On Writing and Self-Doubt

The following essay appears in TRIGGER WARNINGS. You can buy that collection for your Kindle for just $2.99 right here. However, since it’s not available in paperback — a young lady on Twitter was looking for this particular essay, so I thought I’d reprint it here.

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“WHAT IF NOBODY LIKES IT?”

ON WRITING AND SELF-DOUBT

 

Last week on Twitter, Steve Melnick asked me if I had any advice regarding writer’s block based on a lack of confidence. His concern that people might not like his writing was preventing him from writing. I told him I did have advice, but it wasn’t something that would fit into a Tweet, so I’d write a Blog entry instead. So I have.

I should start by recapping my assertion that there is no such thing as writer’s block. Writer’s block is a convenient term we use simply because “I don’t feel like writing” sounds less palatable.

I used to work in a foundry, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and books were still sold in bookstores. I held many positions at that foundry, one of which was operating a mold making machine. During my daily eight-hour shift, I was expected to make a certain number of molds. If I completed this task, I got a paycheck at the end of the week. If I didn’t complete this task, then I got fired and had to find another job.

I’ve always approached writing the same way. Whether I’ve got an hour to write each day or eight hours each day, I’ve always envisioned my words as part of the assembly line. I have to produce X amount of them each day, or I’ll get fired and have to find another job. And since I haven’t had another job in over 15 years, I’m pretty sure I’d have trouble getting hired somewhere else, so it’s doubly important I keep this writing gig.

That’s not to say there aren’t days when I don’t feel like writing. Far from it. After a full day of playing with my 4-year old, the last thing I want to do is sit down and write. I’d much rather collapse onto the couch and just rest. But if I do that, then my 4-year old isn’t going to eat next month. Thus, I have to produce words. To quote this wisdom from Joe R. Lansdale, “If you can’t find time to write, you probably really don’t want to do it.”

There is no such thing as writer’s block, but there are excuses for not writing. Sometimes, they’re bogus. “I’d rather play video games tonight” is not a valid excuse. But there are times when the things going on in your life encroach upon your writing. Sickness. Death. Depression. Doubt. These things, and others like them, can wreak havoc on your ability to write. Below is an excerpt from my book, Sundancing, in which I talk about this:

 

During those last three winters, I’d gone through a divorce, a year’s worth of weekly visits with a shrink, absolute financial destitution at the hands of a crooked publisher, a heart attack, two devastating floods, a mudslide, a blizzard, the death of a family member, betrayal and abandonment by several once-close friends, and two nervous breakdowns. My alcohol consumption had increased in response to this, and the amount of words I wrote each day had decreased accordingly. Not that I had time to write, even if I’d had the mental strength to do so. I had my youngest son from Monday through Thursday, and by the end of the day, he left me too exhausted to work. I saw my girlfriend on the weekends, but visiting her involved a three hour commute, and again, there wasn’t much time for writing. Basically, as my world fell apart, brick by brick, I kept my shit together as a father and as a boyfriend, but couldn’t write for shit. In the rare moments when I did have time to write, the words I produced weren’t my best, which made it even harder to write.

The public didn’t know this, of course. Oh, hell no. Online and during appearances at signings and conventions, I still played the role of the hard-working writer, preaching the gospel of how there was no such thing as writer’s block, and how all one had to do was make the time to write—ass in chair, fingers on keyboard. Repeat as necessary. Except that it was all hypocritical bullshit. I gave the genre what it wanted. What it needed. A pep talk in a time of crisis (and believe me, these last few years have indeed been a time of crisis for most of your favorite horror writers and publishers). But while I could rally the troops, I had no one to perk up my own sagging spirits.

 

So, yeah. I’m not immune. I get that life sometimes intrudes and the last thing you want to do is write. It’s hard to make up stories about zombies and vampires and giant carnivorous worms when life’s very real monsters are tearing you apart inside and out. And one of those monsters is doubt. Self-doubt is the worst, but it’s also one of the easiest to deal with, if you know how.

The first thing you need to know, Steve (and everyone else reading this) is that you’re not alone. Every single author has those moments of self doubt. It might surprise you to know that those moments don’t just come early in one’s career, either. You ask yourself, “What if this sucks? What if I’m just wasting my time? What if nobody likes it?” It’s very easy to let those fears and uncertainties keep you from writing. But there are two things you must remember.

  1. Not everybody is going to like everything.
  2. You are writing for yourself. Everyone else can suck it.

Not everybody is going to like everything. I’ve written a metric fuck-ton of books and comic books, and every single one of them has been hated by somebody. But you know what? Other people have liked them. More importantly, I’ve liked them.

Write the book you want to read.

Consider this quote from Toni Morrison: “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.” She’s right. My first novel was a zombie novel. I wrote it because, at the time, nobody else was writing zombie novels, and I wanted to read one. I didn’t pause to consider that nobody else might want to read about zombies. It didn’t concern me that people might talk shit about it on the internet. None of these things mattered to me, because I liked what I was writing. I hoped others would, too, but if they didn’t, that wasn’t going to stop me from writing it. In hindsight, that worked out pretty well for me (and for anyone else who couldn’t find a zombie novel to read). Some might say, given the plethora of zombie novels now available to the public, that it worked out too well. But that wasn’t my concern. My only concern was writing a book that I wanted to read.

Don’t worry about whether or not anybody else will like it, as long as you like it. Write a book that you’d want to read. Do that, and I think you’ll find your block dissipating. Do that, and your fears and uncertainties become a lot easier to wrestle with. Do that, and you’ll suddenly start producing words again.

I’d like to close with this quote from Wrath James White, because I think it ties in well with what we’re talking about here: “Whether you’re writing about vampires, zombies, werewolves, demons, witches, ghosts or serial killers, the tone, the mood, the settings, the characters, and the plot should be so uniquely personal that only you could have possibly written it. That is the only reason anyone should ever write any story, ever, because you are the only person who could have written it.”

You are the only person who can write the story you’re working on.

Now go do it…

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