I know, I know. How can someone like me ever believe they’re not good at writing? If I’m confident enough to hand out writing advice, I must be a good writer. Right?
Not necessarily, I suppose. There are a lot of people who say that those who can’t do something end up teaching it instead, and when that concept was brought to my attention again recently, I mostly found myself in a very real though extremely unnecessary panic.
Like, oh my GOD. What if all this time I have been telling people how to be better writers BUT I’M NOT ACTUALLY ONE OF THEM AFTER ALL?
What if I’m kind of good at TEACHING people how to sit down and write, but I am actually a terrible writer?
After all, I’ve never published a book. I don’t have a degree in writing. No one has ever given me an award for something I’ve written. I don’t write because I want to be known for having achieved these things by any means. But these are the things we so often use to measure our level of success against those around us.
We shouldn’t do that, but we do it anyway. Because of, usually, one very devious thing.
This is the impostor syndrome talking, of course. I’ve written about it here before. It’s the belief that you aren’t good at something and/or that people will find out you’re a “fraud” despite evidence that contradicts that. Example: Viola Davis believing she didn’t deserve an Oscar AS SHE WAS HOLDING AND ACCEPTING HER OSCAR. You’re not actually terrible at what you do. Your brain just wants you to THINK you are, and fills your mind with the fear that one day people are going to discover you’re faking it.
I’m not by any means an exceptional writer, but it’s kind of hard not to develop a skill to an intermediate level when you end up practicing it all the time for many years. I know how to tell stories and sometimes my words sound really cool all smashed together. I know I’m not “the worst” writer.
But still, after all this time, no matter how many things I have published before, every new thing I send out into the world causes me to wonder, and worry, even if only for a moment. What if it’s bad? What if people tell me it’s bad? What if they DON’T? What if all my followers leave and my family disowns me and my friends stop talking to me and my dog runs away — all because it turns out I’m BAD AT WRITING?
The truth is, most of us at least have these moments, if not a constant doubtful ache that keeps us up at night and makes getting out of bed next to impossible. We are so afraid of people lying to us (“You’re a great writer!”) that we barely allow ourselves to believe we might actually have a chance at succeeding.
The truth is, these doubts plague us because we are constantly bombarded with stories and images of people’s perfect success stories. “I worked hard until I published a bestseller, and so can you!” No one really talks in detail about the hard parts, the dark parts, the parts where nothing happens. Those parts aren’t interesting, or so they say. We’re led to believe that if we struggle, it’s because we aren’t good enough or smart enough or capable.
I fear I’m not a good writer because no one has ever bothered to tell me otherwise, and that fills me with unease. Was my teacher just being nice, or did he really mean the things he said about my potential? Did my mom really like that story I wrote, or did she just not want to hurt my feelings? Did they really hire me because I had the skills, or were they just desperate?
I think if people were more honest with their writer loved ones about their worst work, we’d be better at not only taking constructive criticism, but at believing the things we did well were truly done well. Growing up, I wish someone had told me, “Hey, this thing you wrote is really bad, but if you want, I might be able to point out what you could have done better.”
Then, at least, I would have known my weaknesses and would have been able to improve on them, and know I was making progress toward something better.
I don’t mean to complain. I am privileged. People pay me to write things, I don’t loathe my day job, I have people in my life who support my career path and ambitions and I know many of you reading this wish these things applied to you but they don’t and I’m sorry.
The thing is, even though I have moments I’m not sure I’m doing any of this right, I keep doing it anyway. That’s how you build confidence, how you get better, how you start to prove yourself wrong. You just keep going. You just keep stumbling until you get the hang of it. If I stopped writing every time I doubted myself, I’d never get anything done, because it happens almost every day of my life.
Please. Keep writing, even when you don’t think anyone cares.
Keep writing, even when you don’t think it’s very good.
Keep writing, even when you’ve lost sight of your purpose.
The best thing you can do for yourself in these moments is to not allow them to control your actions. Don’t quit because your self-consciousness says you should. Don’t throw your book away because your self-doubt says it’s a good idea. Don’t toss away that job application or walk away from that writing class because something inside you says “I’ll never be good enough anyway, what’s the point?”
Write anyway. Of all the words and phrases I’ve come up with for 2019, this is my favorite. Write anyway. No matter how much you might believe you shouldn’t, just do it anyway. I doubt you’ll regret it.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.