no sign of diminishing. When I'm on the ball, I catch such stuff before sharing it with others!

Steve Bodio said...

Matt has actually written some very good stuff-- he is just being self critical (;--))

Cat Urbigkit said...

But some of my favorite works by Matt Mullenix are those in which he embarrasses himself ...

Matt Mullenix said...

Cat--well put! And Steve, thank you!

Tovar I was making a bad joke. I have embarrassed myself already and expect to continue along those lines indefinitely. But I do feel something must be gained with age, and I hope I can take some advantage of it.

I really appreciate the work on your blog and hope you'll share more here.

Rebecca K. O'Connor said...

Yes. Yes. A WONDERFUL reminder.

30,000 words into a novel that is pushing my limits, giving me nightmares and I am certain is just genre-bending enough that no one will buy it, I continue to remind myself that I do this because I cannot stop myself. And since I'm going to do it anyway, I'm just going to have to let go of the fact that my writing sucks and no one wants it.

I'm sticking to writing daily and keeping myself accountable with my vlog "Diary of an Unknown Author"

I never go back and watch them, but I feel like I'm checking in most weeks and sharing some things about being published that I should have been told in grad school. The one good thing about internet addiction is that you can pretend that people are listening and understanding. ;)

Anonymous said...

Silly people :) you don't write anything for people to read and enjoy NOW, but after you're dead everyone will suddenly LOVE your stuff! That's just how it works.....L.B.

D said...

Oh, I seriously needed to hear that, Steve. Thanks. A friend told me she wants to read my novel, but I'm afraid to send it... it's outdated and has always suffered from kitchen sink-ism... and the perfectionism of its creator. I'll look at the War of Art.