Monday, September 14, 2009

What's Holding You Back?

A short time ago, former Prairie Chick Suse sent me an article called “What running the Sahara Means to Writers”. It was about three men who walked from one end of the Sahara to the other, a truly remarkable feat. When interviewed, one of the men said that for the first time he realized that most people’s limitations are self-imposed . We can only do what we think we can do. But if we think we can walk across the Sahara, we can.

The writer of the article said the story about the Sahara walkers made her think of writers. We can only write what we think we can write. So much of what we feel about our writing and our writing abilities is self-imposed. If we don’t think we can finish a novel, we probably never will. If we don’t think we have time to write we don’t make the time. Or maybe we think that everything we’ve written sucks big time so what’s the use in trying?

Do we hold ourselves back as writers because of self-imposed ideas about ourselves and our writing abilities?

Speaking from experience, I’d say yes. I’ve overcome a fair bit of insecurity as a writer. At one point I almost quit, but somewhere down deep the writer inside me demanded to be heard, and told me that no, everything I wrote didn’t completely suck, and yes, I did have something to say. Like many writers, I think I’m a weird combination of confidence and insecurities. If I didn’t have a certain amount of confidence in myself and my writing, I wouldn’t be here now writing this. Yet, I have days when I think that everything I’ve written is drivel, and I’ll never finish another novel again.

On those days I have to rely on that deep down confidence to just keep going. It helps to know that I’m not alone. Just do a Google search on “writers and insecurity” to find out what I mean. In her blog Maggie Stiefvater talks about her insecurities. She says that something that helps her is surrounding herself with people and things that make her feel confident. She claims that she started acting like she was self-confident and eventually she truly became confident. I suppose if lack of self-confidence is a self-inflicted wound, we could just as easily decide to become confident in our writing abilities. Allan Rinzler has some great tips for writers to keep up their confidence, including staying connected with friends, family and other writers, and continuing to write, even if you think it’s all dreck.

Carrie Jones even argues that a certain amount of insecurity is necessary to a writer. It’s what motivates us to try harder, to write more and better. Not wanting to look like a schmuck and letting down the rest of the Prairie Chicks certainly motivates me to work hard on my blogs!
Sometimes other circumstances hold writers back. We all know how much time and hard work are needed to craft a novel. Not everyone (actually hardly anyone) can afford to write full time. Add to a full time job the responsibilities of a family, and you’ve got very limited writing time. This scenario holds back many writers. But are they using their jobs and their families as excuses?

Everyone knows of writers who have all sorts of other commitments and still manage to produce. I’m currently taking a class from Mary Buckham ( who says “I didn't start seriously writing until I had 5 children under the age of 8 and two part-time jobs that became one full time plus job. There were days on end that I couldn't think much less plot, but having absolutely no time taught me that I had to create the time I needed to reach my goals. Early morning, late at night, whenever. I once broke down at the side of the road and kept waving Good Samaritans on who wanted to help because, by Jove, I had quiet to myself and I wasn't going to waste it.”

It’s not easy but it can be done. In a recent post, Prairie Chick Anita talked about “writing chunks”. Those writers who have trained themselves to write in small chunks of time (before work, when the kids are in bed, waiting in the doctor’s office) don’t wait until they have an uninterrupted day to write. They write as much as they can in the time they have. One word at a time.

One of the things that has held me back in the past is my self-imposed belief that I can’t write a “bigger” book. To this point, most of the books I’ve written have been in familiar settings, or have featured characters with occupations I could easily understand or research. But now, I’m trying to stretch myself to write a book in totally unfamiliar territory, and even in another time period. It’s terrifying because I’m afraid I won’t do justice to the story I’ve got in my head. Maybe I’ll fail. Again, I have to rely on that deep down confidence and the knowledge that I’ve written things before I didn’t think I could complete, or do justice to. Wish me luck.

So, do you have self-imposed issues that hold back your writing? Is there a writing project that you really want to take on that you’re too afraid to tackle? Is confidence an issue with your writing? How do you deal with confidence problems?


Karyn Good said...

My level of self-confidence fluctuates daily! Some days it's good, some days it hides in the darkest corner of the basement and won't come out.

I'm trying to train myself to keep my butt in the chair and keep writing even if I think I'm composing complete crap. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

One other thing I've done is give up reading romance while in the midst of working on a wip. I save those books for holiday breaks and summertime. Reading it messes with my head and I start to doubt my ability to write anything close to as good as what I'm reading at the moment.

Great post, Jana. Now I'm off to plant my butt in in my chair because I'm having one of those days today.

Silver James said...

Interesting observations, Jana. When I first starting writing seriously (as in thinking I could be published), I had a lot of confidence. I was convinced I was every bit as good a storyteller as others being published. I might not have known the craft as well, but I could tell a story! Then the years slipped by. I was always just *THIS* close to getting a contract. For a long period, I stopped trying--not because I doubted my talent but because I was so frustrated by the process. Then...two years ago, I decided that if I was every going to be a published author, I'd better get off my butt and get it done.

Now that I have a book coming out next spring, my confidence has swung to the opposite pole. Now I'm terrified that I will disappoint the people anxiously awaiting the release. I'm afraid the writing/story/characters won't be good enough.

You know, if we writers didn't angst--a LOT--we probably wouldn't be able to write. LOL

Helena said...

Jana, I have just spent such an enjoyable time exploring all your links. I've marked them all as Favorites. Who doesn't need to have some backup resources for those days when confidence is flagging?

Such good advice! All of it. What resonated most with me was the idea of surrounding yourself with supportive people. Family is a given (even tho they may find your commitment a mild form of fanaticism and don't quite understand it). Other struggling writers definitely understand, so together we learn.

The most amazing category of support comes from what I used to think of as REAL writers, but now I know they are just further along in the journey. When I began to explore where I might go with my writing, I decided to immerse myself in writing communities (plural). I joined major writers' organisations, local writers' groups, participated in workshops, and attended conferences and literary festivals. You could say I now live and breathe writing.

The result of all of this is that I now consider myself a writer too, which in itself was a hurdle of insecurity I had to leap. I'm enjoying the journey, no matter how small the steps forward. I can credit the confidence I've gained from being in the company of others on the same path.

I can identify with Carrie Jones who believes some insecurity is a good thing, because it makes you try harder. As you said, Jana, I don't want to let the team down. (There's nothing worse than the feeling of panic when I can't think of anything to blog about, or I can't believe that people could possibly be interested in reading what I have drafted. It's almost made worse when a previous post has been well-received. How can I make it happen again? But the insecurity pushes me to try.)

I'm interested in hearing more about the online course you are taking from Mary Buckham, in terms of the benefit you feel you are getting. (And, incidentally, are you considering the Writing at Sea cruise next spring? Wow, that would be fun!)

I do have a novel in progress now that I had been afraid to tackle. I was encouraged to proceed with it after I dared to show a very rough draft of the opening pages to the novelist who was conducting a fiction workshop I took this summer. She said it would be something she would love to read, gave me some good suggestions, and now I have the confidence to move forward with it.

Thank you for dealing with this topic today.

Judy said...

It's great to be in such good company on the fluctuating-confidence scale! Though published in a number of venues and the recipient of much positive feedback, I am realistic enough to know that not everything I write is "wonderful". (I wish!) With two books due for release by TWRP, I'm also concerned about reviews, sales, and being considered "ho-hum". Still, I enjoy what I do and will probably continue until I run out of stories to write. (I may need to be buried with a yellow legal tablet and two #2 pencils, sharpened, if I don't finish.)

Thanks for a terrifically-encouraging blog, Jana!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
My confidence flucuates as well. A lot of the time I am a quivering mass of insecurities wondering what on earth I'm doing here. But I've come to the conclusion I do have the confidence to carry on and the more I work the better I'll get at my craft. I actually just had this epiphany while writing this blog.

Keep your bum in the chair and happy writing!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Silver,
Sometimes when you've written a book you wonder if you can do again or if it was all a big fluke. Or like you said, you've written it, it's published, will people like it? The insecurities don't end with publication. I take comfort in knowing that I have completed several novels and I know I have it in me to finish another one. And you have to trust that your editor (is it Sarah Hansen?) knows what she's doing and would never have bought your book if she didn't think people would like it. Knowing you and your writing (a little bit anyway) I have no doubt people will like Faerie Fate.

BTW, I went back on Sunday and read more of the comments from your Saturday guest blog (we were at a wedding the rest of Saturday). Thank you for mentioning Burning Love. I don't have a release date yet. I just finished the galleys and am waiting with bated breath to hear the date. I'll keep you posted.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
I think it is so important to surround yourself with positive, confident, supportive people, not just for your writing but for your life in general. There's nothing that will bring me down faster than a negative person, whether it's in my home life, work life or my writing life. That's why I value the Prairie Chicks and the members of SRW so much.

I too liked what Carrie Jones had to say about using your insecurities to motivate yourself. They can certainly make you work harder.

I know a lot of people say you are a real writer as soon as you put pen to paper and start making up stories. But I know I didn't feel like a real writer until people whose opinions I respected told me I was. I needed that outside validation. I've got to say Helena, that you certainly are a "real" writer. You've immersed yourself in everything writerly, and to top it off, you're a damn fine writer!

Thanks for your thoughts.

Ban said...

I'm with ya Karyn - somedays I feel like I really do have a story to tell and I think, I can do this.
Others ... I feel like I'll never finish so why bother.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Judy,
Like Silver said, if we writers didn't have angst, we probably wouldn't be writers. I honestly think a little insecurity is healthy. As they say, the jails are full of confident people.

I too worry about reviews and what people say about my work. And even though I've sold four books, the sales have been modest, to say the least.

But like you, I don't intend to quit anytime soon. I actually did LOL when I read that you'll probably be buried with your yellow legal pads. I can totally relate!


Jana Richards said...

With apologies to Barack Obama, Ban, repeat after me "Yes, I can!"

Don't worry about selling at this point. Don't worry about what people will think of your writing. Just push all that angst and worry to the side and just tell your story. Finishing is the most important thing. So many people say they want to write but never do. You've already gone beyond that. No fear, Ban. No fear.

Take care.

Mary Ricksen said...

I am sure my lack of confidence and self esteem hold me back. But I keep pushing and trying to break the bonds of my self imposed prison. Writing and meeting amazing writers has helped me enormously and for that I am grateful.
I will keep on trying. When I held my first book in my hands all I could think was that it wasn't good enough. So confidence is a big issue in my life. And it always has been.
But I'm working on it.

Janet C. said...

The confidence rollar coaster - yes, I ride that daily. Thrilling? If you call the tremendous highs and all consuming, crashing lows thrilling, then I guess.

Thanks for the links, Jana - I'll check them out. And if you're talking about the story I think you're talking about, get writing. You do have it in you. It will be fabulous. Take that leap of faith (or Captain Achiever will be in Surrey in October to kick your butt)!

Marie said...

Like many who have already commented, my self-confidence fluctuates as well. I didn't realize how bad until I recently sold my first book to The Wild Rose Press. Since then my production level and self-confidence has taken off.

I've also learned that sometimes I need to give myself a break, not a long one, maybe a day to do something fun and get out into the world.

I agree with Jana, you need to surround yourself positive, confident, and supportive people. That can really help with the self-confidence dragons.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Mary,
I push on despite issues with confidence as well. Maybe we should give ourselves a little credit just for persevering.

It helps to have supportive writing friends. The writers at The Wild Rose Press are very supportive and I feel fortunate to be part of the group.

Like I said before, I'll keep writing and promoting. I keep thinking that the more I write, the more I try to learn my craft, the better I'll get. Like you, I'll keep working on that confidence thing!

Thanks for stopping by.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
That confidence roller coaster - stop! I wanna get off!

You've got no reason to ride that roller coaster, girlfriend. You're an amazing writer. You have a wonderful unique voice, and I think you have a really good great handle on sexual tension and characterization. Just hang in there and keep writing.

Yes, I'm working on my World War 2 story. I've done some of the research and now I'm working on a first draft. I'll have to go back and do a ton of research. It's a big story for me. Like I said, I just hope to do justice to the story in my head.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Marie,
I found that my confidence went up after I sold my first book just as yours did. Just getting that validation really helped me to keep on writing and working hard.

It's nice to have someone pat you on the back once in a while and tell you are a good writer. Those supportive friends really help.

Thanks for stopping by.

Suse said...

Hi Jana, that Running the Sahara article really spoke to me about how we as writers impose limitations on ourselves. And me, ever the educator, had to send the article on to my writer friends. However, I'm probably one of the worst for frittering away time that could be spent writing. Is it because I lack confidence? Perhaps. I do know when I have a deadline for writing something, I make the time and I get it done - probably never to my satisfaction though. I have had several nonfiction articles published this year, and yet when I admit to people I am a writer, I down play my accomplishments. Or if I admit that I've written 3 novels, I always have to add that none of them have been published.

I have a feeling that most writers go through these feelings. But when we do see our names in print, or even just getting that acceptance letter, the thrill is unrivaled.

It is definitely nice to have the support of fellow writers, especially SRW and the Prairie Chicks and Friends.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Suse,
Yes, that article really spoke to me too. If you think you can do something, you often can. If you think you're confident, maybe you are.

I am also very good at deadlines. In fact, Janet often gives me a deadline for getting my manuscript to her just so I get my butt in gear. Maybe we'll have to try that again soon, hey Janet?

Congratulations on the non-fiction articles you sold. I love your fiction too, as you know. But I know what you mean about playing down your writing. I don't talk about my writing very much to "civilians". And the thought of actually hawking my books makes me break out in hives. Feeliing that way is not condusive to selling a lot of books. Sigh.


Danielle Thorne said...

What a great article--I think as writers we need to express ourselves to feel like we are living. For some people it's running marathons, for others it may be having ten children and loving it, but writers are blessed and cursed, aren't they? We must write for ourselves yet at the same time be governed by standards that make it something worth reading to others around us. If anything, writing has taught me that I have courage.

Great thoughts, Jana.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Danielle,
I've always thought that writers have it the hardest as far as people in the arts go. For instance, when someone asks an artist what they are working on they can lift up a canvas and say "Here it is!" Even if they never sell at least they can give away their efforts as Christmas gifts. It's a little harder for a writer. People don't really consider you a writer until you are published and have a book in your hands. I used to hate the question "When are going to be published?" because I had no idea when or if I ever would be published. It's completely out of my hands. And I think it's the fact that we writers are so dependent on other people's opinions eg: editors, agents, publishers - that we have so many issues with confidence.

Glad you dropped by Danielle.