One of our course (see the links to Bren Gosling’s blog on the sidebar) prompted an interesting e-mail exchange between several of us when he asked if anyone else had crises of confidence, particularly once they’d read a passage from a great novel which they’d compared with their own work.
I guess this is pretty universal. Almost everyone agreed that they had similar bouts of self-doubt. Rick made some good points: don’t compare your early drafts of your novel with the polished final draft of a master; anyone who thinks they’re a pretty cool writer when they’re only at an early draft stage is almost certainly not.
My own contributions to the debate were:
‘Paranoia, self-doubt and angst’ — sounds like the sort of job description that’s written for me. I must be aspiring to do the right thing — I’ve yet to experience that much despair yet but I’m sure I will. Â I agree with everyone else’s comments about the ups and downs and the difficulties of the writing process. One paradox that several writers that I’ve read have commented upon, and that I also find myself, is that while you know the actual process of writing can be very stimulating and rewarding once you’ve started, that there’s a massive reluctance to begin and almost any other activity is used to displace starting it. In the end, once I make myself do it, I enjoy it to the extent that I often completely lose track of time and get completely drawn in to the process.Â I was flicking through the Carole Blake book ‘From Pitch to Publication’ that’s on the reading list and she makes a point about the importance of positive feedback. She’s a literary agent and she says she’s full of admiration for writers who plug away in a fairly anti-social job for completely unpredictable rewards — something she says she could never do. She then admits to occasionally feeling hugely guilty, mainly due to time pressure, for giving her authors feedback that sums up the positives in a couple of sentences and then goes on to list several pages of corrections or suggestions for improvement (this is for established authors with books that are very likely to be published).Â She recognises that good writers are self-critical to the extent that the deficiencies in their own work leap out far more than the positives. However, often people (maybe this is a British thing in particular) tend to hold back on positive feedback, which they may feel is self-evident, when in fact the writer, suffering from self-doubt, would greatly benefit from the encouragement it gives. After all, what most writers are aiming for is to engage with and entertain people and any validation that this is being achieved must be welcomed. We can’t expect that sort of encouragement from literary agents but, as Nick mentioned last week, it’s good to try and find readers for what we’re doing, such as writing groups, etc and I’ve certainly found motivation from the comments that I’ve had back on the readings I’ve done so far.’
I would guess all writers get the up and down feelings you describe. I’ve just written another 3,000 words (see future post) and it was a real uphill slog — and without the prospect of reading it out on Saturday to get feedback then I’m wondering whether it’s any good or not.
I remember reading the time before last and thinking while I was reading that parts of it were rubbish — then I was pleasantly surprised when I got favourable feedback.
I tend to be of the opinion that I’m self-critical enough about my own work to be able to correct a lot of things given time so positive feedback is probably much more important than critical readers realise. I guess being self-critical is an important thing for being a writer and you tend to see the deficiencies more clearly in your own work than the strengths — which is why it’s nice to have a supportive group of readers to remind you about the good things when they give feedback.
Overall, however, I think when I read something good — or quite often experience some other art form that’s outstanding — then I feel it more inspiring than intimidating and it spurs me on to try and improve what I’m doing myself.
There were some curious comments made in the debate which were in the vein of Â ‘artist be true to thineself’ and probably contradicted my comments about searching out an audience. The importance of plugging away in something you believe in — that you feel compelled to write — was mentioned and I guess that this is almost a given when you start to put in a lot of time to your writing before receiving any professional recognition — the position that this novel writing course assumes us to be in Â Someone said that all art was subjective and there was no measure of what’s good and bad. I think there’s a lot in this viewpoint and its associated comments that you can put anything in front of a group of people and some people will like it and some won’t — regardless of what it is. I’ve had plenty of experience of Open University courses where people are graded in percentage terms for their creative writing and I still feel aggrieved that I lost possibly five percent on one assignment, missing out on a distinction, purely because the rather prim female tutor refused to believe my urban female character in her twenties would say the word ‘twat’ — even though I got feedback from a woman in the same age group telling me that line was ‘great’. I tend to think that that sort of marking should have a margin of error of around 20%. I remember another OU course member striking a rich seam of ironic eco-comedy (a little bit like Guy’s although this was a radio play) that the tutor loved and gave her 85% for. While this was well-deserved as it was well-written and observant, the writer unsurprisingly then repeated the same formula for every assignment possible thereafter and didn’t develop writing in any other forms.
However, I do think there’s a general assumption that if someone will publish something then that’s an affirmation of its quality and that courses like ours aim to equip us with the skills and knowledge to get to that fairly arbitrary level of quality. Of course it all depends whether the writer’s main objective is primarily internal (to express him or herself) or external (to engage with an audience). In my case I definitely tend to the latter but certainly have aspects of the former. For others it may be more extreme.