You want to be a writer. So why did you stop writing?

Years ago, I met a young woman who had done a creative writing degree. She didn’t write anymore. I asked her why, and she said, ‘Because I read back what I have written and discover that it’s total shit.’

And I thought, ‘Well, yeah…’

I was still quite early on in my fiction-writing journey, deep into the first draft of a sprawling novel, but I was starting to understand that, if I was going to succeed as a writer, I’d have to get used to writing really, really badly. I had to be able to do what this girl couldn’t, which was re-read my work (or not), knowing that it was shit, but then carry on anyway.

I think this is one of the most important qualities a writer can develop. Many of us are already highly-strung perfectionists. We regularly flay ourselves (metaphorically in all but the worst of cases) for what we aren’t, what we can’t do, what we won’t achieve and will never have. Where did we get the idea that talking to ourselves so harshly about our creativity was helpful?

Also, why do we imagine we should be able to get a story down on the page brilliantly first time (or even second or third or fourth time) or else we’re failures?

“If you picked up the violin for the first time, you’d hardly be surprised if the music you made wasn’t sweet.”

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years.

It might be something to do with writing being a craft we think we know. If you picked up the violin for the first time, you’d hardly be surprised if the music you made wasn’t sweet.  But while we can accept that we’re unfamiliar with a violin bow, we’ve been holding a pen since junior school. We should know how to write, Goddamnit! We do it all the time!



But…it’s not the same. When I moved from writing journalism to fiction I couldn’t believe how hard it was. I could, in fact, be heard wailing, on more than a few occasions, ‘I CAN’T BELIEVE HOW HARD THIS IS!’ But that was just my ego slowly being tortured. I’d thought I was already a writer. So why did my story stink? Because I was learning a brand new craft, that’s why. I was starting from the bottom again. And my pride didn’t like it.

Another reason we’re so hard on ourselves is that writers tend to be readers. We love books and we believe we understand their magic, and when writing is done well it looks so effortless and easy, that when it comes to writing our own stories, we’re often bewildered to find that we aren’t able to render that perfect idea so easily onto paper/screen.

“If you want to be a writer, you’re going to be plagued by doubt some of the time.”

Often, I found it helpful to think of writing like carpentry. This gets all the pretension and angst and talk of being ‘blocked’ out of the way. You want to make a chair? Just make a chair. Take some instruction, study other carpenters’ methods but get to it, since mostly you’ve got to learn by doing. By the time you’ve finished, if you don’t have a chair that anyone would pay to sit on, just go ahead and make another, learning from your mistakes. Eventually, you are going to get really good at making chairs. And what happens then? You’ll start making your chairs more elaborate, and lo! You’re back to stumbling around in the dark again.

This is the work.

And yet, still, very often aspiring writers stop writing because they lose confidence, either in the project or in themselves.

Would it have helped them to know that this feeling of uncertainty and occasional wretchedness is completely normal? That these are the working conditions of the job? I think so. (There’s pure joy too, loads and loads of it. But who needs a post about how to cope with joy? You do? Okay, success-phobe, I’ll deal with you in another post.)

“Writers stop writing because they lose confidence, either in the project, or in themselves.”

I love this quote by E. L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

So. If you want to be a writer, you’re going to be plagued by doubt some of the time. You will want to give up. You will wonder where on earth the story is going and why you even bothered to start it in the first place. But the ones who succeed are the ones who are willing to carry on anyway.

Your ego will not like it. Your ego wants to know what is happening at all times, it wants to be impressive and capable. It will demand that you stop writing and go and do something else, something you are actually good at, something for which people will admire you and stroke you and tell you that you are wonderful.

But I say fix your bum to the seat and push on through into that messy, confusing wilderness. Because that’s where creativity lives.


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