Some folks from my writing group and I were hanging out this weekend. I was gushing about how excited I was to read one of their works in progress. And really, I’m so stoked to get my hands on this book. It’s this Lovecraftian steampunk ghost hunting frontier sort of affair that is so my jam. It’s going to be so good, you guys.
I mentioned how I wished that my central plot was as amazing and bonkers and mythos-rich as hers, and we laughed about that, and she pointed out that I intentionally wrote the world of the Faraday Files as steeped in mundanity. That was my goal, and I accomplished that goal.
“Yeah, that’s true,” I agreed. “I did it this way so there wasn’t as much chance that I’d get mired up in all the details and my insecurities about doing it justice and eventually lose the book up my own ass.”
After a moment of strangely loaded silence, I realized that both my friends had immediately leapt to the assumption that I had not been taking the piss on my menagerie of failed manuscripts. Rather, they thought that I was trying to lay down some sick backhanded burn on them. I hurried to explain, we all laughed about it, and the moment passed, but it’s been sticking with me.
I made that comment entirely based on my own personal experiences and was surprised my friends could take it as criticism. The thought had never even occurred to me. And yet, at the same time, they were both equally certain that it was about them because it had seemed equally personal to their perceived faults as a writer.
NK Jemisin, one of my favourite authors, had some interesting things to say after the release of her most recent novel, The Fifth Season. I put it on my list of the best books I read in 2015, and it’s absolutely and utterly brilliant — one of the most complex, rich, and interesting books I’ve ever read in the fantasy genre. She’s come clean about how the book almost never happened. Her insecurities would have lead her to abandon the project without the support of the people around her encouraging her and pushing her onward. How could a book so brilliant make the writer feel anything but bursting pride?
There’s a scene in The Timeseer’s Gambit that I’d been excited to write since I first outlined the series. It’s this huge set-piece that happens in multiple parts and has almost every important character in the Faraday Files in it, all pursuing their own agendas at the same time. When I finished it, I was devastated. I couldn’t believe how badly I’d fumbled this scene that had been in my head since I’d started writing the series. How could I possibly come back from this? I should probably just quit writing, if this is how I handle my big important scenes. I left the scene for a few weeks, lost in a funk. When I booted the laptop up again and read it with new eyes, I realized that it was fantastic, even in its first draft form, and I’d done everything I’d set out to do.
The expectations and demands we put on ourselves as writers can be really extreme. And as I’ve known for a while, they’re universal. We all feel that gloom settle around us when we think we’ve failed to do our vision justice, and we all struggle with visions so vast and detailed in our minds that it seems impossible that we could do them justice. And sometimes that leads to us abandoning the vision entirely, thinking that it’s better to leave it unfinished than ruin it with our incompetence.
It’s that last part that really leaves us with the guilt, though. Pushing through it and getting the thoughts out there can feel terrible, but I think we all invariably realize that we sold ourselves short, and our work is better than we thought it was. It was true for me, it was true for NK Jemisin, and I’m sure it’s going to be true for my friends, too. In that moment, I was more ashamed of the manuscripts I’d left behind thanks to my own angst than anything else, and that, I think, is what echoed with my friends.
It’s a good reminder that we’re better than we think we are. And that everyone else, from the unpublished to the brilliant multi Hugo- and Nebula- Award nominees, is going through the same things and fighting with the same anxieties.