I recently started following Kobo: Writing Life (https://kobowritinglife.com/). I was particularly struck by the excerpt they posted recently from Stop Worrying; Start Writing: How to Overcome Fear, Self-Doubt and Procrastination by Sarah Painter. Painter’s advice that you need to let go of the fear and see yourself as a writer now (not ‘I’ll be a writer when I get a book contract, make a best-seller list, sell 10,000 copies …’).
Before moving on to my main discussion on overcoming fear and self-doubt, I want highlight the relationship between the terms in Painter’s subtitle. When we procrastinate, too often we assume we’re ‘being lazy’ or ‘don’t want it enough’ (whatever it is). In my experience, procrastination is likely to be a symptom of fear and self-doubt. The twisted logic (conscious or otherwise) is that if you don’t do something, you can’t fail at it. We all know procrastination doesn’t work, and yet it still happens. I’ll address procrastination in more depth soon. For now, I want to get back to fear and self-doubt.
Who qualifies as a writer?
In the excerpt on Kobo, Painter writes: ‘There is no place at which you feel you have “made it”’. If you’ve ever thought anything along the lines of ‘I’ll be a ‘real’ writer when ….’, I’m sorry to tell you that those goal posts keep moving. The only way to escape that trap is to see that you are a writer when you decide you are one.
In reading other people’s bios on Twitter and Facebook recently, I’ve noticed quite a few saying things to the effect of, ‘I write, but I’m not a writer yet’ or ‘I’m a writer, but not yet an author’. I can’t quite tell whether these people are trying to be humble or they really don’t have the confidence to see themselves as writers and authors.
Look up the terms writer and author (I’ve looked them up in the OED, the Cambridge Dictionary, and Collin’s Dictionary). The only mention of publication in the six definitions I’ve looked at is in Cambridge: a writer ‘is a person who writes books or articles to be published’ (emphasis mine). Thus, you don’t have to have been published to be a writer or an author.
Learn from George Eliot
Most writers have been miserable at some point or another, but as I said in my post on writer’s block, you don’t have to make yourselves miserable. It is possible to be a writer and be happy. Perhaps an example of what not to do will help to clarify this.
As you’ll know from previous posts, I’ve spent much of the last decade working on George Eliot’s novels. Eliot was a popular novelist amongst her contemporaries; publishers wanted to work with her and readers wanted to read her work. However, she was also an anxious writer and I’m not sure she ever fully saw herself as the success that she was.
Eliot had ample evidence from early in her fiction writing career that people loved her work. Her first two works, Scenes of Clerical Life and Adam Bede, were sparked speculation over who George Eliot was. Famously, Joseph Liggins was put forward as a likely candidate, and Liggins’s failure to deny authorship fanned the flames of rumour.
Eliot was furious about the situation, but was reluctant to reveal her identity as the writer behind the pseudonym. She was worried about the scandal that would ensue when the world learned George Eliot is Marian Evans—the woman who was living with George Henry Lewes as his wife (GHL’s legal wife, Agnes, was alive and involved with Thornton Hunt).
Eliot was right; there was a scandal, but people kept buying her novels. (If you’re interested in accounts of her personal life, I find Rosemary Ashton’s books on Eliot and Lewes to be amongst the most readable available. John W. Cross’s George Eliot’s Life mostly consists of excerpts from her letters; Cross, who married Eliot toward the end of her life, does, however, gloss over much of her relationship with Lewes).
Eliot also received praise from significant figures in Victorian society. Charles Dickens wrote to her on 17 January 1858 about the first two tales in Scenes:
The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of these stories, I have never seen the like of; and they have impressed me in a manner that I should find it very difficult to describe to you, if I had the impertinence to try. (Cross 237)
Readers of Eliot’s work, and especially her early work, know how she agonised over trying to tell the truth about her characters’ personalities, experiences, and emotions; yet, she cannot embrace even the praise of Charles Dickens. One of the most famous examples of one of her narrators worrying over this problem is found in chapter 17 of Adam Bede:
… I aspire to give no more than a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective; the outlines will sometimes be disturbed; the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to tell you, as precisely as I can, what that reflection is, as if I were in the witness-box narrating my experience on oath. (177)
Royal approval wasn’t enough either; Queen Victoria enjoyed Eliot’s work. In a letter to Eliot and Lewes, John Blackwood (Eliot’s publisher) writes: ‘Theodore Martin … mentioned how devoted the Queen was to your works, especially Adam Bede’ (Ashton 342). The Queen also commissioned paintings based on Eliot’s first full-length novel (see below) and recommended her novels to others. The painting on the left is Dinah Morris Preaching on the Common the on on the right is Hetty Sorrel and Captain Donnithorne in Mrs Poyser’s Dairy; both were painted in 1861 by Edward Henry Corbould.
Nevertheless, with each new novel came new worries that she wouldn’t be able to produce anything that came up to her standards. Eliot made herself ill with worry and Lewes had to protect her from reviews: good reviews made her fear reactions to future (presumably inferior) work and bad reviews confirmed her suspicions that she wasn’t good enough.
So, the author of Middlemarch thought she wasn’t good enough; where does that leave the rest of us? I think it leaves us in the advantageous position of being able to learn from, and not repeat, her experience.
Does this mean you shouldn’t try to improve your writing? Of course not; as I’ve said before, writing is a skill. Skills improve with practice. Let go of your fear and write.
When you have taken your work as far as you can, let someone else read it. Gracefully accept the praise that comes your way (keep it in a file to read on tough days). When you’re given criticism, ask yourself if it’s constructive. If it is, learn from it. If it isn’t, feel free to ignore it. Some people enjoy acting like jerks—that’s their problem, not yours.
When you’re almost ready to send your article, monograph, or novel out into the world, find a copyeditor or proofreader (depending on the level of support you need) who understands what you’re trying to achieve. Once your work is polished, send it out. If it’s rejected (I’ll address dealing with rejection in the next few weeks), send it off to a different publisher (or agent) as quickly as possible.
Try to be happy, productive writers; if there’s any way I can help in that pursuit let me know. Until next time, take care.
Ashton, Rosemary. George Eliot: A Life, London: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd., 1996.
Cross, John W. George Eliot’s Life. London: William Blackwoods and Sons, 1885.
Eliot, George. Adam Bede. Ed. Stephen Gill. London: Penguin Books, 1985. Originally published in 1859.
 Following the conventions of Eliot scholarship, I consistently use George Eliot to refer to Marian Evans. Trying to use the name she was using at particular times in her life just gets too confusing—see Ashton for details of her various names and pseudonyms.