On Discouragement

Fair warning: This won’t be a happy post.

Nova Ren Suma has been hosting a series on her blog in which writers talk about turning points in the course of their writing journey. In comparative terms I’m just a baby writer and haven’t had much time to have any turning points, at least of the large kind. But I think I’m experiencing a turning point now.

I’ve mentioned that lately I’ve been making an effort to put myself out there more, to broaden my horizons in the writing world. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this, but each attempt is bigger than the last.

The first time, I enrolled in a writing course in my first year of Uni. I submitted the first chapter of my WIP instead of a short story for an assignment, and I received one of the only Cs I’ve ever had. The teacher’s comments really devastated me. I finished the course (and ended up with a fairly good mark) but I never looked at that WIP again. It was another two years before I tried writing a novel again.

The second time was after I finished my first novel. I’d learned how fragile the creative spirit could be, and so while I asked for critiques, I only asked friends and family. I couldn’t bear to put my story in the hands of strangers and watch them rip it apart. This, more than anything, tells me I really wasn’t ready then.

The third time is now, when I’m reaching out to other writers, as well as friends and family, and asking for critiques of my second novel. This has been a largely positive experience as my courage grows and grows, but I knew that putting myself out there and showing my work would also open me up to two staples of a writer’s life: criticism and rejection.

I think these things are essential for writers (more on that later) but they are also deeply wounding. When we write we expose a piece of our heart, and showing people our work is like placing that heart on someone’s doorstep and hoping they don’t trample it on their way out.

But here’s what I’ve realized lately: There is only one person whose opinion really matters when it comes to your writing, because there is only one person who can decide to keep going or to give up. That person is you.

The question I ask you, and the question I’ve been asking myself, is this: If every person in the world hated your writing, would you still write?

You will experience criticism and rejection. It will come from all directions. It could come from your mother, or your neighbor, or an agent sitting in an office in New York. It could come from critique partners, it could come from friends, it could come from strangers on the street. And it will hurt. It will bruise the most tender parts of you. It will take you to a deep, dark place you won’t know if you can crawl out of. And this is important because only then can you decide if the journey is worth it. Only then will you decide that you are going to listen to your opinion above all others. Only then will you hear that inner voice shout louder than all others: This is what I want.

The only person who can decide if the writing journey is worth it is you. The only person who can decide to keep going or to give up is you.

Here is something it is best to learn early: You cannot control how people react to your writing. You can only do the very best you can, and that has to be enough for you. If it isn’t enough? If other voices are drowning out your own? Then you need to decide whether this journey is really for you.

Something I know about myself is that I always hear criticism much louder than compliments. It’s something I’m working on – to give the same weight to the good comments as the bad. But if I were to judge my writing by the criticism and encouragement I received, the criticism would always win. And that’s why the most important voice – the only important voice – is your own.

Here is a quote that mirrors the journey I’ve been on:

“Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all–ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.” – Rilke from Letter to a Young Poet

Eventually you will need to make a decision: Which voice will you listen to? Will you bow under the weight of discouragement, or will you write?

I know what decision I’ve made.

On Discouragement

5 thoughts on “On Discouragement

  1. kiperoo says:

    What a courageous post. So true. And I think it is a turning point to make this decision and stick with it, because, yes, negative criticism and rejection are sure to come even to the most successful writers, so it’s better to realize it as early on as possible.

    There’s a fine line between honesty and constructive criticism, but I like to think that most writers completely understand how devastating critique can be and can get the honesty across in a way that helps instead of hurts. But good for you for seeking out that criticism and for sticking with your writing. Rilke is completely right, and I’m not just saying that because I’m the World’s Greatest Rilke Fan. 🙂

    1. bethanyrsmith says:

      Thanks, Kip. It took a lot of soul-searching but making that final decision is just so freeing. I don’t have to worry about whether people like my writing anymore, because I know I will never let an outside opinion stop me from doing what I love.

  2. Ditto to Kip. Any creative endeavor is soul-baring and criticism stings. What? But it’s me……how could you say those things? For me though, when the dust of grief settles there is usually some gem that reveals itself and therein lies the greater gift of taking risks. Of offering your work. Each fight only makes us stronger as writers. Seems as if you might be there already. Hugs.

    1. bethanyrsmith says:

      Yup, I like to see it as building muscle – every little tear in your muscle works to make you stronger as it heals. I’m becoming a stronger writer and a stronger person with every critique I receive.

  3. […] I’m about to embark on a whole new adventure, and it’s got me thinking about small beginnings. We all remember the day we began that first novel, sent that first query, received that first request, but what about the smaller beginnings? What about the day we woke up at 5am to write, the day we started over, the day we forged forward even when we wanted to give up? […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s