I read the most fantastic book the other day. It made me laugh out loud and made tears prick my eyes and made my heart ache. And I highlighted all of my favorite lines that simply, quietly blew me away. I was mesmerized and reverent, like holding the softest baby chicken in the cup of my hands for the first time.
Then I sat in something like a post-coital trance, replaying the favorite parts in my head and mentally snuggling into my love for this great storytelling. I run to my laptop, dust off an old WIP, and proceed to write All The Things. (I write when I'm not editing for fabulous people.)
This is a dangerous thing to do.
As you get a fresh slew of motivation and ideas for your own writing, buoyed by the afterglow of a book, you might or might not get the sense of something breaking—like a snapped harness before you fall.
Your hands on the keyboard cramp and falter, words ending mid-sentence in some incoherent, cliched babble. And you think…
I’m never gonna be as good of a writer.
You’re basically spiraling into a dark depression overnight, waking up with drool on your chin, only to sigh gustily with woe over your morning coffee.
Before you know it, you’re thinking about throwing yourself down the basement stairs because you’ll never write again.
As Anne Lamott said, this is one of those occupational hazards for writers. In Bird by Bird, she has a chapter about jealousy when your writer friends find success and you’re still a lump of undiscovered laundry.
It’s true. Whether you know the successful author or not, you can’t help but compare yourself. See new flaws in yourself. Give yourself a once-over with distorted crazy eyes, feeling disgusted by your own hand.
We fight these tendencies all the time because unlike other competitive fields of study, we’re in an inclusive, supportive community and the good side of us genuinely wants others to find success. We want this while simultaneously feeling guilty about stabs of resentment. Deep down, we want success too.
Somehow, you need to find your way back to quirky contentment rather than the empty husk you’ve turned into, the bedraggled monster who doesn’t feed the cat anymore.
Getting a grip and digging oneself out of the "poor me" hole means finding some kind of healthy mental state again (as healthy as anyone who argues with their characters can find). It unfortunately takes time and effort and incremental work among all of these writing pressures. It takes minutes, hours, days. Like building words to sentences to paragraphs to scenes to chapters to books.
No great thing happens overnight. Unless you’re in an 80s movie montage.
The secret to finding your way back is to fully think to yourself that ugly thoughts are okay. I'TS OKAY TO FEEL. It's okay to hate every word you write in one day. It's okay to think you're lame. It's okay to ditch a writing session and take a walk.
Because in that moment of giving yourself a break, showing compassion for who you are, you start to like yourself again. Like seeing the beauty of a sparkling dew drop on some debris after a hurricane. The peaceful silence can be deafening. The better to hear the wise voice in your mind. “Hey, I’m never going to write like that. But I like what’s in me and I’m going to put it on the page.”
It's wonderful when you can love someone else’s work and also love what YOU do.