Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Writer’s Self-Worth

 Every writer reaches a point in the writing process when he hits a wall, swims into a net, gets snagged by a shoal, and is unable to swim past it.

Whether it’s loss of confidence in one’s writing, fatigue from spending too much time with words, hand cramps from carpal tunnel, emotional resistance to investigating one’s imagination, physical discomfort from sitting too long, or eye strain from staring for hours at a computer screen—one or more of these walls can lead a writer to question his worth.

And questioning one’s worth as a writer can lead to questioning the worth of one’s words, which can lead inevitably to questioning what value your work has and if there’s a point to putting words down on paper at all.

When such a moment comes, it drains away the writer’s love of stories, passion for searching for words and truth, eagerness to find something new that no one has ever found before or written in quite the same way. It’s all forgotten.

The moment a writer hits such a wall, he can feel stuck in quicksand, believing that he’s written his last word, that he has no more strength to swim another stroke. There are no more words left to give. Why, he wonders, did he get into the water in the first place?

As soon as I hear myself asking such questions, I can become discouraged. Our society places so much emphasis on riches and success. If you’re not a NY Times Bestselling author—in the top ten!!— you’re a failure. And if you’re a writer struggling financially, it’s easy to think you might have been better staying in law school.

Such thoughts raise red flags and alert me to when I might have hit a wall and need to do the backstroke to regain my perspective.

I have to remind myself that writing isn’t solely about earning money. Few writers can support themselves with their work (though it would be lovely for the rest of us if our work gained sufficient acclaim to support us). Writing, rather, serves as a way for me to understand the world and my life. It is a process of exploration, a tool that lets me see and learn and discover new things about my relationship to the world and myself.

The criteria for measuring our success don’t have to be how much money we report on our tax returns each April or how many books we’ve published in the past decade. Instead, we might ask how much we’ve learned in the past year about writing and life. We can look back at the past year and see the number of journals on our shelf and feel that we succeeded simply because we faced a blank page day after day and managed to put words down. We are successful writers because we understand something differently, something that we might not have understood without having written.

On days when I feel like I’ve hit a wall, I tell myself (again and again) that writing isn’t about worth or financial gain. It’s about exploring and discovering things that I never knew before putting my pen to paper. It’s about trying to wrest meaning from a world that often seems to lack meaning or whose meaning is hidden beneath the surface of events.

The next time you feel yourself hitting a wall and questioning your self-worth as a writer, remember your words do have value. You are a writer worth all the effort you’ve given to make sense of the world.

Hitting the wall doesn’t have to signal the end of a project or, on a deeper level, a career. More likely, it’s just a temporary pause, a sign that something needs to change.

Sometimes a writer simply needs to alter his direction and shift his perspective to see a particular problem from a different angle and discover a path past it.

Start with a question: What do you love about writing? (Or: What did you used to love about writing?)

Find what you love about the process... and go from there.


TabbieH said...

Oh! How wonderful. Thanks so much for writing and sharing this. Think we all need to hear something like this, on a regular basis. Thank you.

Bruce Black said...

TabbieH, glad the piece helped. Hope you'll keep swimming past the reefs and shoals to find clear water.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Great piece, great advice. We live in a "winner take all" society that devalues the efforts of those who aren't winners. But words can be a powerful way of challenging the status quo. For me, not quitting is a political as well as a personal decision.

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Lyn, for the kind words. It's crucial, I think, if a writer hopes to keep writing, to recognize the way society, as you noted, devalues the efforts of those who don't "win." So many of us, I fear, are ready to toss in the towel simply because we believe what society tells us about our work instead of looking inside ourselves for our own definitions of success so we can keep writing (and enjoying the process).

Pat McDermott said...

Encouraging and eloquent words, Bruce. I suspect all writers experience such emotions at some point. I certainly do. I could make lots more money doing a "real" job, but nothing beats getting a note from a reader thanking me because one of my stories helped her escape dealing with a serious family illness for a few hours. Success with a Capital S, IMHO.

Bruce Black said...

Many thanks, Pat. It's such a puzzle how sometimes we get caught in our own unrealistic expectations (or expectations that we have absorbed from the culture in which we live) without realizing how we may be undermining ourselves. It sounds like you've got a clear-eyed perspective, though, which is great for getting words on paper... and sharing your work with readers.