It happens a few times every week – I read something spectacular, whether it’s a book or just a sentence, and I go, “I wish I’d written that.” Perfectly normal part of reading as a writer, yes? Here’s what tends to happen after that – “I wish I’d written than, but I can’t. I’ll never be able to. I should just stop writing. Why did I ever start writing? I wish I’d never been born.”
Sounds familiar? Thought so.
Here’s the deal. No writer ever became one without being a reader first and foremost. This is especially true of literary fiction, which has as many variants as a sand dune has grains of sand. You need to read widely and deeply to pick up on how to write stories with aesthetics and restraint and emotion in the right proportions – and when I say widely and deeply, I really do mean it. Literary fiction doesn’t have templates you can just tweak, like in copywriting. There are patterns, yes, but there are no templates. In order to write a truly masterful story you need to have a ‘feel’ for how to assemble the different elements of the story – characters, plot sequence, emotions, underlying themes, adjectives, internal monologue and so on – into the perfect whole. And the only way to cultivate that feel is to read the works of masters who already have that feel and know how to use it.
But there’s a flipside to all that reading.
You see, we writers tend to have fragile egos. We’re constantly second-guessing what we write, whether it’s the first draft or the final one. We want to be great, and yet we’re sneakily certain that we aren’t great and might never be. At the same time we’re conscious that great writers do exist. Lots of them. I love most kinds of literary fiction, which means pretty much any book I pick up is likely to have something impressive about it. Some kinds of books I can stick to admiring as an outsider, as they aren’t literary styles I’d personally work with – books written entirely in the patois of a certain region, for instance, or overtly political books. But then you have geniuses like Graham Greene or John Steinbeck or Daphne du Maurier or Sarah Waters, all writers I revere. And I read one of their perfectly constructed sentences or a paragraph that flows like molten butter or a plot twist that takes me delightfully by surprise, and I feel both exhilarated and paralysed. Exhilarated because such triumphs of language exist. Paralysed because…will I ever have such triumphs to my own name? And then I look at what I’ve been working on and it just seems so paltry. So insignificant. So completely irrelevant. No one would ever care about it. Heck, I probably don’t care about it that much myself. It isn’t a classic, it’s a depressed twenty-something female trying to make her mood swings sound impressive. Cue the slamming of the laptop lid and the ordering in of figure-destroying desserts. Bottom line, I’ve been known to have entire evenings written off because I’d read something wonderful and it depressed me to the point of wanting to just quit this whole writing jazz and go into sales. (Fun fact: I was in sales for a while. Completely serious advice: DON’T.)
So how do you stop the spiralling before it sabotages yet another writing session? Here’s what I usually do.
Remind yourself that the writers you admire all started out just like you.
Yes, I know it’s hard to convince yourself of this, but the truth is that the books you’re reading are the product of years of polishing. The writers you admire weren’t born spouting Pulitzer-winning manuscripts – they were kids who felt an itch to say something about how they saw the world, and they were probably intimidated by the great writers of their time too! Yes, there is the oddball who wins some major award with a first book at some absurdly young age. But great writers, for the most part, got there after a long, long time. In other words, if you want to be a great writer, you need to make your way there, just like they did.
Be proud that you can recognise their greatness.
Here’s the deal – not everyone can appreciate great literature for what it is. But you can. You’ve taught yourself to appreciate excellent writing, and that’s an accomplishment. It’s an important step in your development as a writer, even if it may not seem like much in comparison to actually writing excellently. Because hey, if you don’t know how to separate the great writing from the average, you won’t know how to sort the wheat from the chaff in your own writing either!
Read your favourite writer critically.
There’s another mental hack I recently discovered, and that’s reading a story by one of your favourite writers critically enough to identify the things that worked in the story and the things that didn’t. You’re bound to find some faults no matter which writer you pick – nobody’s perfect. And it can help to remind yourself that even the greats are fallible, which means that you’re allowed to be too. However, comforting yourself with other people’s mistakes can easily devolve into schadenfreude, which is an essentially destructive – rather than creative – bent of mind. So note the problem areas in books by all means – it’s important to be objective even about your heroes, and mistakes can be as much a source of learning as triumphs – but keep it to problem identifying and not problem celebrating.
Re-read one of your own stories that you’re happy with.
Sometimes we just need concrete ways to remind ourselves that we’re worth it. Go ahead and read something good that you’ve written and pat yourself on the back. That story, it’s all yours. You came up with the idea, you worked hard on it, you polished the sentences, and now it’s a good story. A story that you wrote. Maybe it’s been published somewhere, maybe it’s still a draft, but it’s all you. And after all the hard work you put in, you deserve to use it as a small ego-booster when you’re doubting yourself especially much.
Remind yourself why you admire the writers who are getting you down.
These folks whose talent is making you feel insecure, they aren’t just names on an honour roll. They’re writers you personally respect and enjoy reading, writers who inspired you to take up your own writing. Why not remind ourselves that we wouldn’t admire them if there weren’t a damn good reason to do so in the first place? Go back to one of your all-time favourite books and relive the pleasure of reading it from start to finish. Do this not as a writer, but as the reader who was enthralled by the book the first time they read it. That enjoyment that you feel? That’s why you look up to the writer.
Tell yourself that if so many writers can do it, you can too.
Think about all of the great books they are read. Think about how many writers have written great books, from different parts of the world. The fact that there are so many good books out there is a reaffirmation that great writing isn’t the property of just one person or one set of people. There are great writers in every generation, from every country, from every cultural background. There are different styles of greatness, and different measures of greatness. Great writers are often as different from each other as chalk and cheese, but their contributions are just as important to the world canon. So what does this mean? It means that if greatness dwells in a writer’s mind, there will be a platform for it somewhere, someday. And yes, that applies to your writing too.
Take a break.
Sometimes the negativity is too much to fix at once. If you really feel crippled by your awareness of your favourite writers’ greatness, try taking a break from them for a while. Read other books, by other kinds of writers. Perhaps writers whom you admire, but don’t necessarily wish to be like. Heck, maybe even take a break from reading altogether. Go out more, cook something you enjoy, listen to music or a podcast, doodle. And then once you get back to the literary world, turn to a fresh page and start writing – as best as you possibly can. And make sure that that best gets a little better every day.
How does reading your favourite writers impact your zeal to write? Are you spurred on to compete with them, do you experience mini emotional breakdowns, or are you one of those exalted beings who can keep their reading entirely free from emotions about their own writing? Go ahead and share below.