Tag Archives: writer angst

Wordsmithery and Feelings of Inadequacy


Why are writers so insecure? Today I’m going to tell you!

Many, many years ago, back before I even considered myself a writer, when I was just working on a play kind of as a lark, when I was just scribbling odd little nothings to myself in notebooks (which would become the blog posts and morning pages of today), I had an interaction with my sister. I couldn’t tell you what the substance of the interaction was, or what we were talking about, or what I said, exactly, or really any details of the interaction — except for one.

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And this detail, well, it stuck in my consciousness like the rusted-out bicycle that a tree grows around. I shaped myself around this comment, almost certainly to my detriment, in the intervening time. It ate me up from the inside, turning me into a neurotic mess of a writer, shaking my confidence the way earthquakes used to shake buildings before they started putting buildings on wheels.

Here’s the situation. I was home from college — or maybe just visiting my folks after college — or, hell, maybe it was before college, who can tell, that’s how bad my memory is but it’s not the point — and talking to my sister about something. Who knows what. And I said something.

What I said, I could not tell you today under pain of torture, except to say that it was an attempted witticism, a stab at something snarky, a foray into wordplay that went wrong. I felt it going wrong in the moment of saying it, the way a major league batter just feels the home run when it leaves his bat, or more precisely, the way he feels that he hasn’t just missed the pitch, he’s tipped it, at dangerous speed, probably past the protective netting, probably into the face of an unsuspecting fan, or worse, a kid, where it will knock out teeth or shatter cheekbones and necessitate a carefully-worded statement from the front office and probably an apology tour in the media. The words felt like that, coming out of my mouth. (Whatever they were.)

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(Crap.)

I knew, to put it bluntly, that I had botched my attempt at making good words, and botched it badly.

And my sister said to me, in that hurtful way that only your little sister who’s taken a lifetime of your crap can say, “wow, you’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

You know that scene in every action movie where the building (or the car or the villain’s fortress or whatever) is exploding — just going entirely to pieces, irreparable damage, nothing but fire and pain and devastation filling the frame — and the hero (or heroine, this is the 21st century after all) is totally cool, walking away from it without a care? Or the end of Star Wars (episode IV or VI, reader’s choice) where the fateful shot is away, the heroes are flying off into the dark of deep space, and the villains keep flipping switches and coolly saying things like “fire on my mark” but they don’t know that they’re dead already?

This was like that.

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you,” would stick in my brain and shape me more than I’d like, and certainly more than I’d care to admit, for years and years and years.

Every now and then, sometimes while writing, sometimes not, I’d hear it again, playing on a loop in my brain, and it would never fail to demoralize.

Wrote a sentence in my novel I’m not too sure about?

You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

Used a totally inadequate word because I couldn’t think of the perfect one?

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?

Said something totally idiotic in a everyday conversation?

“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”

Just sitting there watching TV, not even thinking about writing at that particular moment?

“YOU’RE A REAL WORDSMITH, AREN’T YOU?”

Everything I write, I have to contend with that voice in my head: it’s good, sure, but is it wordsmith good? So I second-guess myself to death. Is this creative enough? Is it clever enough? Smart enough? Or could any schlub with a pencil and half a brain come up with something better?

Then, once second-guessed, it’s only natural to third-guess the problem. I could make it better by throwing in MORE words. Better words. ALL THE WORDS. Or maybe get rid of the sentence entirely — the words can’t be dumb if there are NO WORDS AT ALL.

This thinking leads, like a boulder down a mountain path, to overthinking, until the boulder turns into a self-doubt and self-loathing black hole, population: me and everything I have ever written.

Absolute poison.

And while I internalized that comment, like an ingrown toenail, or like the point of that Morghul blade working its way inexorably toward Frodo’s heart, my sister got to walk away and never think about it again for the rest of her life. Probably the most she ever thought about it was in the very next second after she said it, to say to herself “good burn,” and then forget about it forever.

I tell you all this not to shame her, but to shame myself. To purge the poison by first acknowledging the fact that I’ve been poisoned. The fault in this tale is not hers for saying the thing, but mine for taking the thing and wrapping it in silk and tucking it away in the secret place in my mind to take out and fetishize and fixate upon.

It’s hard — nigh impossible, I’d almost say — not to do this. When we identify so closely with what we create (as authors and artists of all stripes must, by necessity), then an assault on that thing becomes an assault on us, in much the same way that, oh, I don’t know, a high-profile sports star saying disparaging things about certain people in positions of power makes people that like the disparaged person come to hate said high-profile sports star, even though they have no personal stake in what was said at all.

AHEM AHEM I DIGRESS.

Our work is a part of ourselves, and that’s not a bad thing — but we also have to be able to see our work as not a part of ourselves. To see that the words we write aren’t themselves who we are, but instead just a reflection of who we are in the moment. And, most importantly, those reflections can always be improved and changed — and we don’t have to beat ourselves up over them.

Go forth and wordsmith.

Imperfectly.

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Character Consideration


Working on the edit today, I realized a thing.

When I set about the not-insignificant task of changing Accidentally Inspired from a stage play to a novel, one of many changes I orchestrated on the front end (read: before I actually got into the draft and all the pieces started coming off like a bunch of janky flywheels) was the addition of a love interest.

It seemed natural.  Still seems natural.  She’s not out of place in the narrative.  I think I gave her a totally plausible raison d’etre or however you say that fancy French thing.  I like her character, but I’m not like in love with her character (that would mean I had invented a character too perfect and would therefore be a Bad Thing).  She plays a role in the story but is not, strictly speaking, critical to it.  All in all, for a late addition to the party, I’m pretty pleased with her.  However, I’m afraid that she may be entirely out of place in the novel.

I can’t be sure.  I waited a good six, seven weeks to dive in and start the edit, which I think has been enough time for me to distance myself from the prose.  However, in reading this character, I begin to wonder.  When I originally conceived of this idea, oh, let’s just call it ten years ago, the principal ten characters sprung immediately and organically into being.  Each played his or her role perfectly, fitting together like jigsaw pieces.  Now, revisiting the story, changes are inevitable.  As I’ve noted before while I was writing the draft, in its translation to the long-form novel, the story has sprouted new legs and arms, a tail and a few new tongues.  New characters sprung up like strangling weeds, and strangely, each seems to fit the new narrative just as well — if in a smaller capacity — as the originals.  To be fair, the love interest fits in there, too.  But to stick with the puzzle metaphor, the thing is not finished yet.  I’ve got the edges and the corners built, and I’m working my way in to the meaty center, and a lovely picture of a foggy London Bridge is taking shape.  Problem is, the love interest sure looks like a foggy bit of bridge or possibly a bit of misty waterfront, but it’s possible, just possible, that she’s a piece of the Golden Gate instead.  You know, she’d fit the theme, but it’d be wrong to say she was intrinsically a part of things.

Problem is, of course, that now the demon of doubt has its scouring claws in my brainmeats over the whole thing, and now my entire take on the character is tinged with the unmistakable feel of overthinking.  Am I resisting her because she’s not a part of the original narrative and thus feels unnatural?  Is she just fine where she is and she’s only tripping my radar because I’m hypersensitive to imperfections in the draft?  Maybe she’s truly honestly unnecessary and I’m ignoring my genuine justified doubt over her in a bid to cater to a hypothetical audience I’ve not even earned yet?  Probably, as with so many things involved in this process, it feels murky because the mushy center of this narrative cake hasn’t finished cooking yet, and I won’t really be able to iron out an answer until I clean up the story a good bit.  Maybe my keyboard needs more chemicals to properly ponder the question.

One way or another, I’m going to have to make a call on this girl sooner or later.  Problem is, having woven her somewhat intricately into the draft, I’m terrified at the prospect of having to remove her thread.  If there’s nothing wrong with her and I cut her out, then I’ve defaced this tapestry ostensibly for nothing.  On the other hand, if she’s poisoned and I don’t cut her out, she could rot the whole project from the inside.

Like so many other things, the best I can do for now is flag her for further consideration and toss her on the pile of “deal with this later.”  That’s a pile of problems I started in the draft and which is growing at an alarming rate since I picked up the edit.  I imagine that in just a little while it will develop its own gravity and pull me through a ripple in spacetime where my story will stretch out to infinity and the only sustenance I’ll have is my own failed, mangled prose, squealing like that belly-alien thing in Total Recall for me to put it out of its misery.


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