Story Hospital

#8: You Are Not Your Work

Hey Story Nurse,

I’ve been dabbling in writing since I was 14, and now that I graduated university I decided that it was Time To Get Down To Business. The problem is, whenever I sit down to write anything, I always feel terrible about it once it hits 10k. It’s not that I lack confidence in my writing skills (I studied English lit), but it’s more that I worry that no one in the world would ever want to read my story. Who cares about a novella with two girls trapped on a lonely planet?! How can I get rid of that self doubt? Because I know I want to read that story, and I know that there is such a big market for stories casually featuring queer girls, but I just can’t seem to make the cognitive leap from “people like stories about queer girls in space” to “people will like MY story about queer girls in space”.

I’m going to a retreat for 5 days next week, and I really want to work on this story, but I just feel like I need to find some CONFIDENCE!

Thank you so much for your time,
Space Lesbian (she/her)

Dear Space Lesbian,

I’m sorry I didn’t get to respond in time for your retreat, and I hope it was very helpful to you one way or another. Sometimes sitting alone in a room with your work and no other distractions is the best way to figure out what’s really keeping you from writing.

In this letter, you talk about yourself and your work as though they’re one and the same. One moment you say you don’t think anyone will want to read your work, and the next you say you doubt yourself. Your identification with your work is something I see a lot of in students and recent graduates, because school is a place where you as a person are judged by the quality of your work in a way that’s pretty psychologically terrible. We say that a person is a “straight-A student” when what we mean is that that person’s work is consistently evaluated very highly by their teachers. The person, as a person, does not directly get graded. But that’s how it feels—that the grade for your work is the grade for you.

Writing fiction in the non-academic world doesn’t work that way. I know some lovely people whose company I greatly enjoy and whose writing I find unreadable; I have books on my living room shelves whose authors are not themselves welcome in my living room. The author and the work are related but distinct. Many authors are obnoxious and could even be considered fairly terrible human beings and their work is still read and lauded by many. So no matter how awful you may sometimes feel you are as a person, that has basically zero bearing on whether people will want to read your work, unless you’re planning to go on a murderous rampage. (And then people will want to read your memoir.)

Once you complete the work, it is no longer yours. It belongs to the reader. Many people will read it who know nothing about you except that your name is on the cover of a book. They will have opinions about the book, and they may translate that into opinions about you as a writer, but they will not have opinions about you as a person, because they don’t know you as a person. To you, it’s your story. To them, it’s a story. You are the means by which the book came into their lives, and nothing more. They may decide they like the way you write, in which case they will look for your name on other books; they may decide they want to meet you at conventions and get your autograph. But even then, they don’t know you. The fan/creator relationship is a complicated thing, but it assuredly is not as intimate as, say, a friendship. And I’d bet you even have friends who don’t know you all that well.

Other authors write all kinds of queer girl space stories. They write good ones and bad ones, long ones and short ones, funny ones and sad ones, romantic ones and friendship ones. They self-publish and they pro-publish. Your story is unique, because all stories are unique, but it’s not uniquely terrible or uniquely unpolished or whatever judgment you think people might pass on it (and thence on you). It’s part of a genre, a field, and readers will interact with it on that basis—once you let yourself write it.

If no one reads your stories about queer girls in space, that’s not a judgment on you. And if everyone loves your stories about queer girls in space, that’s not a judgment on you. The work is the work. You put a part of yourself into it, and then you sever the umbilicus and step away and let it live its own life.

My suggestion for you is that you practice severing that connection between self and work. Here are some options:

1. Put the work in the spotlight and yourself in the shadows.

2. Get comfortable with ephemerality.

3. Write things that aren’t your novel. A novel is a big thing! Sometimes it can be too big a thing. Let go of any deadline you might have had in mind for it and let yourself dabble in other projects. They aren’t just distractions; they will teach you and you can bring those lessons back to the novel. But if it’s just you and the novel, you will get very tangled up in it and struggle to separate yourself. Writing multiple works, of any length and any type, will help you see them as independent entities separate from one another and from you. And as you develop your craft, you’ll feel better about the writing you produce and believe that other people will want to read your work.

4. Take care of yourself for your own sake, not just as a writer.

I realize that very little here seems like it’s about building confidence. But you say that you don’t lack confidence in your writing skills, and I think that the distinction between “people like reading these stories” and “no one wants to read MY story” is more of what this hinges on for you. So focus on unsticking that hinge, and I think you’ll do just fine.

Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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