Most (if not all) writers fall in love with the craft because they first fell in love with reading. And for any writer-to-be, I think reading often and widely is essential. It’s the most fun way to learn how to do it, and it’s also the best way to learn what you really want to write.
But when you start actually writing, and thinking about sharing that writing, suddenly reading is a hobby fraught with doubt.
There are some books out there that you read and think, even in that quiet voice in the back of your head, “Well, I could do this.” Whether or not that’s true, those books can be a great boost to your self-esteem. Now, I hasten to add that every book, no matter how “terrible,” did something right to connect with a reader—particularly, the agent and/or editor who published it. So I think a lot of books that look deceptively “bad” are just a simpler style, a different genre or type of book than you like (with different expectations), or are a bit of a fluke, I guess.
But those books aren’t the problem. The real problem is the books you read that make you think… “I’ll never be able to do this.”
It could be the lush descriptions and poetic prose. It could be the depth and breadth of characters. It could be the insanely imaginative twists in the plot. Or it could be just about anything—the length, the pacing, the genre, the number of books in the series, the invented vocabulary, the dialogue, the worldbuilding, the fandom… The point is that something, or several somethings, jump out at you and you feel a toxic combination of envy, inferiority, and doubt.
I’ve been feeling this way a bit lately, and this is what I tell myself:
- You do not know how many drafts a writer went through to get to what you see in front of you. There’s a quote by Steve Furtick: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” Perhaps that poetic prose came the tenth time they rewrote the scene. Maybe they only discovered that key aspect to the character on the fourth draft. Maybe the idea for the twist came only as they finished the first draft. You just never know…
- But even if the author says they only wrote one draft, or if every draft you write never achieves the same magnificence, the fact remains that every author—and every book—does things differently, and that’s okay. Some stories benefit from lavish description, but others cut to the core with straightforward prose that lays things bare. Think of Hemingway, lauded by academic institutions everywhere, with an incredibly unique and seemingly simple style. Some stories are best with crazy twists, but some tell a simple and emotional character story that comforts, entertains, or exposes through its somewhat familiar and archetypal plotline. Beyond the simple fact of what subsequent drafts can do, also keep in mind what you really want from your writing—and that there’s a reader for just about every book, even if that reader isn’t a critic or a teacher or your well-read friend.
- And every writer grows over their writing lifetime, and what you might be capable of now is only the beginning of your journey. I’m not saying you have to change or grow at all, but if you’re concerned about the quality of your work, that might just be something you have to develop through—with only time and practice and work to get you there. This one’s tough sometimes, because it requires a very patient attitude towards the arc of your own work, but once you can appreciate how you’ll naturally improve, you can just focus on doing the work now. Everyone grows at their own pace, though—I read something written by someone a couple years younger than me, and thought… oh, crap. But they’re on a different path than me, and I do believe that I’ll end up where I’m meant to be. Even if it’s in the bargain bin, if I’m lucky. 🙂
Like any artistic or creative endeavor, writing is fraught with self-consciousness and comparisons. And envy is a natural feeling, and nothing to be ashamed about. In fact, I often channel my envious magpie of a muse into new projects that confront what I like about someone else’s work with what I can do in my own unique way. That may result in some cliché or rip-off projects, but it’s all still writing and growing and learning.
The important thing is to keep writing, or drawing, or creating. You won’t end up like X, Y, or Z—you’ll end up like you, and who knows? Maybe someday someone will be enviously dying to be you.