On confidence, criticism, and the agony of writing

It is rather ironic how someone like me, so self-conscious and in constant need of approval by others, could choose writing as a profession.  Okay, I guess calling it a profession is a bit of a stretch since I haven’t actually been paid for any of my writing since I left the Boston Herald lo those many years ago.  But I hope to again soon, and now that the kids need less of my attention, more of my focus has been on this creative passion of mine.  I’ve been gathering clips, dusting off my resume, and writing, writing, writing.

I finally joined a professional group for children’s book writers and am taking advantage of the discussion boards, gleaning advice and comfort from people like me, published and unpublished alike, as we all try to put our work out in the world.

I even posted a manuscript for critiquing by others.  It was tough to do, but something I had a lot of confidence in.  Of course, I checked the boards obsessively to see if anyone responded.  Eventually people did, mostly positive and encouraging.  I was thrilled and a little smug, perhaps, to have such glowing words written about my work.  Then the real criticism began — a couple of voices pointing out glitches in meter (true enough), suggesting alternate word choices (better ones in a couple of places).

I was okay with that, after breathing a little and silencing my inner critic who daily demands perfection from me. I was hurt by one writer’s assertion that the piece wouldn’t make a good picture book, but rather a poem or song, such as Ernie on Sesame Street might sing.

Ouch.

I mean, I like the Muppets, but geez.

It took me a few days to recover, but I did.  One voice is not all voices.  I need a tougher skin to make it in this industry.  Smoking used to take the edge off; these days I try to find relief in yoga or a jog.  Okay, the glass or wine helps too.

When I wrote for the paper it was different.  I’d get an assignment, do the research, interview the players, write it up.  Pieces on things like commuting to work with kids in tow or a profile on an area grief counselor, those were pretty straight-forward.  Editors made revisions, as editors do, I made revisions, it was published.  I’d gotten my criticism upfront, from the people who got paid to do it, from who I expected it.

This sort of stuff, poetry, essays, children’s books — not so simple.  It becomes a matter of creative talent as much as effort, and we writers constantly wonder, do I have it?  Just because I can write a clean sentence does not make me a great writer of picture books or poetry.  We depend on others to accept or reject us; like in speed dating, we send out a single piece of writing to a variety of publishers and hope someone will want to see us again.  While we wait for the phone to ring, we start something else, a new project to embrace.

Because the thing is, when you finish writing something, you’re back to the beginning.  There is a blank page, a blinking cursor.  At this point, all writers are at the same starting line.

A blank page, a blinking cursor.

Here’s where I need to admit I have a lot of confidence in my ability.  It’s hard to do that.  I grew up wanting to be modest, understated, shrugging off compliments, changing the subject.  I’m coming to understand that it’s okay to know you’re good at something.  The knowing doesn’t excuse the work, doesn’t change the need to always challenge myself, better myself.  I’m good, talented, but not perfect, not complete.  Not by far.  But every time I start over I get to do it better than the last time, as good as that was.

There’s the joy and agony of being a writer.   The celebration of being finished, published; the hangover of knowing that now you have to do it all over again.

Damn.

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One thought on “On confidence, criticism, and the agony of writing

  1. AUTHOR, AUTHOR, AUTHOR, The public cries and you take a bow. Fabulous feeling I suppose since I never had that experience.But I do know how it feels to lose, to not get that job that was perfect for me,to feel exposed, vulnerable to critisim, to question ‘am I good enough, all those things are daggers in the heart of us perfectionist. We don’t have thick skin, we are always needing to be pumped up. Our ego and pride keep us fearful of failure.That I know very well because I lived most of my life not being good enough.

    You have never been a failure. You exceled when others failed. Why question your abilities now. You have a proven track record of success. Yes, you need to learn the tricks of the writer. To hone your writing skills, to not take rejection personaly. Hell, how many people even try to write a journal, a poem. a love letter not to mention a childrens book. You sit on a gold mine of kid stuff to write about. Cherrios up the nose for instance.

    Keep writing. Its not perfection but progress that is important.Most successful artists and writers were not recognized as great until they were well past their 30’s.

    The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.

    High Watch Harry

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