"We Use that Self-Doubt to Improve."
For the last few nights, I’ve been watching this J.D. Salinger doc on PBS. It’s been a couple of weeks since it first aired, but it’s two and a half hours long so I’ve had to split it up into fits and starts of 20min viewing sessions, life as a parent etc.
When I started it, I hoped to learn some valuable bit of writing wisdom, some insight that could help me craft a story 1/1000th as meaningful as Catcher in the Rye. But what I learned instead is that a life of writing can be a lonely one. And that this loneliness can pull you further into yourself if you allow it.
Also, I learned that Salinger was maybe (re: most-likely) kind of a jerk, and although he loved to encourage many artists in their pursuits, he never encouraged other writers because he saw them as his direct competition.
While there is a part of me that understands this, i.e. a Michael Jordan type drive that can lend itself well to the pursuit of greatness. This is not a philosophy I can personally ascribe to.
Because, among other things, it is lonely to put your whole self into something, to face the doubts and insecurities alone. Sure, you can and should discuss these feelings with your loved ones, but no one really understands these feelings as well as other writers.
Which is why I was so thankful to be able to share an email correspondence over the last few weeks with young adult author, KC Schreiber.
Besides sharing the same literary agent, we also have a lot of the same feelings on writing and chasing after our publishing dreams. I learned a lot from KC's answers, perhaps some of that wisdom I was searching for in that doc I found here. Our email exchange follows.
Dane wrote on Dec 21 at 6:26pm:
I started writing what would (hopefully) become my debut novel in the Spring of 2014. I remember feeling energized then. I could hardly sleep at night, because I was so excited that I was actually doing it, I was actually doing something I've wanted to do for so long, I was writing!
Of course, the self-doubt and crushing anxiety would come in the months that followed and since then I have kind of balanced between the euphoria and the dread the best that I can. But I'm interested to know, what was it like for you when you started writing your current novel? Did the words pour out in a flood or was it more of a steady progress?
KC replied on January 5th, 8:14pm:
Boy, do I hear you about the highs and lows after delivering a story. We writerly folk walk such a wobbly tightrope between exhibitionism (EVERYONE NEEDS TO READ THIS AND SLATHER THE GENIUS THAT IS ME WITH PRAISE! GAH!) and introversion (OH MY LORD, SOMEONE’S ACTUALLY GOING TO READ MY WORDS AND REALIZE I’M A HACK. WHAT HAVE I DONE? ABORT!). I don’t know about you, but I thought all those inner voices would ease up a little once I signed with an agent—like that’d be validation. It actually gets more intense, but in a different way. You have the Purple Heart from fighting your way through the query trenches, but you’ve graduated to mucking through the publishing trenches. And while slogging between the two, you wonder if/when your agent is going to realize her mistake, that she offered to the wrong person. It seems silly, but I’ve heard it from many writers. We just keep quiet about it, the same way we pretend to know what we’re doing in the social circles of high school and the academic ones of college. I guess there’s always a way to doubt ourselves; if we’re smart, we use that self-doubt to improve.
On to your question about writing my current novel. When my two characters started whispering their story, I declared to my Facebook friends (some irl, some strangers from games I once played) that I was going to write a book.
Period. End of story. Dammit.
To my surprise, I got a lot of support. To my horror, those supporters held me accountable. They wanted to read it, and since most people have no idea what writing one, let alone getting one to press, entails, they expected it. All of a sudden, I HAD to write a book—THE BOOK—that I said I was going to, because it’s one thing to face self-disappointment but quite another to publicly admit failure to others. I gave word count reports now and then, and I started to compete with myself. It didn’t take long, though, before that stuff kind of faded to the background, and the 2AM ideas, the in-the-pool/shower ideas, the driving ideas, and the I’m-in-the-middle-of-yoga-wait-a-minute! ideas came fast and furious. When I said in my BookEnds bio that I often pushed my family members out of the way to get to paper, that was literal, because sometimes three different sets of dialogue from different scenes all over the book hit me at once. I quickly had to come up with a system of what went where, so I could toggle back and forth. But by God, I knew my characters like I know my daughter; their voices and their story played in my head like a movie that I only had to transcribe.
Of course, there’s that sage and tired wisdom: “Write drunk, edit sober.” I had to kill a lot of the darlings that seemed so perfect in the throes of it all, and my agent has cornered some that I’d missed, and she’s made me wrestle them dead, too. It’s all a fun—sometimes frustrating—puzzle that gets easier and better the more it’s worked on. When those pieces finally pop into place, and you see what you’ve created, that’s something, isn’t it?
Dane wrote on 1/6/17, 12:32pm:
Haha, yes, you got it exactly right. There is definitely a part of me that misses when I just kept my writing aspirations to myself. It's a feeling that's similar to this: my oldest son, Ezra, just started kindergarten this past Fall. It was so scary to be sending him out into the world, one in which he could be picked on/made fun of or just witness things that he hasn't in the confines of our loving home. However, we knew that 1- of course he still needed to go to school, but 2- we couldn't protect him forever and that it is better for his personal growth to incrementally experience life outside of our bubble.
It is hard to kill your darlings sometimes too. This morning, I listened to an NPR podcast with Damien Chazelle, the director of Whiplash and La La Land. In the episode, Chazelle stated that at one time or another they tried to cut every song that ended up in La La Land and he did have to cut a few numbers/scenes that he particularly liked, because they didn't serve the movie. It was just nice to hear that most everyone experiences that, and that it's just part of trying to create something. Just knowing that, helps keep some of those imposter syndrome demons away for me.
Yes, when the puzzle pieces pop into place, it is an euphoric experience to see that you've made something. But still, naturally, if I look at that for too long, then well, maybe this piece over here seems out of place, or rather, not out of place, of course, but maybe it would look better over here, but now that I've moved this piece, well, then, this one has to go over here, otherwise this part over there doesn't work as well. So—I have to stop myself and try to leave it alone, otherwise I could spend the next five years still working on this thing, and I don't want that. Plus, my family expected my book to be in Barnes & Noble by yesterday.
It's all very rewarding, but it can be hard sometimes too. I find that as I try to work on my second novel, I have a harder time getting out of my own way as I did with my first, because I'm much more aware of all those things, all the many anxieties PLUS the writing/structural elements that I was mostly oblivious to the first time around. Do you feel the same as you start work on your next novel?
KC wrote on 1/9/17, 1:21pm:
Aw, kindergarten’s the start of an amazing adventure for your family! Have you ever heard anything truer than that cliché about childhood going so fast you can’t blink, or you’ll miss it? I must have had a couple blinks at some point, because I swear I was JUST a room-mom in my daughter’s kindergarten class. Somehow I now have a high school junior who’s taken a summer tour through Europe without her parents. Talk about life outside the bubble!
It’s refreshing when other creatives lift back the veil of the process—especially those who are respected and established—to remind us that there’s no such thing as nailing the first try…for anyone. We all still fall victim to the illusion of others’ perfection and feel we don’t measure up, though, don’t we?
Oh yes, the never-ending movement of the puzzle pieces. That can be frustrating as hell. On the flipside, it can also resurrect a long-shelved project and morph the barebones skeleton of it into something that actually works. (Of course, in that case, I guess it’s about understanding when your heart is right versus when it’s holding onto sentimentality, not wanting to leave something it created behind.)
I’m working on my third novel. I know the story from front to end and have it about three-fourths of the way written, so that’s something, but there are more days of staring at the screen with a “Wut r wurdz?” thought bubble over my head than I care to count. In my prior stories, my newness to the process of handling and organizing something as big as a novel created my blocks. This time, I think it’s more about the scheduling and exhaustion of my life as a co-caregiver to my grandmother (and all the unexpected things that inherently go along with that). It’s something I’m sure I’ll figure out how to balance, but I haven’t yet. In the meantime, my characters give me sparks of scenes and dialogue that I hurry to document as fast as I can, knowing I’ll have to almost completely ignore them in a day or two. Stop and start bursts don’t lend well to complete thoughts and chapters, though, and one of my secondary characters uses the interims to flip-flop about whether or not he’s a sympathetic character. He keeps changing those dang puzzle pieces! The more I fumble with him, the more I realize the depth he adds to another character’s arc if he stays sympathetic. Okay, done. I’m wresting the reins from him. He’s now officially sympathetic. Thanks for the platform to declare that! Ha!
Taking command over a character and prodding him along wasn’t something I needed to do in my other novels, but I’ve had to a few times with this one. I guess that certain steps may always be the same, but each manuscript will bring some different learning curve to the mix…much like those kids we raise.
Dane wrote on 1/10/17, 2:17pm:
Yes, time certainly does pass quickly with our children. It seems to be in direct juxtaposition to that of the publishing world. On one side, I find myself wanting to slow down time so that my boys will always be this innocent and it would always be this easy to protect them, while on the other, I find myself wishing that my writing career could move a little quicker so that I can go on submission, so that I can find out who is interested, so that maybe it will sell, so that it can sell (!), so that I can know what I need to change with the editor, so that I can have a release date, so that I can prepare for the release date, so I can have a book out, so that I can be an author with a book out (!!!), so that—so that—so that...
With parenting and publishing alike though, nothing is certain and I’m just thankful that I get to be a part of this thing.
Also with each, I find regular reminders to not get too far ahead of myself and to just enjoy the present moment, to just enjoy the process.
You mentioned that you’re currently working on your third novel, what influenced you to want to write in the first place? What motivated you to push past your doubts/hesitations to take this journey head on?
It seems like a lot of people that I talk to want to write a book, and feel that they have a story in them to share with others, but far fewer people actually sit down to take a shot at it.
I also find that the people who are willing to risk failure with a creative endeavor often have varying reasons for doing so. I’m interested in what yours may be.
KC responded on 1/16/17, 9:44pm:
Not getting ahead of oneself in anticipation of what’s to come is difficult! At times, it becomes even harder when (some) writing peers seem set on putting others onto the comparison racetrack of who’s closest to subbing, who’s subbed, who’s pubbed, etc. Sometimes it’s hard not to participate, but after all the time it took to get an agent, I want to enjoy and learn from MY journey, not feel that it’s not enough because of someone else’s place along theirs. To keep my head right, I keep two quotes in plain view:
#1 “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” – Epicurus.
#2 “We are made to persist. That’s how we find out who we are.” (That one is from a fortune cookie!)
Remember that brown printing paper we all used in elementary school? Man, I loved writing stories on that stuff. I think one particular third grade story I wrote started “it” for me. I used the word “treacherous” and felt so proud of myself…of course, I also used my then-standard story ender: “They went to bed thinking about what they had seen.” I had no time for endings back then, but I guess it made enough sense as an eight year old; after all, I always went to bed thinking about what I’d seen through the day! That was about the same time I also got it in my head to rewrite Romeo and Juliet. Never mind the fact that what I knew was based solely from a cartoon, not the real thing. What a nut.
Seeing my mother tuck in and plow through books had an impact on me, too. The power books (and by default, their authors) had if they could hold a reader’s attention—I wanted to do that magic, so I kept practicing. Eventually, in college, the teacher who ended up being my mentor and second grandmother saw my essays and told me quite plainly that I had to get myself into creative writing classes. So I did. She always said that, out of all her students, I was the one who was going to do it. After a while, I believed her. After a while, it also felt like my responsibility. Before she died a few years ago, she’d remind me I had to hurry up while she was still around to see me get published. No pressure there, right? I didn’t make it in time, but she’s still hanging around with me—usually a voice in my ear or in a dream telling me to get it together and get to work. I’m pretty sure she’ll be happy when it happens.
I suppose I risked it because I’d like to find out if these stories in my head and heart can make a difference to someone other than me. Besides, what a crazy honor it is when readers give writers their time, when they invest, when they connect with us, listen and trust the world the way we see it, just for a little while!
Of course, there’s another important reason I risked it: my daughter. She watched me through the creation, the edits, the rejections, the try-agains and the everything-in-betweens, the requests and the offer. I have a responsibility to show her the art of follow through and hard work, no matter how many times I have to dust myself off. That example is more than worth the risk.
Dane wrote on 1/19/17, 10:59am:
I’m glad that you touched on how your daughter inspires you to write. I feel that way about my sons as well. I want them to see that we’re willing to dream and that we’re not scared to fail. Also, if something were to happen to me, I’d like to know that I left behind a little piece of myself (though not a horcrux) in writing or music that my sons could hold onto so that they could see a more human version of their father. Something that’s more finite than a photo or a fading memory.
But it goes further than that too. Like, I remember seeing the movie High Fidelity in college. The main character, Rob, loves music so much that later in the movie (spoilers: though the movie is 17yrs old) he starts a record label to put out this small punk band’s record. He has this exchange with his partner about how he’s now contributed something to the world of music, that he’s now added something unique to this massive body of creativity that has given so much to him.
I think of writing like that, sometimes, which I’m sure sounds pretentious. But it’s just that art has given me so much that I just want to contribute somehow to anything.
Do you find inspiration for writing in other forms of art? Is there a certain movie that speaks to you or that taught you something that you’ve put into your work? Are there certain songs or bands that help pull the ideas out of your head?
KC wrote on 1/22/17, 2:22pm:
Yes! Something out there in the world that not only gives them that piece of our personalities to hold on to, but a perhaps a bump of “That’s my dad!/mom!” pride when others show interest and approval. With my sixteen year old, it’s a secret thing that she’s proud of me (or even likes me some/most days). When her friends approve of me, though she may give an eye roll or act like it’s no big deal, I’ve seen the small smile she hides (she’d totally deny it). I certainly also notice how protective she gets about my stories if someone other than her suggests a change. Boy, was she mad when I had to cut one of her two favorite scenes. I tried to save it! I really did! Dang darlings. Anyway, I like that through my writing, she can see the real-person side of me that she doesn’t think I have—the one who actually relates and understands more than she thinks I do because of my MOM hat. That seems like something that would mean a lot to a child when her parent isn’t around one day.
(In response to: I think of writing like that, sometimes, which I’m sure sounds pretentious. But it’s just that art has given me so much that I just want to contribute somehow to anything.)
That doesn’t sound pretentious at all. It sounds like a way of saying thank you to those who influenced and inspired you, a “Hey, I not only listened to you; I *heard* you! And because of you, I made this” kind of symbiosis. I think it’s also an extension of your last point and is a natural reaction to getting older and having kids (at least of getting older and realizing we have limited time on this blue speck. When we’re kids, we want to be famous. When we’re full-fledged grownups, we seem to want to leave indelible proof of ourselves, our own personal flags on a moon, proclaiming I WAS HERE. In a sense, our stories—or music—serve as our voices to live in our stead. At least that’s how I imagine it.
(In response to: Do you find inspiration for writing in other forms of art? Is there a certain movie that speaks to you or that taught you something that you’ve put into your work? Are there certain songs or bands that help pull the ideas out of your head?)
Movies? No. Music? Music is everything in this house. One of the best things about starting a new story is making the matching playlist. It’s a chance to experiment with artists I’ve never heard of and probably never would have (Kasabian was one happy find) and find new connections with old favorites. I have playlists that go with certain stories, songs that go with certain scenes, bands that go with certain characters. If I need to invoke a particular character or flesh out a scene, I play the appropriate music to get my head in the game. There’s a scene in my current story that I looped “Shattered,” by Remy Zero to while writing or editing it. I had the ugly cry going on every time, too. You’d have thought I’d watched something bad happen to a dog in a movie. Ha! When I think of what I must have looked like, I laugh. Big weirdo. For a now-cut school lip synch scene, I went totally out of my music taste and blasted Britney Spears’ “Womanizer.” I could “see” the auditorium, the lights, and my MC’s boyfriend’s cheeky dance moves. It was such a blast to write, I have to admit I’ve kept that song on regular rotation. My daughter put it in her playlists, too, when I told her it went with the scene.
I’m glad you asked me to do this, so we could get to know each other as colleagues and agency sibs in the same boat, with similar philosophies (and self-doubts). It definitely takes some of the “aloneness” out of the solitude. Be ready, I’m coming your way for an interview once my website is finished, and there will be adolescent pictures required!
Thank you, KC. I’ll be ready for it!
KC Schreiber is a YA author represented by Tracy Marchini of BookEnds Literary Agency. You can follow KC on Twitter.