The business of writing and trying to get published can be punishing to the self-esteem, so how can a sensitive, self-doubting writer keep her ego inflated enough that it will bounce back from failures and rejections? Listed below are four common bubble-bursters, followed by the “refills” that have worked for me. Please comment with descriptions of any doubts or misfortunes that have popped your writerly ego, and let us know how you managed to puff yourself up again.
1. You have the impression that writers who are really good know they’re really good, and you don’t know you’re good…in fact, you often think you’re pretty bad.
Unshakable self-confidence isn’t just for geniuses. On websites like authonomy, in addition to some very talented writers, you’ll find a lot of hilarious cranks who believe in their god-awful work with a strength of conviction normally associated with schizophrenia. For every James Joyce with his (as Yeats put it) “colossal self-conceit,” there are legions of talentless self-worshippers you’ve never heard of, and never will.
But is the converse also true? Is gut-gnawing, worm-in-your-heart self-doubt not just for hacks? Look at the early work of any Great Writer—Joyce’s school essays, for example (you can find some of them in Ellman’s biography, James Joyce)—and you’ll see that no one pops out of the womb writing masterpieces. Writers improve by doubting themselves with a precision and a ferocity that no external critic can approach. The suspicion that you’re failing isn’t a sign that you aren’t gifted. It’s the essence of your gift: it will drive you to refine your work into something worthwhile.
2. Sometimes you look at your work and it just seems…bad.
George Orwell wrote that every writer is occasionally repulsed by his own work. When this happens, there are two possible explanations: either your work really is bad, or you’re just being neurotic. In my experience, there’s an easy way to distinguish between these two cases: If your work’s bad, then by examining it and thinking about it you can start to figure out why it’s bad and thereby see ways to improve it (detecting poor quality in your own work is the hard part; identifying the problem is just a matter of bringing your impression into focus). In this case, you’ve been blessed with a rare insight into your work’s deficiencies. Use it to salvage your project. But if you can’t pinpoint a flaw, if all of your work just seems sort of “off” to you…Well, isn’t “I’m worried, but I can’t see any reason why I should be” a good definition of neuroticism?
3. You can’t get published.
Neither could Joyce. Neither could Proust. But they were ahead of the curve, right? We can’t compare ourselves to them. So join a writing workshop. Go to writers conferences. Go out and meet other “mortal” writers until you’ve found some whose talent you really believe in…and then let them cry on your shoulder when they can’t get published. If they’re good, and it can happen to them, then you might be good, too.
And keep in mind that getting rejected is 99% of getting published. Stephen King says that when he was starting out he impaled his rejection slips on a nail…until he had to replace the nail with a railroad spike.
Even if your work isn’t publishable (yet), you might just be a late bloomer. May heaven rain blessings on Malcolm Gladwell for writing this piece about how failing to take the world by storm by the time you’re 23 doesn’t mean you don’t have something great in you.
4. A critic (amateur or professional) has skewered your work…and you think he has a point.
Maybe he does, and maybe he doesn’t. If after honest reflection you’re convinced that your critic is wrong about your work, or that his criticism is reducible to a difference of taste, then you have to accept that there are people who just don’t like or understand what you write. It seems silly to have to say this, but this acceptance is surprisingly elusive for many writers, particularly for unpublished writers who can’t just haul out their fan mail whenever they need an ego boost. I could kiss Virginia Woolf for writing the following in A Room of One’s Own, and I’m sure I’m not alone:
“I need hardly multiply instances of the undeniable, if very unfortunate, fact that it is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.”
Don’t add yourself to that wreckage. Even Shakespeare has his critics…and some of them have found real flaws in his work. This raises the second possibility: your critic has legitimately nailed you. If this happens, read some criticism of authors you admire. It’s bracing to watch Nabokov rip into Dostoevsky (here) or Harold Bloom stomp on David Foster Wallace (here) or David Foster Wallace pay it forward to John Updike (here) or Harry Siegel spit bile at Jonathan Safran Foer (here) or Tolstoy rain brimstone on Shakespeare (here) or Virginia Woolf trash James Joyce (here) or B.R. Myers sharp-shoot Auster, DeLillo, McCarthy, and others (here)…especially when you can kind of see where the critic is coming from. So you’ve been criticized? You couldn’t be in better company: “even Homer nods.”