From the frequency (or lack thereof) of blog posts I publish, you may think that I’ve forgotten about the blog or that my heart really isn’t in it or I’m too lazy to make time to write.
This isn’t true. I think about my blog all the time.
I compose entire posts in my head on my way to campus. When something interesting or poignant or hilarious happens, I think that would make a great blog post. Sometimes I even write entire posts, only to save them in draft form to be published at some magical future date. And that time never comes.
Why is this? How did I go from I Am Writer, Read My Words to, well, silence?
In Tillie Olsen’s book, Silences, she describes lots of different types of silence. One: the absence of books written by women in the canon (keep in mind Silences was originally published in 1978). Another: long gaps in a single writer’s literary production. Olsen examines the conditions for these gaps: fear of criticism, inability to make time to write, political silencing.
How, then, can I account for my own silences, at least on the blog?
The biggest factor, I think, is that I don’t have a job. To be more accurate, I currently have four jobs (student, writer, editor, and administrative junkie), but none of them pay very well (or at all) and none are sustainable. In a few months/years, I will have to go out on the job market and find a career, something with maybe a retirement plan and insurance. No matter what type of job I find, I’m terrified that the blog will become a liability, not an asset, despite reassurances to the contrary.
You can’t measure, rank, or quantify the usefulness of a blog. You can’t measure, rank, or quantify any of the things I do, really, but somehow the blog has come to stand as that thing that makes me feel like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole. Nobody else I know IRL who isn’t already established has a blog, so there’s no one I can really talk to who can say how a blog fits into their larger professional vision, if there is such a thing. There’s also no one to tell me to relax and do what I want, because the only information I hear are the horror stories of trying to find a job.
And so, I’ve become the ultimate censor of my work. Is this interesting? What am I trying to say, exactly? Do I really want to publish this? How will this read if someone finds it in five years?
In addition, the readership of my blog has increased in an inverse relationship to the number of posts I write. People are coming up to me at events and saying, “I read your blog!” This produces all sorts of weird associations in my head. For the past few years, I’ve joked to Husband that I want to be famous. Except I’m only half-joking. I really do want to be famous, not necessarily in a Bloggess sort of way, but famous in a way that people will want to read my work and take me sort of seriously.
But now that people are finally reading my work, instead of rejoicing (“Yay I’m famous!”), I’m terrified. Who are these people and why do they care what I say? Don’t they know I’m making most of this up as I go along?
And aside from the usual Impostor Syndrome symptoms, there’s also the fear that Someone Important will read my work, become offended, and I will get in very real trouble. You see, in March I was elected to be the Graduate Student Association president at Rice. It’s a very cool title with very annoying responsibilities. For the past six months, I have been working on planning and executing events for Rice’s Centennial celebration. Most of it has been fun, if working 12 hour days every day for four months can be fun. It has also put me into contact with a lot of 1%-ers in ways that make me feel like I need a shower afterwards. I have seen the underbelly of higher education, and I don’t like it.
I have a lot of opinions about these sort of things. But I don’t want to write about that because I can’t. I benefit from a lot of the things I don’t like. And I like working in administration, and you don’t get a job in administration by biting the hand that feeds you. Still, in this political climate, it has put me in the odd position of smiling-and-nodding when I really want to be shoving a picket sign in someone’s face.
I am silent because there are things that can’t be said, at least by me. I’m silent because I’m scared. I’m silent because I’m tired, to be frank. I can’t be silent anymore—but I don’t know how I’m going to fix it, at least not right away.
I’m here. I’m still reading your blogs. I’m always on Twitter. If I haven’t written in a while, it’s only because I can’t figure out how to say what I want to say yet. In the meantime, keep writing, my friends. Always keep writing.
Monday night I met with my critique group. We are an odd bunch, gathered together by our mutual interest in writing. There are over a hundred people who have joined the group on MeetUp.com, but we have about 12 people show up each meeting on average. The size means that one rarely gets to submit their own work, but just attending the meetings has increased my productivity and awareness of the traps into which new writers frequently fall.
This week we critiqued three pieces as per our standard operating procedure. They were all strong pieces (which is not always the case, but we’re all learning here). One in particular stuck out from the rest: the opening three chapters of a spy thriller. There were somewhat obvious things that needed to be fixed (currency consistency being one) but overall the writer had a strong grasp of his genre. His piece was gripping and exciting in spite of the grammatical mistakes.
Several members of the group (including myself) noted the infrequent use of commas. It was so strange–frequently when a writer neglects to include commas, the work is a mess of run-on sentences. This one had fully constructed and poetic sentences … which tended to run together because the eye did not know where to stop. The writer shyly admitted he had not taken an English class since Freshman comp. We all found his writing was not hurt from his lack of grammatical education. He clearly listened to his inner voice as he was writing his novel, even if only on a subconscious level.
I think as writers we sometimes forget to trust our instincts. I for one can get bogged down in too much academic detail, worrying about things like gerunds and comma splices, to such an extent that I forget what I’m trying to do: construct meaning out of words and phrases. As a copy editor, things like extra spaces between words and punctuation marks get me on edge. The commas bugged me, but even as I penciled them in for the writer, I remarked to myself that this writer had natural talent, something all writers covet and envy in others.
I’m not suggesting that we throw our Strunk and White out the window–far from it. But I do think that sometimes we should take a step back and let our ears do the writing. If Monday’s meeting taught me anything, it was that first drafts are for capturing the language, tone, and voice of our story. Punctuation can come later.
I can’t let go of my first (finished) novel. I guess I should say “draft of my first (finished) novel” but I don’t want the signifier to be even clunkier than the signified. I stuck a fork in it two weeks ago and ever since then I’ve been worrying about the revision process, which has tentatively been set to begin a month from today. My manuscript is not in my usual genre and even though I thought it began with a good premise, I worry that it won’t be half as awesome as I want it to be.
When told about my anxiousness, my writing buddy today suggested that I should find my “ideal reader.” This mystical being, she said, is a personified version of the audience for the book. They are the reader for whom my book is written. Who is buying my book right now in some mystical part of my subconscious? The answer, of course, is I.R.
I cloak this “ideal reader” in mystery because I haven’t found my ideal reader. My writing buddy is lucky; her ideal reader actually exists and provides manuscript critique upon request. Mine is floating out there somewhere. I.R. is my Great White Buffalo.
More than a critique partner, the ideal reader’s job is to be the voice that says whether a piece of writing works. I.R., from what I can tell, is sortof like you, the author, if you were the reader instead of the inventor of the story. I.R. cuts through the anxiety and gets to the heart of the matter: is it good? I really hope my I.R. unicorn says yes.
A question for you: Is your ideal reader a real person? Or are they (like mine) invisible?
I don’t know anyone who has achieved some degree of success who hasn’t experienced Impostor Syndrome at least once. It’s particularly rampant in graduate students. In case you’re wondering what I’m talking about, Impostor Syndrome is the name given to that feeling you experience when you wonder if that big publication or grant or raise was awarded based on merit … or by fooling the people around you into thinking you’re smart.
It’s not real, of course. It’s simply a heightened sense of paranoia that occurs when you’re around other highly skilled people. You can feel completely normal, competent and well-qualified for your job. Except when you’re looking over your shoulder at the next normal, competent and well-qualified person standing in line behind you.
A healthy dose of paranoia keeps you on your toes. It keeps you striving to do the next best thing, to reach higher and achieve more. It’s what makes the Ivory Tower go round. But when you start discounting your success because you “really don’t deserve it” or “it was just luck,” then you know you’ve got Impostor Syndrome.
I think the best solution to combatting Impostor Syndrome is through positive self-talk. After all, there’s humility and then there’s humility. I’m not suggesting that you go around with your chest puffed out—we already have enough of those people, don’t you think? It wouldn’t do us any harm, however, to praise ourselves for our successes more often, to ourselves or with our family and friends. We authors and academics have so many people/organizations/things telling us no that it can feel like a fluke when someone/thing finally says yes.
Stand up, author-friends! Throw back your shoulders and lift up your chin! Take pride in your achievements—you deserve them.
Edited to add: Happy Cinco de Mayo!
You’ve seen Nathan Bransford’s contest, right? The one where you submit the first paragraph of your work in progress and fabulous prizes ensue for the winner? Yeah, about that. I submitted the first paragraph of mine. What a painful process! After reading 800+ submissions, I realized a) I have a lot of work to do, and b) a lot of first paragraphs are the same. No, crazy similar. Like, if I was grading them, I would make the class turn them in on TurnItIn.com to make sure they didn’t plagiarize each other.
Ok, maybe they’re not thesame-thesame. But close.
And it made me paranoid. So many submissions I skimmed by reading only the first line! And then I thought–what if an agent only read the first line of my novel and hated it?! So many submissions, so little time. I don’t want to be skimmed over!
Clearly, this Bransford fellow is one tricksy guy.
So, because I have been crazy paranoid and looking over my shoulder (and because I’m going to a writer’s group for the first time tomorrow) I decided to post early.
What is my post?
A list of the first lines from some of my favorite and/or recently published novels. No 18th century or Romantic novels need apply. I’m not submitting my novel to John Murray.
“Falling, in her final moments, Daniel’s wife carries in her chest a heart burdened by the weight of her love for another man.”
“I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old.”
“It was November.”
“The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper.”
“It was love at first sight.”
“I first saw the photograph on a hot January afternoon in my mother’s bedroom.”
“The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.”
“Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife.”
“Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians.”
“Two boys stood in the Prince Consort Gallery, and looked down on a third.”
Some brilliant, some very good, and some that are instant cliches (no, don’t make me find the accent mark!). I mean, it’s all where they go from there, right? Like, “It was love at first sight.” First line of Catch-22. We know it’s not a romance novel! It’s satire, funny (hysterical, actually, but let’s not split hairs, shall we?). But what if your reader never gets that far? What if they give up because the name “Yossarian” is just too weird?
This book thing is going to be harder than I thought.
Note, gentle readers, none of these start with a quote or include the word “kill” in the first line. Some have death, yes, or rather, death that’s almost happening. On the cusp. But we’re not there yet. Give the novel time to grow, to breathe.
You can always kill them in the second sentence.
(In case you were wondering, the novels are The Marriage Artist [Winer], The Little Stranger [Waters], The Thirteenth Tale [Setterfield], The Historian [Kostova], Catch-22 [Heller], The Ghost Writer [Harwood], The Monsters of Templeton [Groff], Atmospheric Disturbances [Galchen], Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell [Clarke], and The Children’s Book [Byatt]. Yeah I like gothic-esque fiction. Got any more?)
Compared to previous summers, I’ve written a lot. I’ve been working on my novel, writing proposals, notes, and presentations, and as of two weeks ago, writing a blog. Overall, I would consider this a successful summer.