The Writer’s Paradox

The Writer’s Paradox

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the paradox of being a writer.

In any given day, we can swing from absolute euphoria and confidence in ourselves in the morning before spiraling into a pit of despair and insecurity by noon. We can look at a sentence one day and think it’s the best thing we’ve ever written, but ask us again next week, and it’s likely we’ll tell you it’s absolute drivel.

And it doesn’t get any easier.

In fact, I think it just gets worse and worse.

Emmie Mears recently wrote a blog post on Imposter Syndrome, “Hi, Hello, We’re Here to Revoke Your Artist Card”, over on Chuck Wendig’s blog, which started all this thinking, and as a result—and being in the process of revising my third ever novel—I’ve had a hard look at myself and my writing and how far I’ve come since I began pursuing writing as a professional career six years ago.

(John Scalzi recently wrote a post on the topic as well, but he floated into success on an ego balloon so I don’t know that what he says is relevant to those of us who do suffer from feelings of inadequacy from time to time, but still worth a read.)

My debut novel published with Harper Voyager last May, and I couldn’t be more proud of that book. What started out as an adventure in self-publishing eventually found its way into the hands of a major publisher and the editor to match. With her help, I transformed the original story into something better, into something worthy of the publisher’s name, and I am endlessly proud of the result. For the last ten months, the book has sat on a pedestal in my mind, the pinnacle of my writing talent thus far.

And that is the goal I have been reaching for with the second book in the series.

A curse and a blessing, as it turns out. At some point between books, my supposed success with the first book created a false image in my mind of what I wanted to achieve, exaggerating the actual quality of the book into something too closely resembling perfection. The more I wrote on the second book, the less confidence I had in myself. I started to think I would never write a book as good that first one. The success that I earned was a fluke. And when my publisher finds out what a sham I am, they’ll certainly cut me from the publishing schedule and toss my book into some black abyss of other unworthy, unpublished books.

It’s a paralyzing fear.

And it stuck with me throughout the drafting stage, through my first revision, and halfway through the second. Still, I slogged through it, because I had to—deadlines, you know—and it’s only now that I’m finally getting over that fear. Why? Because my first book isn’t nearly as good as I was making it out to be.

It started with Emmie’s post (which you should read if you haven’t yet. It’s good stuff). Nearly everyone feels like a fraud at some point in their career. For some people it’s constant. For others, it comes and goes. (And for people like John Scalzi, the rest of us can despise them for never knowing that kind of doubt) Reading her post made me feel less alone; it made me feel like I could fight it, that I could overcome feeling like an imposter.

But it wasn’t until I read over some passages from my first book that I finally realized just how much I’ve improved in the months since it published. It’s not a perfect book, and that’s all the realization I needed to kick my doubt aside. I can now see weaknesses where I couldn’t see them before, paragraphs that I would rewrite now, lines of dialogue I would change, plot points I would fix. I am no less proud of what I wrote, but I can do better. It’s a good book, a book I’m proud of—I stand by that—but it’s not my best writing, not anymore. And that’s wonderful.

Funny how that works.

All that effort expended on trying to reach a previous level of writing that never existed made me a better writer.

There’s a quote from Ira Glass that has stuck with me since I first read it:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

And it’s so true.

That goal I had in my mind, that “perfect” book I thought I wrote, I haven’t written it yet. But when I do, by then there will already be another goal, a further goal, one that will make me a better writer the harder I try to reach it. It will be frustrating as hell, and I know that I’ll fall right back into the same trap of thinking I’m not good enough, when the gap is wide and the goal is far away, but I’ll find my way out again—eventually. And there’s sure to be another goal after that.

It’s heartening, really.

Terrifying, but heartening.

Brooke Johnson

Brooke Johnson

Brooke is a stay-at-home mom, amateur seamstress, RPG enthusiast, and art hobbyist, in addition to all that book writing. She's the author of The Brass Giant, a YA steampunk novel from Harper Voyager Impulse, and Dark Lord in Training, a middle-grade fantasy, as well as several other projects in the works.
Brooke Johnson

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