Every time I begin a new novel, I feel like a beginner again. In a panic I worry I have forgotten everything I have ever learned about the craft. I search my mind for the encyclopedia of writing techniques that are supposed to be stored in my library of knowledge, but the screen of my immediate consciousness has limited space. Instead of finding knowledge, I find thoughts like this:
You don’t know enough about warfare to write traditional fantasy!
Your last book was pretty good but this one won’t be!
You’ll never finish!
This isn’t going to be worth the energy. Go play Mario Kart!
You used to be smart, but you’re not anymore!
Self-doubts over writing have been with me since high school, but, unlike now, I used to give in to them. Part of the reason I no longer do is that I have finished three novels and three story anthologies. From experience, I am confident that I can and will finish what I begin.
However, the self-doubt committee too often congregates whenever I start to write something new. Their voices are far weaker now than they once were, but their tactics are the same: to attack the worth of my project and my ability to carry it to the end.
To write anything, I need to believe that I can finish my story and that it is worth writing, but at the beginning, my novel is only a tender idea, a seed; it is barely even real.
So the question becomes, how do I believe in something, my book, that does not actually exist? And how do I know my book will be worthy of my Herculean efforts?
The question of worthiness has to do with whether my book will be “good.” No one wants to sink a ton of time and energy into a bad book, yet I can never be certain that my finished product will be the masterpiece I envision. That means I begin every new project on shaky ground. My ideas are born in the unreal space of Imagination Land.
Believing that I will write a good book is different from believing in unicorns though. A book is dependent on what I do, but an idea is only an idea until I convert it into a story or novel.
Is it a stretch to say that writing a book requires a kind of faith? I am a skeptic, so normally I shy away from that word, but psychoanalyst Erich Fromm offered a definition different from the one generally used in a religious context.
In his book The Revolution of Hope, he writes:
Faith is not a weak form of belief or knowledge…faith is the conviction about the not yet proven, the knowledge of real possibility, the awareness of pregnancy. Faith is rational when it refers to the real yet unborn…Faith, like hope, is not a prediction of the future; it is the vision of the present in a state of pregnancy.
While Fromm was probably not thinking of the writing process when he wrote that passage, it comes back to me often as I write. My story concept represents a “real possibility” that is far from certain to be born.
To write a novel, I have to trust that I will be able to solve the many thousands of problems, great and small, that I have no way of foreseeing; that I will someday realize a future product I can only partially envision; that I have the consistency of will to spend however long it takes, many months, perhaps even years, to bring my idea to fruition; and that what I am doing is worthwhile, given the energy and time commitment a novel requires.
Unless I am writing a novel just to learn, I also need – or at least want – to believe my novel will be “good.” But I am a skeptic. I want evidence. I want to do everything possible to make my artistic vision real to me at the beginning. Otherwise, I will give up before my idea ever gets off the ground.
How do I convince myself I am truly capable of making what I envision real?
As for the under-confidence problem, it is sometimes helpful to write down my self-doubts and, in writing, argue back with them.
Accusation: You don’t know enough about warfare to write traditional fantasy!
Response: Fantasy doesn’t require warfare, and even if it did, there is a thing called research.
While arguing with irrational self-doubts is time-consuming, it works. I did it during a period in which I could barely write anything without getting depressed. It created a habit of doubting my self-doubts. I even created a compliment file on my cell phone – a list of compliments on my writing I had garnered over the years. My compliment file gave me devastating evidence to present in the court of internal criticism.
As for believing in a specific artistic vision, the more I know about my story, the more real it becomes. I plan. I brainstorm. I draw mind maps. I ask myself questions about my story and write down possible answers. I write a tentative ending to give me a point to strive toward. I draw maps. I write down any scenes I have vividly imagined. I create character sketches.
I divide my story into three acts, a beginning, middle, and end, then write a four page general summary. It is encouraging to see my story in microcosm, even if I depart from it. Four pages is a manageable length that lets me see structural problems before I ever encounter them.
Anything I do to illuminate my story increases my “faith” that I will finish, my belief in the “real yet unborn.”
However, the most potent way to keep my belief in my story alive is to write on it consistently. I write every day, not because I am disciplined, but because it is easier for me to do that than to write inconsistently. Force of habit is real; it propels me farther and faster than the most moving pep talk.
A writing habit relieves the pressure to believe. It persists even on days I am not sure where I am headed. It does not require me to decide each day whether my chances of success are realistic.
It leads me to ask questions about the present, not the future. Instead of asking, “Am I ultimately going to succeed?“ I ask, “Did I write today? Was it interesting? Did I write what I love? Did my efforts reveal anything new about my novel?”
Such questions allow me to set aside my uncertainty to deal with at a later time. However, eliminating all uncertainty is not just unnecessary, but undesirable. Uncertainty energizes my writing. Creative tension sparks interest. If I knew exactly what my novel was going to look like, a big incentive to write would be gone. Part of the fun of writing lies in being surprised.
While belief in my ultimate success does matter, my love of the process matters more. Love for act of writing, more than anything else, will drive me to the end. On days when self-doubts arise, I spare myself the burden of giving myself pep talks. Instead I ask myself, what can I learn from this? When I do that, it is okay for me to feel like a beginner. There is always more about writing to learn, which means that whether I succeed or fail, writing is never a waste of time.
In writing I need my uncertainty as much as I need my belief. It is in the space between those opposite poles that creativity ignites.
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