You may not know this about me, but I’m both an editor and a writer. And a couple of years ago, I had a serious crisis of confidence.
I’d a handful of short stories and poems published, achieved an MA in creative writing, was shortlisted for a national writing award, landed a literary agent at an awesome agency (who I chose between the three who had been knocking at my door asking to represent me) and I had 30,000 words of an unfinished manuscript sitting on my computer.
And I hadn’t written anything for a year. I felt like a complete failure.
When we don’t live up to the high expectations we set for ourselves, everything we’ve already achieved fades into the background. A sense of failure comes crushing down on us, and we feel like we’re suffocating in unreached potential.
Often, all that’s needed is a shift in perspective.
So simple, yet so hard.
Well, I don’t feel like a failed writer anymore. But I didn’t just wake up one morning with a supernova of pride and accomplishment emanating from my core where my bruised little heart used to be.
It took many miserable months before the negative feelings started to subside. Gradually, very gradually, the waves started to calm, and I was left with a quiet sense of empowerment.
Sometimes, to write can feel like the easiest thing in the world. Sometimes, it feels like the hardest.
Usually, if something’s worth the effort, it’s not effortless.
It’s easy to feel confident when everything’s going well. If you’re a writer, the going can – and will – get tough. And that’s when you need to hold your ground, bolster your confidence and keep going.
Because even if you don’t feel it right now, you know in your heart of hearts that this is what you were meant to do.
So when you feel like a failure, don’t stop writing. Try this:
1. Know that you are a writer
You are not an ‘aspiring’ writer. If you write, you are a writer. It’s as simple as that. Sure, aspire to be a better writer, or a published writer, or a best-selling writer – but know that as long as you’re putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, you are a writer.
2. Stop worrying about doing it ‘wrong’
Advice is just that: advice. What works for one person may not work for another. Creativity does not come with a set of instructions. It’s not an Ikea flat-pack. There’s no one set path to success.
3. Flip humility on its head
Have you heard of ‘imposter syndrome’? In a nutshell, imposter syndrome is when people who are good at what they do feel like frauds and believe that any success they’ve had has been down to luck or deceit. Interestingly, if you suffer from this syndrome, it’s more likely to indicate that you are good at what you do. People who are always confident often don’t understand their field well enough to know just how bad they are.
4. Remind yourself why you write
You know what’s worse than failure? Regret.
5. Make it a priority
If you say to yourself that you’d be a better writer if only you had more time, more energy, more space, more money, etc. then consider this: everyone has the same amount of hours in the day. Unless you’re a robot who has absolutely no power over the life programmed into your computer chip of a brain, you do have some control over how you spend your life. How can you change your day to make writing more of a priority?
6. Make it a habit
You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t start. And you know what’s more difficult than starting? Finishing. And to finish something, you must keep at it. If you make writing a habit, your lack of confidence won’t even come into the equation, because writing will become automatic. You’ll write more and find yourself on a steeper learning curve. And that, in turn, will increase your confidence as a writer.
7. Stop worrying about talent
Talent is overrated. In 1926, psychologist Catherine Morris Cox published a study of three hundred recognised geniuses, from Da Vinci to Einstein to Playle (kidding – I wasn’t alive back then). Cox identified a number of qualities beyond intelligence that predicted ‘greatness’. Harvard researcher Angela Duckworth boiled these characteristics down to a quality she called ‘grit’ – ‘the perseverance and passion for a long-term goal’. So stop worrying about talent, and start building your grit.
8. Find the right support
Writing can be a lonely activity. Sometimes, you need a little emotional support, somewhere to vent when you’ve been looking at a word so long that it’s lost all meaning. Or someone you can show you work to and ask ‘Is this as amazing/atrocious as I think it is?’ But you need to be drawing your support from the right kind of people. Being overly praised is just as damaging as being overly criticised. Being overly enthusiastic is just as damaging as being overly cynical. What’s best for you will fall somewhere between the ends of these two spectrums. Think very carefully about whether you’re getting the support you need from your network.
9. Throttle your green monster
Your friend just got a book deal. Someone in your writing circle just won a writing award. You smile between gritted teeth. You want to feel happy for your friends’ successes, but the green monster within you is wringing out your internal organs in a frustrated rage of envy. Don’t let it. Throttle that ugly bastard. It serves absolutely no one – especially you. Bitterness is a weight that holds you back.
10. Gather your compliments
Why is it that if nine out of ten people say something nice, we always fixate on the one person who said something mean? You can’t please everyone – and nor should you. Stuff that moves people, stuff that’s great, falls at the extreme end of the scale. In the middle of the spectrum is the stuff that no one either likes or dislikes. That’s where the writing that makes people go ‘meh’ sits. And you don’t want to be there. Instead, gather all the nice reviews from your readers and inspiring comments from your writing buddies, and when you’re feeling fragile, let those words sink in. And those people who don’t like your work? That just means you’ve moved away from vanilla prose. And that’s a good thing.
11. Separate your self from your work
Criticism isn’t personal. And if someone does attack you personally in their criticism of your work, that’s not criticism, that’s just bullying, and you don’t have to listen to such conniving little snivel-twerps. But if you do find your ego bruised from some criticism of your work: take a deep breath, remember that criticism is firstly just an opinion, and secondly something you can potentially learn from. For a moment, put a shield between your work and your heart, consider the worth of the criticism, and act or don’t act on it accordingly. The better you get at this, the better your work will become (and the more resilient your esteem will be).
12. Stay curious and keep learning
Confidence (or lack of it) is the result of what the voice inside your head is telling you about yourself. Sometimes instead of focussing on your internal self, it can be more useful to focus on something outside your head. There’s no better way to distract your self-conscious writer’s ego than by immersing yourself in the details of your craft. Even if you aren’t writing, reading about new techniques or studying good fiction with a critical eye can quiet the disparaging voice inside your head and make you feel like you’re becoming more knowledgeable in your craft – which in turn increases your confidence.
13. Stop trying to be original
There’s no such thing as true originality. New ideas are based on existing ideas. They’re simply adapted, extended or improved upon. So mine art and life for inspiration, and take from it without shame! What you create out of the seemingly unoriginal parts will in itself be unique.
Take action on a few of these points, give it time, and I promise you’ll start to feel better. Most importantly of all, keep writing – the joy will come.