When I started writing, I was crippled by doubt, almost like everyone else who takes the craft seriously.
Would I be any good? Am I doing justice to my characters? Would anyone like to read my stories, or is this pointless? Am I just talking to a wall? Am I that lonely?
With persistence, some soul-searching and a big dose of faith, I overcame those mental obstacles and finished three novels.
I believed I was already done with doubt, until the moment I decided to write some thoughts in the form of an essay and publish it on Medium.
I was sure about my writing abilities and my ideas, even if there were still many things to learn. I had conquered the long-form to a satisfying degree, but Medium required of me something completely different, besides having to write to a language that I’m not that dexterous with as my native one. So while I was facing the new unknown, the doubt snuck again behind me.
And then I realised the same strategies that helped me face my insecurities about the long form might prove useful here as well.
So I made a list. And here it is:
1. Don’t compare your work to that of others’
It has been a bit difficult to avoid comparisons in general lately. Social media jams everyone’s “perfect” life down our throats, and we are so naive sometimes to believe them as accurate depictions of heaven.
We are bombarded with stories of overnight success, of those Forbes 30 under 30 lists and so on, but we are never shown the struggle, the pain, the dedication, the sacrifices made by these people. And so we feel guilty.
Before I began to write, I wondered as I was reading a classic masterpiece: “Will I ever be able to write like this?”
As I wrote, I understood an irrefutable reality. Nothing, not even the greatest works that literature has to offer, were any good as first drafts. What makes something better is constant refinement.
“The only kind of writing is rewriting.” — Ernest Hemingway
Compare your work only to those shameful pages of your past attempts, currently locked away in the drawer, never to see the light of day again and realise how far you got.
That’s all the encouragement you need.
2. Get inspired, not jealous
Everything seems impossible until someone does it.
Why envy the one that managed to surpass everyone else and achieve something great?
They reach out their hand to the kingdom of potentiality and bring back into the world something that, until then, only existed as mere fiction.
We should be happy about it and get inspired by these people because when someone does the unimaginable, it paves the road for the rest of us to devote to that goal, now that it’s clear where to aim.
As Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations:
“If something is difficult for you to accomplish, do not then think it impossible for any human being; rather, if it is humanly possible and corresponds to human nature, know that it is attainable by you as well.”
3. Learn from everyone, steal from the best
Originality is overrated. It’s a trap you set for yourself. Not only it will make you anxious, but in your attempt to be original, your story turns nonsensical.
“What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again
there is nothing new under the sun.” — Ecclesiastes 1:9
Many aspiring writers I know are hesitant of showing their work or even put the words on paper out of fear of being called derivative.
However, it doesn’t matter if you steal something, because whatever that is, your own experience will filter it and transform it into something personal and unique.
During the writing sessions of my second crime novel, I had this idea about my protagonist executing the perfect murder. The idea was that the culprit would make himself one of the victims and then make arrangements for another killing to move suspicions away from him once and for all.
I was so transfixed by the idea.
Half a year after having finished my novel, I read Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. She had the very same idea seventy-five years ago!
What I am trying to convey here is that ideas, in fact, are limited. But there are endless ways to execute an idea or talk about a subject.
I mean there must be thousands of essays on Medium like this one and countless lists. And yet, this one is unique, because I wrote it like every other one is unique since they are written by different individuals.
So you learn from everyone. Even the bad writers have something to teach you, and that is what you shouldn’t do. But you steal only from the best.
4. Do what you love just for the sake of doing it
Why should everything be about something? Why should everything be about gain or loss?
This attitude to benefit from everything has cost us the ability to do things out of sheer enjoyment. That’s how you get depressive.
At first, my urge to write a novel was motivated by my unconscious fear of death.
I wanted to leave something behind, a reminiscent of my existence, but that just resulted in substituting one fear with another, the fear of not achieving posthumous fame. Then this created another concern. Is my writing good enough to be remembered? And so on.
Of course, my goal was to be published. Guess what. I didn’t.
Because I was looking to get something out of it, I missed how important the whole process of writing my first novel actually was.
Anything that becomes an end in itself loses its meaning. Anything you do to get something in return will never pay off.
“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. — Viktor Frankl
5. Be authentic, be consistent, be patient
Everything you do should come from the heart and, in a way, it should be painful to you. That means it comes from a true place because there is nothing more real than pain.
My second novel’s protagonist had a tragic past and an awful childhood. While I was writing a demanding scene of him getting beaten by his father, I cried my heart out. I was so confused.
I was giving him this shitty life.
But I was the one writing the story; I had the power to make him happy. Why am I doing this? However, for some reason, I knew I couldn’t do differently. I got scared. What did that mean about me? Am I a sadist?
Soon afterwards, I realised that the reason I couldn’t have written it in any other way is that the story wouldn’t be honest, thus making me a coward.
Authenticity is a mixture of honesty, bravery, and vulnerability.
Sugarcoating is manipulating and betraying not only your audience but yourself.
The virtues of consistency and patience only make sense when you are working on something authentic. Otherwise, there is no point to it.
6. Useful quality content will pay back in the end
There is this word that keeps coming up by everyone lately.
What the fuck does that mean?
A trend? A fad? Writing about whatever everyone is talking about right now in hopes they will click on your piece of writing even by accident? Desperate and pathetic if you ask me.
There is this misconception that the writer shouldn’t write about himself. That’s wrong. The writer should write about himself in a way that involves and interests other people.
So your work can be authentic, but also useful.
Time is the best judge. It doesn’t matter how many copies you sold if no one remembers that book in a couple of years or if no one rereads it. If that’s the case, it means the book can no longer offer something else. It has lost its value. But maybe it never really had any, to begin with.
Because value is timeless and time is the only reliable indicator of value.
There is this story about a fisherman on the beach, his bucket empty of fish.
“Not many bites, huh?” a passer-by asked him.
“Not yet” the fisherman replied. “But if you have something worth biting, the fish eventually finds you”.
But this attitude requires awareness, humility, and faith.
7. Don’t agonise over the perfect form
Nothing is perfect. Nothing can be perfect. Something can get only good enough, and that’s what you should aim for.
Your priority should be finishing whatever you are working at the moment. At some point, you will have to write and don’t care if what you write is great or not.
Perfection stalls you. George R.R. Martin wants every word to be perfect. It’s been eight years since the previous instalment to the Song of Ice & Fire saga. In the meantime, Steven King has published 13 books, because he understands the story needs to be finished first.
You can’t write and edit at the same time.
In Albert Camus’ “The Plague” there is this side character that wants to write a novel. He thinks he has a great opening sentence, but instead of writing the rest of it, he experiments with variations of that sentence. Then the plague kills him, and he hasn’t even made up his mind about how to start.
That’s what I’m doing right now, that’s how this essay unfolds so far. I just started writing with no worries on my mind about winning a Nobel prize for this.
8. One thing at a time
Multi-tasking is an obsolete concept. It gives you the illusion you ‘re making progress, whereas you barely move. You divide your energy into everything and so instead of giving your best, you give your minimum.
You need 15 minutes of complete focus on a single task to enter a state of flow. Multi-tasking not only deprives you of experiencing this great state of mind but wears you out faster while you have less to no results because you move your attention from place to place. So you ‘re entering a limbo situation of a never-ending preparing stage. The necessary 15-minute window never closes but opens up again and again while you dance among different tasks.
Juggling your essays simultaneously will have you overwhelmed. After you get a glimpse of the big picture you need to narrow your vision and concentrate only on what’s ahead of you, taking it one step at a time. There is no other way to move forward.
There is only one exception. After all, every rule has one.
When you face the detrimental writer’s block, sometimes it’s helpful or even necessary to work on something different to unlock your mind and get some words flowing.
To be honest, that is exactly what I was doing with this essay the whole time.