Dear Story Nurse,
I’m not sure if it’s beyond your remit but I long for help on the subject of fear of writing. You see, I’d love to write again. I’ve written a couple of books and had them published within the lesfic genre but then I lost confidence. There was a mixture of external feedback, mainly positive, some less so, but nothing as damning as my own machinations.
I think about how much I want to write and try to progress a career in this area but my inner voice shouts me down. The arguments involve how many other people want the same thing, how I lack the talent and how even my best efforts so far have disappointed me. In the face of massive competition, I feel like I would always be a poor wannabe.
I’ve stopped writing because I can’t bear to have something that means so much to me thrown under the train of self-criticism traveling with this much momentum. Now I find myself unsure of my path. Part of me is tempted to stop now while there is still the hope that I could be good enough rather than persist and prove beyond all doubt that I am not. Still, to give up on a dream I have nurtured since childhood feels wrong at the most fundamental level.
Am I alone in feeling this way? Should I just take the hint and retire quietly into obscurity? Is there any way I can reclaim the pleasure of writing for myself without this contamination of self-recrimination?
Whether you answer or not, thank you for reading and for your website.
—Self-Critically Stumped (she/her)
Dear Self-Critically Stumped,
That crash-and-tinkle sound just now was my heart breaking. I’m so sorry you’re having such a hard time. Self-criticism is incredibly painful, because we know where all our own weak spots are. But by that same logic, we can also be our own best allies, cheerleaders, and friends.
You were very wise to take steps to protect your writing, and your enjoyment of writing, from this barrage of self-criticism. It’s clear that this is something really precious to you. It sounds like stopping writing was very painful in the short term but has kept you from the greater long-term damage of being harmful to yourself along that specific axis. It’s extremely difficult to make decisions like that, especially when one is under pressure and under threat. You’ve done well by yourself, and I hope you can take a moment to feel good about it.
You say that you lost confidence, but I wonder whether someone or something took that confidence from you. We aren’t born critical and judgmental of ourselves (or anyone else); it’s behavior that’s taught to us by others. Who taught you to be unkind to yourself? Who taught you to lack confidence? Can you see those people as flawed and fallible humans who in this case were terrible teachers giving you terrible lessons? Can you find other people to look up to who will help you learn to treat yourself more kindly and love your work?
You talk about wanting to “be good enough”; I’d ask, enough for what? You’ve already proven that you work is good enough to be published, and good enough to get positive feedback from readers. The only person left to satisfy is you. But the wonderful thing about that is that you can decide to declare your work good enough. Try saying it out loud: “My work is good enough for me.” That doesn’t stop you from improving as a writer, of course. Your writing can be inches better than “good enough,” and then yards better, and then miles better. But you can absolutely decide that your work has already crossed the “good enough” bar.
(You are not your work. You, as a person, have inherent worth and value regardless of whether you write another word. If your self-criticism extends to you as a person, that’s worth fixing all on its own.)
Many people do want to be published writers. But as a reader, I’m sure you know that the presence of one book on your shelves doesn’t make you want other books less. Writing and publication aren’t zero-sum games. Even if every person in the world wrote a dozen books, there would be no shortage of readers for them. The success of one writer lifts all the others up. Look at how many erotica careers were powered by the publicity over Fifty Shades of Grey, or how many people have made a living writing paranormal romance and urban fantasy since the publication of Guilty Pleasures. You can even see it in the ways authors pitch manuscripts (“It’s like Game of Thrones meets My Fair Lady“) or reviewers recommend books (“If you liked Divergent you’re going to love this!”). Your fellow lesfic writers are your peers, not your competitors. Your success wouldn’t take anything from anyone else, and other people’s successes won’t take anything from you.
If you have ways to access the community of other writers in your genre, please do that; no community is perfect, and you will inevitably encounter irritating and unkind people, but you’ll also find kindred spirits, fellow strugglers, and perhaps even a mentor who can help you follow in her footsteps. And you may also find that helping younger and newer writers can give you a wonderful confidence boost.
As for regaining the pleasure and joy of writing, I promise that can happen. You may find that you need to write just for yourself at first; you may write for a wide-eyed small child you know who will uncritically enjoy your stories and beg for more. You may find that if you write in another genre or another form, it’s easier to see it as something you do for fun. You may discover happiness and satisfaction in linking writing to another activity you enjoy: putting together a community newsletter, creating promotional materials for a cause that matters to you, writing reviews of books you love, keeping a journal of things that make you happy, recalling memories of loved ones and past adventures. You may find that first you need to learn new ways of loving and appreciating yourself as a person and letting yourself feel any enjoyment in anything at all. But one way or another, sooner or later, you will regain your writing and your love of writing.
I strongly encourage you to find a therapist who understands writing and creativity, and to work with them on learning to be good to yourself and feel good about your writing. Getting out of a self-destructive mindset and learning better, healthier habits is a lengthy process and one that greatly benefits from the support of a professional. Reach out to friends and other people who care about you, too, and ask them to support you in whatever ways feel best. And while you’re gathering Team You, this is also a good time to distance yourself from people who make you feel bad. I know that’s more easily said than done and can often be its own lengthy and difficult process, especially if you’re financially entangled with those people or living with them. But anyone who teaches or encourages you to be so critical of yourself or your writing is someone you need to move away from.
Please don’t give up. Keep chasing that dream, one step at a time, for the sake of the child you were and the adult you are. No one else has your voice. No one else can tell your stories. And your joy—your satisfaction in having written—is so important. Just as you have inherent value, your happiness is inherently worth pursuing.
Keep in touch and let me know how things are going with you, and know that I’m wishing you the very best.
Readers, if you’ve struggled with similar self-doubt and self-criticism and have words of advice or support for the letter writer, please share them. I know she’s not alone. And my well-wishes extend to all of you. These thoughts are so painful and hard—but together we can find our way through them to a world where we let ourselves write and feel joy in writing. I promise, I promise, it’s possible.