Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Swallowed Alive: The Fear of Incompetence

A life of Artistic Pursuit is always a roller coaster.  Regardless of which branch of the arts it is -- writing, music, art, theatre -- it's hard to avoid the ups-and-downs of "Oh, fiddle-poo. I'm just not GOOD ENOUGH."

And then, for a little while, we might fear that's WE'LL NEVER BE.

Good enough, that is.

I majored in piano.  (Well, Music Education, but my piano was the apex of those studies.)  Worked my fingers raw.  Secured a Secret Key to the music building so I could practice after it had been locked for the night -- and before the security guy opened it in the early mornings.

I was good.  Won scholarships.  Performed recitals.  Was paid to accompany the local Chorale.  All that stuff.

But I wasn't phenomenal.  And I knew it.

I never aspired to be a concert pianist, though.  Knew, in the back of my college-twit brain, that I wouldn't live that life -- didn't want to live it.

So my bouts of WOE-IS-ME-I-REALLY-SUCK-COMPARED-TO-OTHER-PIANISTS weren't earth-rending.

Fast-forward to Authoress-as-writer.  Things are VERY DIFFERENT when you're pursuing something that really matters.  The downs can be debilitating.

They crop up at funny, unexpected moments.  Like, I read the blurb on the back of Myra McEntire's HOURGLASS, which includes the phrase "mind-bending plot". And immediately thought, "Wow. I COULD NEVER WRITE A MIND-BENDING PLOT."

Are you with me?

It's like we're wired to self-destruct.  And every time it happens, we HAVE to rebuke those self-defeating thoughts and JUST GET ON WITH IT.

The waters of Queryland are especially dangerous.  All those rejections from agents can start to whittle away at your self-confidence until you question EVERYTHING.  Like, why am I doing this to myself in the first place? If I can't even get an agent, how will I ever get published?

Followed by teeth-gnashing and potential chocolate over-consumption.

Here's the thing:  If you're reading this blog...if you're working HARD and writing A LOT and getting GOOD, CONSISTENT CRITIQUE and are LEARNING FROM THIS CRITIQUE, then you are not incompetent.

Even if, some days, you fear that you are.

Still with me?

Good.  I want you to go read this POST BY BETH REVIS.

Because it's excellent. And you need to hear it.



  1. Maybe we DO just need to get on with it. However, I think this attitude can be dangerous because sometimes we're NOT COMPETENT and self-doubt is the clue gun. If we just get on with it, we risk missing the Competence Island by miles.

    And maybe at the end of the day, we just need to accept that all of us, even those who do everything we can to learn, are incompetent-- more so in some aspects than others, but incompetent nonetheless.

  2. I cannot sing and if I didn’t have children, I would never EVER sing in public. But when I used to live by myself, I would sometimes blast a favourite song and sing along as loud as I could. I knew I would never be a singer and I honestly never would have tried, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to sing in my kitchen because I enjoyed it.

    I look at writing this same way. If you decide you are in it for the sheer love of writing, the only person who should be able to be disappointed in you is you. If, however, you decide you are in it for the agents, editors, publishers... then yes, you will take a hit to your confidence when you get a rejection from these people. I think it is very important that you know WHY you are writing and that you don’t get caught up in the formal publishing loop if that is not what drives you. If you do, you can get all the book contracts in the world and you still won’t be happy.

    Remember: we all get to decide whose opinions matter to us and how they will affect us. The only person who can control, or give up control, of your confidence is you.

  3. I haven't even started querying yet, and I live with this doubt! Great post and link, thank you for it.

  4. GREAT post! Thank you for this. Fantastic!

  5. Your timing is impeccable.

  6. Oh girl, I laughed out loud at this post...because I do this EVERY single time I read a book. I will re-read sentences thinking "that's amazing how she captured that" and then hit those 'mind-bending plots' and think pshhhh... who am I fooling? My plots aren't compelling like that. I'M A FRAUD!!

    Truth is we have to remember that our finished product...the ones that come after the evil red pen...are probably just as mind bending as theirs are. Probably. Maybe...BUT the point is they have crap first drafts too. Their plots probably are stiff and un-bendy just like ours are.


    Let's go with that!!

  7. You totally hit me where it's hurting right now, because, after a flurry of recent "agent action," I've gotten no constructive criticism--just general, completely subjective opinions on my novel from prospective agents.

    I do write to please myself, to take myself into this other world and discover what the characters are doing in it. However, what's the point of writing novels no one will ever read? The very nature of novel-writing is to share these experiences/characters with others in a meaningful way.

    I'm not sure at what point we throw in the towel, after ten rejections? Twenty? One hundred? But I think, as long as I like to read my books, and others enjoy the bites I give them, I'll keep it up. And self-publishing an e-book is looking better and better in this world without Borders (pun intended).

    Thanks for the encouragement, Authoress!

  8. For me the hardest thing is the confidence to take the risks to take those next steps. I like the hard work and learning, but taking those steps requires a lot of confidence - and I don't always have that. I'm off to Beth's place now... :)

  9. " If you're reading this blog...if you're working HARD and writing A LOT and getting GOOD, CONSISTENT CRITIQUE and are LEARNING FROM THIS CRITIQUE, then you are not incompetent.

    Even if, some days, you fear that you are."

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you THANK YOU! Thank. You.
    I'm in the SERIOUS rollercoaster of an infant WIP now (although, really, what's NOT a rollercoaster?) - some hours it's "I'm incredible!" and other hours it's, "I am such. a. JOKE."

    Thank you.

  10. Thank you so much for this post and the link to the other wonderful post. Sometimes this feeling just smacks me out of the blue! It's great to know it's part of the process...for most everyone :).

  11. Thanks for this. There are many, many times when I feel too mediocre to continue. Glad I'm not the only one and that it's just part of the process. Onward and upward!

  12. Thank you for the encouragement. Sounds like I'm not the only one who has an existential crisis every time I'm rejected. I'll need to bookmark this post and read it once a week. :)

  13. This is why it makes me crazy, this process of creation.

    I think I'm a good story-teller. I know how to engage an audience in a story. I love the stage. I love watching people and changing the story as I see their reaction so that I get them to where I want to go. I'm a raconteur. I know that.

    Writing it as a novel or even a short story is different. It's flat and final. It is what it is, and can't change anymore. Fixed and broken at the same time.

    And there is the form of the novel, and the art required to engage the reader, to tantalize and slowly reveal, to meander at the right points and then to drive suddenly home.

    It is just so much harder than just telling the story.

    What I learned/am learning is that it is an art and a craft, and no one - NO ONE - can tell you how to do it. You can get signs and omens, you can get advice and criticism, but in the end you must figure it out one sentence at a time how to create the story.

    I am crazy with frustration at what I know is my story and the limitations of my skill. I think sometimes I am so close, and it is so clear, and then I step back and it is all just words.

    I jump between joy and despair daily. Ah! This section makes sense! It sings, it singes. Ugh. This section is flat and dull, and is nothing more than me just telling the reader what to think and feel.

    I want it to work the very first time. I don't want to have to do the hard work of creation.

    That's where the zig-zags come from.

    If you could dampen the oscillations, maybe you could be more content - but then you could not create.

    Well, it's what I think, anyway.

  14. What a fantastic post and thanks for the great link, too. I go through this all the time. I'll be so excited about my WiP then I'll read a new book that comes out or review of a new one and think, "Mine will never be that good." I have to snap out of that kind of thinking and keep pushing forward. Fortunately, I have amazing critique partners and an insanely supportive family who always help pick me back up.

  15. Thanks so much! What a wonderful-- and true-- pep talk just when I needed it!

  16. you know when you come back from a vacation and you have a bit of the blues because the fun is over and you have to go back to work and junk? That's where i'm at this week. Throw in trying to finish up a first draft of my WIP and i've hit some lows in the last 48 hours. This post really helped. I know the lows will pass, they always do, this just helped remind me that others have the lows too.

  17. seems we're on the same wavelength today. Good stuff~

    ((hugs)) <3 #9

  18. There is a difference between being "uninitiated" and "willfully ignorant" which are the two camps of incompetent. You can be an incompetent writer because your uninitiated (never learned X) and that's fine. Because you have an attitude that will allow you to learn it. One can also be willfully ignorant, and have been told they are doing X wrong and continue to do it. They have a permanent and much more debilitating form of incompetence.

    Thinking that you are terrible at something isn't always a bad thing. It can sometimes improve your work. But if you are just one of the uninitiated and don't realize that you can improve, even if you suck now, that's a problem. That lack of confidence can ruin your career.

    Really excellent post. I think everyone needs to hear that good advice. The best way to get over your inner demons is to make them your outer demons by sharing them with other people :)