Insecurities and bragging about writing talent

chosen one brag

Recently I was talking to a fellow writer, and shortly into our conversation, I got the impression they were showing off about how talented they were. Their stories were, not to brag, really popular. They were told at a young age they were a great writer. Etc.

In that moment, I felt my own insecurity creeping up. They’d reached milestones I hadn’t, and I felt compelled to defend myself and point out how experienced and knowledgeable I was, too. How dare they try to upstage me!

And then I wondered … why am I letting this annoy me so much? Why does it matter how good they are, compared to how good I am? Their achievements as a writer don’t detract from my own, which are different because our experiences have been different. But as writers, we’re often so insecure about how good we are that we constantly compare our skill to other people’s. We beat ourselves up and get defensive.

Here’s the thing. We don’t need to prove to anyone else how good we are. And if we feel we need to show off, it’s because secretly we feel insecure. As my husband pointed out, maybe that’s why this person felt the need to brag in the first place. Maybe they felt they needed to prove how they stack up to me.

Writers don’t need to compete with each other. We don’t need to measure our success against someone else’s. All that matters is our own journey, and how far we’ve come, and how much farther we’re willing to go. Just persisting and writing new things is progress. When it comes down to it, being popular once or writing this amazing thing this one time doesn’t make the other person a better writer. There’s so much more to it than that. And even if they are “better” (who’s judging that, anyway?), that doesn’t mean you or your writing is worth any less.

Sure, we can think someone’s a better writer than us — because they’re published or a bestseller or whatever. The truth is, a lot of writers are. But maybe they’ve also been writing longer, or just got lucky, or they have agents and editors and marketing teams helping them. Or they simply put in a lot more work. Chances are their first draft still stinks.

It’s a waste of time to compare ourselves to other writers. All that leads to is us feeling bad about ourselves. Being a “good” writer isn’t about how many fans you have or books you’ve sold or even whether you have an agent. It’s about how dedicated you are to your own craft — how honest you can be with yourself about where your work needs to improve, and how much energy you’re willing to put in to make it better.

Good writers push themselves. They don’t diminish other writers, because they know the only person they’re really in competition with is themselves.

And you are not your work. If your writing sucks, that doesn’t mean you do.

It just means you haven’t made it better yet.

‘Authors Anonymous’ and real-life critique groups

Authors Anonymous movie

After watching the movie Authors Anonymous on Netflix, I realized something important about participating in a local critique group: A little manuscript help isn’t worth suffering other writers’ neuroses.

Most writers are neurotic, one way or another. Put five to ten of us in a room together, and shit happens. Usually, that means some lively (at times heated) story discussion, and sometimes outright arguments. There are always pros and cons. The critique group is a crawl — you can get a full manuscript critique from an online writing partner in the time it would take a local critique group to do one or two chapters — but the trade-off is the atmosphere and community. It’s about being united with your fellow writers and motivating each other to improve.

One tense scene in Authors Anonymous shows what happens when that little community implodes: Jealous of another member’s success and annoyed by everyone else, one character bitches out each writer in turn (mostly saying their work is crap) before quitting. It isn’t long afterward that the whole group falls apart. Each character has too much emotional baggage to support anyone; they only end up sabotaging or demoralizing them instead.

Real life can be similar. When writers start picking fights, gossiping, or taking criticism too personally, it’s time to say sayonara. If you’re not getting emotional support from the group, it’s not worth going.

Have you ever been in a writing / critique group with personality problems? What happened?

How do I tell my friend their novel sucks?

Short Story Ryan Gosling GIF

Quick answer: You don’t. Or, at least, you don’t tell your friend their book stinks and then chat merrily about the weather or resume whatever else it was you were doing (celebrating their birthday, maybe — please don’t tell them this on their birthday). If someone you know is writing a novel, that means they still have time to improve it. If the novel’s already published, well, then I guess someone thought it was okay enough for other people to read, and you should probably shut up and congratulate your friend. The point is, if you’re friend is in the midst of writing, maybe they’re looking less for soul-crushing judgment and more for feedback on how they can make their story better. Here’s what’s actually helpful for them to hear: “Hey, I don’t like this particular thing, but I think you could make it awesome.” Not all critiquing is constructive. If your friend wrote a story about a dog and you hate dogs, then don’t say their novel sucks because of your personal preference. Plenty of other people like dogs and would read about them. Also, never utter the words “your novel sucks,” because that’s just petty. It will probably also make your friend do this:

Fillion Writing GIF Instead, try to figure out what you don’t like and why. Give them more reasoning than “it’s stupid” or “this is boring.” Maybe your friend needs to do more to endear the reader to their main character, or maybe they need to add more action and dialogue and lose some description. Find something concrete for them to work with. If you want, you can suggest ideas for how they might fix the problem, but keep in mind that the writer makes the final call. Readers are usually right when they feel something’s off, but that’s as far as their power extends. “This chapter needs work, but I loved this part.” Don’t just point out the bad things. Regardless of its quality, writing takes a tremendous amount of energy and dedication, and hearing someone rattle off criticism after criticism can be demotivating. Keep your friend’s spirits high by either starting out with a compliment (“This is a great idea for a story” or “I loved this character!”) or by taking a break from the negative and pointing out something you did like. It can be as small as a sentence or a descriptive image. Your friend will appreciate the mention and feel happy that you liked it. Basically, it tells them that if they keep writing more of that — the thing you liked — they’ll be doing a good job. “Don’t give up.” This must-watch TED Talk teaches an amazing lesson: You are not your novel.

It’s easy for writers to believe that if their novel is bad, that’s because they’re bad writers. That’s not how it works. I’m a firm believer than you become a good writer by writing — and writing a lot of crap before you get good. Skill takes time to develop. No matter how much you read or how much writing advice you digest, everyone needs to put pencil to paper (or fingers to keys) and untangle the very scary and magical thing that is writing. Writing a novel takes hundreds and hundreds of hours. Whole years. Decades, even. People spend a tiny fraction of that time reading the damn thing once it’s finished, and they can destroy a writer’s confidence and hope in a mere few words. Be mindful: Writing is hard work. It takes courage to do it and an incredible amount of willpower to see it through. Whether your love your friend’s book or hate it, tell them the same thing at the end of the day: “Don’t give up.” “You can do this.” “You’ve got it.” Because those few words can go a long way.

Well, this is disgusting: A fashion photoshoot of suicidal authors

Vice magazine

Sexy lady galleries: We don’t like them. Or rather, we don’t like when they’re abused as a quick way of getting websites hits and eyeballs because they have so much integrity, oh yes.

I remember a few months back some “women in tech” themed gallery popped up where instead of emphasizing their brilliant minds, the article showcased their “hot” bodies. Because clearly they’ve made it in tech because they look good.

Now the same thing is happening again (and always, forever) except this time, it’s taking models and making them pose as female authors who were on the brink of suicide — writers like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. That’s oh-so-sexy and dignified. Let’s talk about their sexy poetry and novels and the words coming off those blue lips of theirs. We can call it “Last Words” and pretend it’s classy.

Vice magazine has pulled the photoshoot from its website — but not before the entire Internet told it that it was stupid.

“It’s almost breathtakingly tasteless,” said former fashion model Jenna Sauers, writing on feminist site Jezebel. “Suicide is not a fashion statement.”

She continued, “Making light of suicide and underlying mental health problems is sick, sick stuff. And while time doesn’t necessarily lessen the grief of suicide, it’s perhaps especially distressing that some of the people Vice depicts died very recently — Chang in just 2004 — leaving still-living loved ones behind.

“These weren’t fictional characters; these were real women, who lived and struggled and died, and to treat their lowest moments as fodder for a silly fashion spread is shameful and sad.”

Let’s be nicer to writers, please

Writing self-doubt

Angry phone messages. Nasty emails. Completely vicious comments. If you’re a writer, then you’ve probably received these at least once, if not dozens of times.

It breaks my heart that writing is the foundation of so much in our society, yet most people have virtually zero respect for the people who contribute. Those television shows you watch religiously, the books and movies you adore, the websites and blogs you keep coming back to. Sure, when writing is bad, it’s bad. It’s OK to say so; sometimes, you’re doing the writer a favor.

be nice or leaveThat doesn’t mean making him or her feel like the lowliest, most repulsive, most worthless creature on the planet. But for writers, especially those on the web, that’s an everyday reality they have to live with. They have to learn how to ignore it and move on because this is how they make their living, or it’s so much a part of their gut that they can’t stop writing and wouldn’t want to, anyway. Easier said than done.

A couple months ago, I wrote a review of a PC game for a major outlet. I’ve played the genre before, and I think my critical assessment of the game was fair. But people still flock by the hundreds (even thousands) to view my article, leave a hurtful comment, or walk away thinking, “What a joke.”

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