#8: You Are Not Your Work

Hey Story Nurse,

I’ve been dabbling in writing since I was 14, and now that I graduated university I decided that it was Time To Get Down To Business. The problem is, whenever I sit down to write anything, I always feel terrible about it once it hits 10k. It’s not that I lack confidence in my writing skills (I studied English lit), but it’s more that I worry that no one in the world would ever want to read my story. Who cares about a novella with two girls trapped on a lonely planet?! How can I get rid of that self doubt? Because I know I want to read that story, and I know that there is such a big market for stories casually featuring queer girls, but I just can’t seem to make the cognitive leap from “people like stories about queer girls in space” to “people will like MY story about queer girls in space”.

I’m going to a retreat for 5 days next week, and I really want to work on this story, but I just feel like I need to find some CONFIDENCE!

Thank you so much for your time,
Space Lesbian (she/her)

Dear Space Lesbian,

I’m sorry I didn’t get to respond in time for your retreat, and I hope it was very helpful to you one way or another. Sometimes sitting alone in a room with your work and no other distractions is the best way to figure out what’s really keeping you from writing.

In this letter, you talk about yourself and your work as though they’re one and the same. One moment you say you don’t think anyone will want to read your work, and the next you say you doubt yourself. Your identification with your work is something I see a lot of in students and recent graduates, because school is a place where you as a person are judged by the quality of your work in a way that’s pretty psychologically terrible. We say that a person is a “straight-A student” when what we mean is that that person’s work is consistently evaluated very highly by their teachers. The person, as a person, does not directly get graded. But that’s how it feels—that the grade for your work is the grade for you.

Writing fiction in the non-academic world doesn’t work that way. I know some lovely people whose company I greatly enjoy and whose writing I find unreadable; I have books on my living room shelves whose authors are not themselves welcome in my living room. The author and the work are related but distinct. Many authors are obnoxious and could even be considered fairly terrible human beings and their work is still read and lauded by many. So no matter how awful you may sometimes feel you are as a person, that has basically zero bearing on whether people will want to read your work, unless you’re planning to go on a murderous rampage. (And then people will want to read your memoir.)

Once you complete the work, it is no longer yours. It belongs to the reader. Many people will read it who know nothing about you except that your name is on the cover of a book. They will have opinions about the book, and they may translate that into opinions about you as a writer, but they will not have opinions about you as a person, because they don’t know you as a person. To you, it’s your story. To them, it’s a story. You are the means by which the book came into their lives, and nothing more. They may decide they like the way you write, in which case they will look for your name on other books; they may decide they want to meet you at conventions and get your autograph. But even then, they don’t know you. The fan/creator relationship is a complicated thing, but it assuredly is not as intimate as, say, a friendship. And I’d bet you even have friends who don’t know you all that well.

Other authors write all kinds of queer girl space stories. They write good ones and bad ones, long ones and short ones, funny ones and sad ones, romantic ones and friendship ones. They self-publish and they pro-publish. Your story is unique, because all stories are unique, but it’s not uniquely terrible or uniquely unpolished or whatever judgment you think people might pass on it (and thence on you). It’s part of a genre, a field, and readers will interact with it on that basis—once you let yourself write it.

If no one reads your stories about queer girls in space, that’s not a judgment on you. And if everyone loves your stories about queer girls in space, that’s not a judgment on you. The work is the work. You put a part of yourself into it, and then you sever the umbilicus and step away and let it live its own life.

My suggestion for you is that you practice severing that connection between self and work. Here are some options:

1. Put the work in the spotlight and yourself in the shadows.

  • Write fan fiction of written works. Mimic the author’s style as closely as possible. Disappear inside the other author. You no longer exist. Only the work exists.
  • Write under a pseudonym. Your stories about queer girls in space are no longer your stories; they’re Ann Onymous’s stories. Any judgment of the author falls on Ann, not on you.
  • Create a pseudonymous Goodreads account using a throwaway free email address. Leave an honest, measured review of a book that you’ve read. Log out of that account and never use it again. Repeat. (I am very specifically not advocating trolling here; your reviews should be as respectful as any reviews you’d leave under a name you use frequently.) After you’ve done a few of these, sit back and picture the author or other readers reading the review, being encouraged by it or arguing with it or reacting however they react. Remind yourself that all those reactions are not in any way reactions to you.

2. Get comfortable with ephemerality.

  • Fold a piece of origami from colored paper. Display it on a windowsill. Watch it gather dust as the sun fades the paper. Eventually, put it in the recycling bin. Recognize that you can always fold another one, and that it doesn’t matter whether anyone ever saw this one before its time was up.
  • Write a poem or flash story that can fit on a single page. Don’t put your name on it. Print out a dozen copies and leave them in various public places. Don’t wait around to see what happens, because it doesn’t matter. People may read them or sit on them or drop them in puddles or not even see them, and all those things are irrelevant to you. Whatever happens to the work happens to the work. Go home and write another poem or story.

3. Write things that aren’t your novel. A novel is a big thing! Sometimes it can be too big a thing. Let go of any deadline you might have had in mind for it and let yourself dabble in other projects. They aren’t just distractions; they will teach you and you can bring those lessons back to the novel. But if it’s just you and the novel, you will get very tangled up in it and struggle to separate yourself. Writing multiple works, of any length and any type, will help you see them as independent entities separate from one another and from you. And as you develop your craft, you’ll feel better about the writing you produce and believe that other people will want to read your work.

  • Write some short stories (less than 10k words, since that’s the magic number where your anxiety kicks in) and send them out to publications. Put your name on these, or whatever name you plan to publish under. Don’t stress too much about researching which venues to send them to; just find a place that seems more or less right and click SUBMIT. Many of the stories will be rejected, because that’s the way of the world. As you read those rejection notes, emphasize to yourself that they comment on your work, not on you.
  • Write more. Write a lot. Write a whole lot. Go back through your writing and revise it. Cut out big chunks of it that just don’t work. Rewrite them. Words are just words—if these particular words don’t work, that’s fine, because you have plenty more. Cutting words doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It means those words didn’t work and you need to replace them with better ones. Play with your writing like it’s Play-Doh and tinker with it like it’s an engine.
  • Set aside this idea of Getting Down to Business. Write badly. Write deliberately badly. Write Bulwer-Lytton levels of badly. Parody writing badly. Write bizarre stuff. Write down dreams that make no sense. Write your version of the “I call it The Aristocrats!” joke. Write bad porn. Write doggerel verse. Write elephant jokes and knock-knock jokes. Crack yourself up. Remember that you write because it’s fun for you. (If writing isn’t fun for you, maybe writing isn’t a thing you should be doing.)
  • Join a peer group of writers. The SFF Online Writing Workshop is great, or look for a local in-person group. Cheering on other writers and being cheered on by them is a wonderful antidote to the top-down pressures of university. As those writers sell their stories or gripe about their rejections, realize that it has no bearing on how much you like them as people. And as you sell your stories or gripe about your rejections, realize that your colleagues will like you just as much as they did before.

4. Take care of yourself for your own sake, not just as a writer.

  • Do things other than writing. Let days pass without writing a word. Forgive yourself.
  • If you keep a personal blog, turn comments off for a while. If you use a social media platform like Twitter, create a separate private account that no one follows and that has no obvious connection to you, and post there for a week or two. See whether it changes the way you write—both on social media and in your fiction projects—when the immediacy of feedback is removed. I find that being in the habit of writing in a very public and interactive way can be quite detrimental to writing fiction and often gives rise to the type of social anxiety you describe.
  • Think about specifically what kinds of judgments or rejections you’re worried the story will face. If they reflect on ways that you personally have been judged or rejected in the past, or fear in the future, or are experiencing right now, address those concerns on your own behalf rather than projecting them onto the work.
  • And if you haven’t already had a chat with a mental health professional about this, that might be worth doing too. Writing can be a weird kind of therapy, in that it brings up all sorts of feelings you didn’t know you had and gives you a way to process them. But in my experience, actual therapy is more useful and efficient, and lets you do more writing for the sake of writing.

I realize that very little here seems like it’s about building confidence. But you say that you don’t lack confidence in your writing skills, and I think that the distinction between “people like reading these stories” and “no one wants to read MY story” is more of what this hinges on for you. So focus on unsticking that hinge, and I think you’ll do just fine.

Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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8 thoughts on “#8: You Are Not Your Work

  1. I think I really needed this one! I am also a recent graduate struggling with “what if nobody likes this”, and this post has a lot of difficult but helpful stuff. I read the point about writing deliberately badly and thought, “I should try that, that sounds fun!”. Got out the notebook, picked up a pen – and hit a total block in my mind. Weirdly difficult to turn off the output quality filter! I can see it’s going to be hard, but I think it’ll be really good for me to work past that.

    Also, thank you so much for the link to the piece about forgiveness and not writing every day! I have bookmarked it for reference every day that I catch myself thinking “I should be writing”. (I’m trying to cut down on the word “should” overall, but this is my most common usage of it.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad it was helpful for you! Writing deliberately badly can be remarkably difficult. Try reading some winners of recent Bulwer-Lytton contests to get in the mood.

      A friend recently shared the suggestion that when you catch yourself saying “I should ____”, try replacing it with “When will I ____?” This way you get out from under the moral weight of “should” and instead make a concrete plan, which means you’re more likely to do the thing and also to feel good about the time between now and when you do the thing.

      Liked by 1 person

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