W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Monday, May 09, 2005

No. 11 Fighting Discouragement


"What am I doing?" Is there any reader of this newsletter who at one time or another hasn't questioned why they are slaving over a hot computer?

How do you find the strength to keep going when you reread your work and feel it might have been better if you had hit the keys with your feet?

Do you want to give up when your mailbox spits out another rejection?

You forsake an evening with friends because you want to finish a poem or a story only to have someone ask, "How much are you going to make from this?" Do you fantasize strangling the speaker?

Do you wake up in the middle of the night wondering if you can ever say what you want to say, how you want to say it, when you want to say it?

All writers have down moments. Sometimes these last weeks and months. I'm not talking writers block, I'm talking stomach-churning doubt that you will not be good enough. It happens to new writers. It happens to published writers who take too seriously the statement, "you are only as good as your last published piece."

How do we get the courage to keep fighting? With few exceptions we as writers will not experience the financial rewards that many of our societies say is the mark of success. We have to have the courage to set our own benchmark for success that reflects our values and not that of the society around us.

There are two situations for writers. Those who have a supportive environment, be it family members and or other writers or both, have it easier than those surrounded by people who do not understand our need to write.

A fellow writer giving constructive criticism is beyond value. A family that gives you time alone to write, maybe brings you a cup of tea when they feel you need it, is wonderful. I've been lucky on both fronts. Geneva, Switzerland has a supportive writing community with people always willing to critique and share marketing tips. I also have a daughter who encouraged me. When someone asked if she didn't mind all the hours I spent at the computer, she replied, "Are you kidding? If my mother succeeds, it will be my inheritance."

What if there's no writing group near you? Start one. Put up notices on bulletin boards or in local papers. If there is a college nearby see if there is a writing department.

What if you are already in a group, but the participants are back biting, refuse to share, show off, and do not give the feedback you need? Perhaps others feel the same and they would like to change it, too. Get them to discuss what they want from the group and possible ways to get it. One writing group that was clearly dysfunctional switched to the Peter Elbow's method of critiquing

Members weren't allowed to criticize negatively. Feedback was given in the form of a metaphor, which stimulated each writer's creativity. The majority of the group functioned better. Two of the worst members, who were always posturing but contributed little, left. If your group can't adapt to being helpful, leave. Constructive criticism is a gift. Destructive criticism is to be avoided. We can create enough doubts on our own without seeking them from others.

If it is family making you doubt yourself, that is harder. Husbands and children may resent the time you are spending. Parents, if they are not readers or writers, won't understand what you are doing. Disowning family, although at times tempting, may not be the best solution. Don't try and make them understand. Write when they aren't around and don't discuss it. It's an old public relations truth not to waste time on those who are negative. Work with those who are positive or at worse neutral.

Writers need encouragement as much as flowers need water. Try and find people to encourage you the same way you search for the right word in a sentence to convey your exact meaning.

And the rejections? Always make sure you have several pieces out. When one comes back, you have the hope that the others might find a home. Then send that one back. I always keep all my work circulating. I usually do major mailings after a particularly painful rejection, and somehow out of those mega attempts my greater successes have come. Remind yourself of all the great writers that have been rejected.

Buy Bill Henderson's PUSHCART’S COMPLETE ROTTEN REVIEWS & REJECTIONS Under the misery loves company school, it is nice to know even the great writers have had their share of rejection. Read Annie Lamont's BIRD BY BIRD.

So many writers I know have started out making all the normal mistakes, too many adverbs, telling not showing, etc. But as they gain experience, their work becomes crisper and cleaner. Some writers, even after their work has been published, still fight doubts. They were accepted in a minor not a major literary magazine, their book didn't sell as much as they hoped. Anyone who is creative enough to write can be creative enough to wallow in self-doubt.

The problem with doubt is that it saps the energy we need to make our work stronger.

Pamela Painter at a writers conference long ago answered a student's question, "How do I know when I am a writer? Do I have to be published?" with "A writer is someone who writes." I would add a writer is someone who tries to write the best s/he can and is constantly looking for better ways to say it.

It was Garfield's creator who gave one bit of advice to cartoonists that we can use as writers. He said to keep trying. If you send out 32 samples of your work and are rejected 32 times send it out again. Maybe the 33nd will say yes and you don't want to miss out.


Sample 1. Michele Murray CREATING ONESELFS FROM SCRATCH. This is an excerpt from her journal. She died of cancer at 41.

May 25, 1972

I think of abandoning writing - that is abandoning myself - to teach or write for money. After so much? I think it is age, the end - the lingering end - of my youthful dreams and belief in my talent and inviolability…it gets more difficult, more complex-the books make very little money and the work is even more difficult….

May 18, 1973

Good reviews of both my books.

Sample 2. Ingrid Bengis, THE MIDDLE PERIOD

When the thoughts and feelings come over me (and they arrive not infrequently) I am quick to invent a new career for myself: chef, psychotherapist, lobsterfisherwoman, diamond cutter, filmmaker, each of which, from a distance, appears to combine in its own way the intensity and symbolic weight and singularity of being a writer with none of its disadvantages. As a diamond cutter, I am part of a highly specialized working community, involved in the transformation of a lump of matter into an aesthetic object universally recognized for its value. I have a useful, financially stable trade and participate in an activity that engages a broad spectrum of society, from miners to merchants, Hasidim, movie stars, Irish, Puerto Rican, Jewish, and WASP brides, of old moneyed families, and royalty. As a chef and master of culinary aesthetics, I move back and forth between my two preferred environments: the marketplace the kitchen. As a therapist, I work with the same intensity as a writer but deal with the inner lives of others rather than with myself. I see specific results. I am not alone. As a lobsterfisherwoman, I am alone, but nonetheless part of a tight inter-dependent community, daily testing myself against nature in its purest form.

These fantasies have been very important to me, giving me an imaginative freedom that I rarely possess otherwise, providing me with a momentary breath of fresh air, releasing me from the sometimes claustrophobic intensity my own work engenders. But at the moment when it becomes necessary for me to do anything about them, I always balk. For each new imagined career, even as it is stimulating me, is raising a dread spectre as well…that if I become too deeply involved with it, I might stop being a writer. The prospect pitches me headlong into such an acute state of anxiety that I instantly discard all my career fantasies, resolving to protect at all costs the cast inner space in which everything I want to write is obliged to germinate.


1. List the things about writing that make you feel good.

2. When you find yourself writing a sentence or paragraph that you feel is especially good, print it and put it on your computer to remind yourself, you can do it.

3. Whenever you get an acceptance, a word of encouragement, anything positive put it somewhere you can see it for the times when you aren't as sure.


ITo the reader who asked about writing ghost stories here are some sites to look at.


The Ghost Story Society The Ghost Story Society P.O. Box 1360 Ashcroft, British Columbia Canada V0K 1A0 Telephone: (250) 453-2045 Fax: (250) 453-2075 E-mail: ashtree@ash-tree.bc.ca About the Ghost Story Society Find out about the GSS, its history, http://www.ash-tree.bc.ca



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