This morning, I tweeted a picture of the new tea mug* Chad got me. It’s got this Dork Tower by John Kovalic on it, and apparently it struck a cord because my tweet got retweeted, favorited, and quoted, and those tweets themselves got retweeted, favorited, and quoted several times.
When Mur Lafferty (@mightymur) retweeted it with the note, “OMG I need this”**, BJ Witkin (@itsjustbeej) replied, “And I say again, what IS it with you writers? :)”
Which is a fair point. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t see tweets from writers and artists second guessing themselves. People I respect and admire apologizing for shilling their work. Saying, “Check this out if you want to, sorry for bugging you” instead of “I MADE THIS AMAZING THING AND YOU HAVE TO GO SEE IT RIGHT NOW BECAUSE IT’S AWESOME AND YOU WILL LOVE IT!”
I’m not immune to this myself. Far from it. This, despite having published short stories and RPG books. Despite having just finished a new project for a publisher I’ve worked with before, a publisher who liked my work enough the first time to hire me again, and who liked my work enough this time that they’re interested in having me write another piece for them.
But still, when I sit down to write, or when someone asks me about my work, I feel like a fraud. A hack. Like what I’m writing sucks and no one is going to want to read it. Like getting published before was a fluke, and the next time I get something out there, people will realize it. They’ll recognize me for the fraud I am.
So, what is it with us writers, anyway? Why do we feel like this?
I got to thinking about it after I saw BJ’s tweet. Specifically, I got to thinking about when I worked for a software company, writing code. I didn’t feel like a fraud then. I was damned good at my job, and I knew it. I especially loved when someone came to me with a tricky problem and I found a way to make it work. Oh, sure, I cussed and grumbled at the code when it didn’t do what I wanted it to do, but I never beat my head on my desk and wailed, “I suck! I’m a fraud! Everything I program is utter crap!”
Because I knew it wasn’t. Once I worked out the bugs, I knew that the program worked. I knew that it did what it was supposed to do.
And therein, I think, is the difference. You don’t get that with writing. Programming is, ultimately, binary. Either the program compiles, or it doesn’t. Either it works, or it doesn’t. Run the program — at least the stuff I was coding — and at the end I got a result that I could check against other records to verify that it was right. And as soon as I did, I knew that what I’d done was good. Even if a customer switched to a different vendor, there was no disputing that my code worked.
The same isn’t true for art. It isn’t always right or wrong. There’s no proof that it works, or doesn’t. Write a story, and some people will like it. Others won’t. There are no records you can go back and check against to make sure you’ve gotten it right. No debugging program to tell you that nothing’s wrong. Nothing that can tell you, unequivocably, that what you’ve done is good.
Sometimes I wish there was. I wish there was some program I could check a story against while I’m working on it so I know I’m not wasting my time. A magic 8-ball I could wave over a draft to tell me when it’s done. Some kind of artistic litmus test to reassure me that my work doesn’t suck.
But, at the same time, I don’t. Because every story has an audience. Every piece of art has someone who’s going to like it. Sometimes that’s a hundred people. Sometimes it’s a thousand. Sometimes it’s just you. And sometimes it isn’t you at all. But it’s someone. And how many people would miss out on something they really enjoy if art was a binary, good-or-bad, yes-or-no, right-or-wrong kind of thing?
Does this mean I’m going to stop beating myself up and feeling like I suck? Good god, no! Hell, even as I write this blog post, I keep thinking, “Who am I to tell people this? I’m nobody.”
But that’s not true. I’m not nobody. I’m a writer, and I’ve been through this. I go through it every time I pick up a pen. And who knows? Maybe someone better and smarter than me will read this and have a flash of inspiration that really helps us make sense of why we feel this way.
Or maybe not.
But even if I can’t stop doubting myself, I can remind myself that art is subjective, not objective, and that just because some people don’t like what I write doesn’t mean it’s not good. I can try to focus less on whether my work is “good” or “bad” and more on finding the audience for it. And I can remember that even if that’s only an audience of one, that’s one person who wants to see it out there. So I need to make sure it is.
*If you want one of these mugs, you can get it, or lots of other cool stuff, from the Dork Tower store.
**Mur Lafferty just released The Ghost Train to New Orleans, the sequel to The Shambling Guide to New York City. So she’s obviously doing something right. You can check it out here, to see if you’re part of the audience it’s looking for.