Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Superiority Complex

Six days out of seven, I install myself in my easy chair with Adele, the laptop, and I whittle away at the remaining stamina in my wrists. From the way I jealously guard this time, you would think I’m in love. And to an extent, that’s true. But if you’ve followed my blog for more than a week, you probably know that storytelling isn’t all larks and roses. Unlike many writers, I do not enjoy the drafting process, the spitting of raw ideas onto paper. It’s when I get to untangling the jumbled mess that the fun starts. Delving into the unknown with no guide and no clue as to what should happen next is stressful. I’m not a visionary novelist who works with fifty pages of outline and ninety pages of notes. Sometimes I wish I were, but it’s more helpful to accept my limitations.

As for anxiety, that doesn’t mean I sit down at the computer and freak out. Granted, I could tell myself that the book I finished was a fluke and that I shouldn’t expect to do it again. Yet I don’t. In fact, I do expect myself to succeed, not because I think I’m brilliant or special or perfect, but because I know that the first book came into existence through hard work. No one sprinkled fairy dust over my computer; no one handed me the words. I had to chase down each and every one, even when it felt like banging my head against the wall for 389 hours would accomplish more in the end. Also, I’m stubborn, and I’m too proud to quit, which I’ve found can be the best motivation of all. No one is going to say that Manuscript Mountain conquered me. OH NO.

The problem with this confidence, though, is that it can very quickly lead to snobbery. Let me be honest with you; I struggle with that a lot more than I’d like to admit. It’s not wrong to be self-assured—in fact, it’s helpful—but it means walking a very fine line. Unfortunately, just like insecurity, arrogance is the enemy—the product and killer—of success. Sometimes I go through stages where I genuinely believe I am the best at what I do, so I criticize other writers and find fault with published novels and console myself that I would never make the same mistakes. Worse than that, I start to base my worth as a person on my assessment of my skill. On how well I’m liked. On how many people read my blog. As if Out of Coffee, Out of Mind is hugely important in the grand scheme of things. I promise I won’t stop blogging anytime soon (unless I die or the Doctor takes me away in the TARDIS), but I need to accept that if I were to go silent, life would continue without me. Maybe some readers would miss my voice. If so, I’m flattered. But whatever the case—you can be sure—the gap left in my wake would soon be filled by someone else.

If I base my happiness on something as fickle as success, then I am guaranteed to be disappointed. Guaranteed. In my own eyes, I will always be a failure. And I will forget why I started writing in the first place, why I fell in love with the craft, why I finish rough drafts despite their overwhelming flaws.

But there’s another aspect of arrogance that cripples. If I convince myself that I am perfect, then I will fail to see the ways in which I desperately need to improve. (This goes for normal life as well.) And I want to be gentle when I say this, because I know some of my readers are young writers, and I enjoy watching you gush about your projects. So let me be the first to say that excitement is by no means wrong, and I would never go back and tell my previous selves that they were mistaken to be thrilled with words. But have you ever met a proud parent who seems to see their child in a totally different light than anyone else? They coo about Charlie the angel even while little Charlie is lighting someone’s hair on fire.  Fantasy and actuality lock in hideous combat. It’s the same with writing. If I’m too enamored with my darling manuscript and too blind to its nasty habits, I will never have the necessary wherewithal to whip out the axe and the scalpel and go crazy. I will never accept when my characters are faulty, inconsistent, unreal, or out of place. Blinded by my precious, preconceived notions, I will miss what is actually on the page.

That’s not to say I don’t connect emotionally with my novels at all. But the most important bit I have learned over the years (aside from patience) is the ability to let go. When a story idea just isn’t as brilliant as you had hoped—even after you’ve given it an honest shot—let it go. When the scene you loved isn’t adding anything to the plot, let it go. When your dream agent rejects you (albeit very nicely) spam her (I meant to say, let it go).  

Eight days out of ten, I meet resistance. I feel dull, like my brain moved to Romania and left a decoy in its place. The music hurts my ears, but I need the music to concentrate. The laptop is too hot. The words won’t come. The literary agent has had my full manuscript for almost four months, and it seems like no one will ever get back to me. But that’s the rub. While a job can be pleasurable, it’s called work for a reason. As in relationships, you make a commitment to persist even when it isn’t fun anymore, even when it’s painful to fight against entropy, even when it’s easier to cut your losses and quit. When I was young, I had a choice. I could resist the editorial comments that said my writing lacked clarity and direction (it did), or my male characters were too much like old ladies (they were), or my driving forces weren’t evident (they weren’t). I could reason away really good advice and listen instead to the voice that I much preferred, the voice of my inner writer that said my critics weren’t as talented as I, that it wasn’t my fault they couldn’t understand the vision I had for my story. But now that I’m older, and especially now that I have the very definite goal of publication in mind, I do not have that luxury. If I want to improve—and I must—I cannot afford to rest on my laurels and spend my royalties before they’re earned. In fact, I have no business thinking of myself as anyone other than someone who is trying her hardest to do her best, nothing more.

So I’ve been working to cultivate a teachable mindset rather than a passive or stubborn one. (I just made that sound as easy as eating ice cream. Believe me, it’s not.) Of course, I will still recoil when I receive criticism, and I will always battle the urge to blame the reader, but in order to succeed, I need to recognize my faults and my limitations. Because I guarantee that I will never go far if I cannot take honest, unvarnished, painful opinions. In the meantime, it’s hard to fight arrogance in a job where you’re constantly expected to stand up for your own talents, where it seems you have to force people to take you seriously. Believe me, I get that.

But unfortunately, superiority complexes do not buy bread.


  1. YES. So much this. As harsh as it sounds it's important to remember that we're not the best thing ever, that our writing has issues, that it won't ever be perfect - and to accept that, laugh, and keep going from there.

  2. Exactly! And I find that, at least for me, when I accept my limitations, I start to exceed them. In small ways, of course, and not every time. But thinking I'm the best always makes me lesser.

  3. So important to keep a perspective on our writing and ourselves as people. And I struggle with the drafting process too.

    1. It's good to know I'm not the only one! :) Most people look a me like I'm some sort of mutant when I say I prefer editing. Does that happen to you?

  4. Hmm. I needed to hear this at this moment. For both my writing, and other areas of my life as well.
    I struggle with perfection in some ways, and recently, I feel like I've lost my passion for everything that used to come so easily. Not sure what to do.

    1. Glad I could help. :) And I understand about losing passion. A little over a year ago--between busyness, burnout, and various emotionally taxing issues--I found I just couldn't enjoy writing anymore. n fact, I actually asked myself if I still wanted to maintain a ten-year-old hobby. So I took a four month break and focused on other things, and finally I was ready to return, but I couldn't force it. It's possible your mind is crying out for a vacation. Even nowadays, I have to constantly remind myself why I love writing because I get discouraged so easily. :/ I hope you get your mojo back. :)