I’ll start by telling you that I have co-written somewhere around 20 books with various people. Sometimes these books are independently published and sometimes they are brought into the world through publishing houses. But in every case, as soon as I sign a contract, I become gripped by a terrifying fear that I will not be able to write the book the person is looking for.
These are the negative voices in my head. We all have them. Mine live in covered fifty-gallon drums, some of which are all rusted out while others are marked with radioactive symbols, ooze leaking out around the base. I’m usually able to press…the…voices…down…into…the…barrel by all means of distraction and positive self-talk and strength of will, but as soon as I sign a new contract, as soon as I start writing another book, the voices begin clamoring, their little fingers reaching out from under the barrel lids, trying to escape.
“You’re a pretender!” they shout. “You’re not much of a writer! And even if you were, you wouldn’t be able to write the book this person wants! Good luck, idiot!”
They’re not very nice. Sometimes, I’m a little rough with them when I try to close the lids. No one’s perfect.
Before the ink is dry on the contract, before I’ve scanned it and mailed it back to the client or the publisher, I begin questioning my vocation. Why do I write? Wouldn’t life be easier if I delivered newspapers or neutered cats or pumped sewage tanks for a living? Maybe I could work at the post office – I’ve heard they have great benefits. If that didn’t work out, I could donate my plasma, sell a kidney.
But I keep writing. I’m not good for much else, to be quite honest. I’m barely employable. And I eat way too much sugar for anyone to be seriously interested in my organs.
A few months ago, I sent in a three-chapter writing sample for a new project to both the wonderful client and the editor I’m working with. As soon as I hit send, the voices filled my head with the same old din, and I ran around from barrel to barrel, stuffing them in, trying to find something to seal the lids. Something heavy. A few days went by, and when I didn’t get any feedback, I stopped even trying to quiet the voices – I sat down among the barrels and bathed in the self-criticism, the self-doubt. I figured I might as well start brushing up my resume. Maybe I shouldn’t have deleted my LinkedIn account? Maybe I should start shopping for decent job interview clothes? I have nothing nice to wear. This writing-for-a-living thing means I rarely make it out of my pajamas.
I finally heard back. The client loved loved loved one of the three chapters I wrote. It made her and her entire team cry when she read it out loud to them. But I sensed some hesitancy about the other chapters. The editor said, “I like so much of what I see…The chapters here are solid, but they should come later in the book, after the reader is already invested in your journey.”
So, of course, I was devastated.
For clarification: this is not negative feedback. This is valuable feedback! This is positive feedback! But can I be honest? As a writer, even after writing this many books and working with this many editors, I still have an unreasonable desire – I want my first draft to knock everyone over. I want people to read my first drafts and fall backward, exclaiming something along the lines of, “This is the best thing I’ve ever read please do not change a single word or you will diminish the awesomeness you have created.”
This is not realistic. This is not ever going to happen. Never. Not ever. The first draft of any created thing can always be improved upon.
Ten years ago, when I got a similar response from an editor, it plunged me into a despair so crippling that I could not hear what she was actually saying, I could not move forward, and the project stalled. I took the feedback she gave, not as a way to improve the manuscript, but as personal criticism and reasons that what I had written was not, and evidence that I would never be, good enough.
Thankfully, I am not that writer anymore. This time, after I got their feedback, I went for a drive. I thought about what the editor said. I knew she was right, and I had felt it even when I submitted the chapters – that was one of the voices I should have listened to, but sometimes they’re so difficult to differentiate between, the helpful voices and the mean ones. I attacked those three chapters and started the book at a different spot, taking into account her suggestions. Recently, I submitted a third (or fourth?) draft of the manuscript, and I heard the golden words from my client: “I really love this manuscript.”
Can I tell you what I am learning?
When you don’t get something right the first time, it doesn’t mean you’re terrible at what you do – it means you’re a human being who is in the act of creating something.
When someone offers criticism that is genuinely meant to help you and improve your work, accept it. Listen to what they’re saying and not the translation you’re getting from the voices in your head.
Understand and accept that your first shot at anything will never be your best effort. This may include (but is not limited to) parenting your child, nurturing a relationship, applying for a job, doing your job, starting a business, or, yes, writing a book.
If you want to be a writer, you have to realize, contrary to all appearances, you are not engaging in a solitary undertaking. Bring trusted people along. Let them speak into what you’re creating.
Revision is your best friend, even better than the one who watches The Bachelor with you or knows you secretly still listen to Britney Spears on road trips.
I walk quietly in the field of 50-gallon drums. As I get older, I realize the voices are me, the voices come out of some long-ago hurt or praise or experience. I pat the lids gently, remembering the little boy who lived through the experience that birthed each particular voice.
I keep walking, to the hill beyond the field, the hill that holds a solitary tree at the top. I walk up the hill and take out a notebook and sit down, my back against the tree.
I look at the words in the notebook, a story I started long ago. I read it again, from the beginning.