Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What are you afraid of?

I had a conversation recently with someone who holds a master's degree in a writing discipline but doesn't write.  She tells me that - among other reasons I'm sure - she stopped writing when she read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and realized she couldn't match him.

Wow.  That's a hard mark to hit.

I'm not going to make fun of her.  None of my reasons for writing or not writing are any better or worse than hers.  But it got me to thinking about intimidation and the fears that keep us from writing.  Whether it is fear of rejection (by family, readers, agents, publishers or anyone else), fear of being challenged for what we wrote, or fear that we cannot match the prose of Jonathan Franzen, it's all in our heads.

Some writers compensate for this by retreating into an arrogant defensive posture in which everything everyone else writes is crap compared to your mighty prose.  Personally, I prefer to be aware that I have shelves and shelves of books in my home that were written by writers far more skillfull and gifted than I.  I love all of them and simultaneously I don't care.

Honest.  It doesn't bother me a whit.

Agent blogs and writing books spend a lot of time telling aspiring writers to devote part of their time to market research, reading and comparing yourself to what else is out there and finding where you fit.  Which is well and good as far as it goes.  By all means, read what you want to write and vice-versa -- you certainly don't want to write the sort of book you wouldn't want to read.  I've seen plenty of people try it and it's never pretty.  But I think (as my friend illustrates) that there's a hidden danger there if you're going to get run aground on the shoals of someone else's prose.  Understand what you're doing and how it will eventually be sold.  (I recommend doing some time as a bookseller, there's no better schooling to be had in this regard.) 

The one thing that every author on the shelves of your local bookseller has in common is that they set aside those other authors and wrote the books you are now comparing yourself to.  Maybe we're all arrogant in that way.  There's certainly a bit of ego involved in thinking your daydreams are so cool that everyone else will want to hear about them.

In the end, you must write to your own standard and set that standard at an achievable level.  Raise it on the next one and the one after that, but never so high nor so quickly that you cannot write for the want of attaining your goal of exceeding the latest Pulitzer Prizewinner.

I don't have to write like Isabel Allende or Michael Chabon because I'm not Isabelle Allende any more than I am Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers or Jonathan Franzen.  Nor am I Jane Austen, Earnest Hemingway, Jack London or any of the rest.  I write like me.  I believe the things that I believe, I use the words that I know and the sentence structure that seems natural to me and tell the stories that occur to me in a way I think others will enjoy reading. 

I will always strive to write better, but never to be the next John Updike.  Being the next Scott Perkins is hard enough.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).