Do you ever feel like what you’re creating isn’t quite … enough?
It’s not bad. It’s not forced or cliched or lacking anything that makes it a consumable piece of writing. Yet something is missing. Or rather, you feel like you could be doing more — going deeper, confirming what’s implied, saying what needs to be said, grabbing the reader where it hurts and squeezing their already broken hearts.
You could be, but you aren’t. Why is that?
I’m currently writing a book (you don’t want to hear about it, it’s not exciting yet), and in this book a character has to die. I’ve known from the very beginning that this character would not make it to the end of the story alive. And I’ve been dreading having to kill them off for months. I know I have to do it, but it’s definitely not fun.
I have considered, on more than one occasion, just … not going through with it. Keeping them alive. Giving them a happy ending. Not having to put myself through the pain of “losing” yet another piece of myself in someone that does not technically exist.
The mistake I would have made, if I’d let myself keep this character alive, would have been keeping my creativity and my potential as a storyteller trapped in a box. Really, I would have been holding myself back. Not allowing myself to send the messages I wanted to send. I would have been playing it safe — not daring to cross any lines.
But crossing lines is what stirs things up. And I’m not recommending you do this in every context, but when it comes to writing, sometimes you have to be the voice others didn’t know they needed to listen to.
I decided to trust my gut and go with the ending that was going to serve my story the best. It would have been easy to choose the alternative, the scenario in which everyone got to survive through to the final page and I didn’t have to go through the agony of experiencing yet another beloved though imaginary friend’s demise.
But that’s the point. It would have been easy. Too easy. And not at all interesting. It’s the interesting twists in a story, after all, that make it good.
Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever been faced with the urge to write in the safe zone? Have you ever found yourself thinking, “I don’t have to go there — I don’t have to be the one to say it”? Or, “This story is getting too dark, people won’t want to have anything to do with it”?
My favorite: “What if I shine through my writing too much and people see me for who I really am?”
Yikes, that got deep. I’d back up and go for the shallow end, but that would defeat the purpose of this post, now wouldn’t it?
Often when I’m writing a tweet or something else I know a bunch of people are going to see, I get a little self-conscious. I’m not totally driven by what other people think about me — honestly, if you don’t like me at this point, it’s your loss and you’re not worth my energy (and that’s OK). I just want to feel like I’m saying things that matter! I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this, either.
Sometimes it even happens when I’m writing one of these posts. I know “tough love” is the right intensity of advice to give, but I’m often tempted to ease off because I don’t like it when people get mad at me for saying what they don’t want to hear. I shouldn’t worry about that, and nine times out of 10 I stay “mean.” (It’s not actually mean, but you get the idea.) But I do hesitate. It happens a lot. I’m not immune to the need to try to please people, no matter how long I’ve been writing.
It happens to many of us. I won’t assume or generalize and say all because I’m sure there’s someone out there who doesn’t have this problem who will feel excluded if I don’t clarify. But so many of us are afraid of doing the wrong thing, of making mistakes, of going too far. We want to avoid the worst — whatever “the worst” might look like.
Here’s the good news: It’s completely normal to be even just a little concerned about what other people think of you and/or your work. To a certain extent, it’s healthy. You want to do the best work possible and provide the highest quality product to your prospective audience as you can manage. You want to know, somehow, that you’re doing a good job.
Problems only arise when you take these concerns too far, of course. It’s possible — and unfortunately quite common — to worry so much about doing writing “right” that you struggle to get any writing done at all because you can’t get past the fear blockade you’ve unintentionally created for yourself.
When I start worrying about whether or not my writing is too dark or trying too hard or I feel too vulnerable or scared or insecure, do you want to know what I do? I stop thinking about myself. Because though it might seem like it sometimes, it’s not all about you. You can write for yourself, you can write to feel personally fulfilled and happy.
But if there are going to be other people reading what you write, eventually it’s not going to be about you anymore. It’s going to be about all of us. You, and everyone else.
If you don’t go all in, if you don’t take a deep breath and go for it, someone’s going to miss out on what you might have been able to provide.
You never know who might be reading. You never know who might need to hear your words, who might need to know that someone in this world, even a total stranger, knows what they are dealing with, how they might be feeling. You just don’t know — you can’t.
So why risk missing the opportunity to help someone?
That is how I get through the doubt and the fear and the anxiety. I remember that my only mission as a writer is to help other people. And holding back isn’t going to help anyone. Especially not myself.
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.