It’s okay to (privately) believe you suck at writing
And I can tell when you’re mad at your past, Because you tend to take them curves just a little too fast, And I can tell by how you push your foot on the gas, That you already knew you were gonna finish last.
— Atmosphere, “Get Fly”
I realized something important before my first reading, and that was I’d never given a reading. I had absolutely no idea what to talk about, especially since I spent most of my time watching TV, sitting at a desk and staring into space, or complaining on Facebook about DC cyclists (jerks).
So I decided to ask the CEO of the company I work for if he had any advice; he’s given thousands of speeches for a variety of audiences. What he told me applies to everything from giving a speech to a successful job interview to writing a column.
"Be positive," he said. "Audiences react to your energy. If you're negative, they're going to be negative, too. And that’s how they’re going to remember you. Doesn’t matter what you say."
At least once a month, my Facebook feed is filled with my writing friends sharing some confessional column about failure. Usually these columns are about dwindling careers, sinking book sales, lack of popularity, the way their spouse can barely stand to look at them, etc. They always ends on a note of defeat.
And I know this is greatly unfair, but when someone calls themselves a failure, that’s generally how I remember them.
Part of that is because the writer is usually someone I’ve never heard of (which is the reason they’re so angry), and their bitter essay serves as my first impression. And if they tell me no one’s buying their books, then it’s likely going to be my last impression, as well. Consider it like this: If a real estate agent told you he hadn’t sold a house in years, would you be inclined to hire him?
Of course, that example only works if you think of writing as a business…but, if you’re hoping to sell books, you should. It’s understood, of course, that some people view writing as therapeutic, but that doesn’t mean you need to make your therapy public.
This isn't meant to be a diatribe against honesty. Two of the regular contributors at The Thrill Begins, Jennifer Hillier and J.J. Hensley, write terrific columns that shed light on darkly personal moments in publishing. But they manage to be uplifting at the same time.
One of Hillier's columns, about the difficulties of publishing, ends on this note: "You must always hold on to the love." Hensley expertly mixes humor with his observations about people’s perceptions regarding how much money writers make: "They think every decent mystery writer rakes in money like Richard Castle. That’s right. He’s not even real, but he’s setting the bar for actual writers. Outstanding."
The down notes are there, but these writers aren’t defeated, and they’re not coming across that way. That’s an important thing to remember.
Your book may suck, or it might not sell, or everyone may hate it, or a publisher may ask that you write under a different name, or your children may ask that you not tell their friends what you wrote, but you didn’t get fired. You can write another book. You get to sit at your desk, stare into space, and watch a world form. No one can stop you, and not many people can do it.
Don’t take that for granted.
One of the subplots of the first book I ever wrote was about the sorrow a character had for a woman from his past. He was occasionally overcome by flashbacks of their life, like the easy Saturday afternoons they spent together, or the warm nights when they’d walk around their busy neighborhood in Baltimore. Her explosive laugh. The way she smiled after they kissed. The feeling of her leg draped over his when she slept. Waking to the sound of water splashing off her in the shower. How her hair felt. How her tears felt.
I finished that book in 2003 and, like a lot of writers’ first books, it didn’t sell. I don’t mean in stores — I mean no agent took it, and no publisher was remotely interested. It ended up in a drawer. But was that first book really a failure after giving me those moments above?
E.A. Aymar’s latest novel is You’re As Good As Dead.