Tear Down Your Idols

I’ve been reading most of my life.  I remember back before my family had television that I would go to the library and come out with a stack of books up to my chin, and when the week was over mom would have to drive me back and we’d pick up another load.  I remember getting to the point when I looked at the YA books and said, “I think I’ve read every single one of these that I’m interested in reading.”

I’m not saying this so you’ll be impressed with me (okay maybe just the teeniest bit), I’m just saying that by the time I was a teenager I had a pretty good understanding of how prose was supposed to flow as well as the building blocks of basic narrative structure.  So it often happened that I would be reading through a book and think, “This is pretty bad. I think I could do better than this.”

But for the longest time I never did.  Why?  Because I had tricked myself into a dangerous delusion.  I had allowed myself to believe that published authors were special.

I mean, they must be right?  They’ve got their books on the shelves for sale at bookstores.  Not just anyone can do that.  They must be special people.  And if I didn’t like their book, well, obviously I’m just not getting it.  It’s probably because it’s difficult for me to understand the thought patterns of someone living on such an exalted plane of existence.

Of course, I wouldn’t have spelled it out exactly that way, but in the back of my mind, that’s exactly what I thought.

Authors are special.  I am not.

And even after I started writing I couldn’t quite think of myself as one of them.  After all, I was only a junior college student pounding out his little story between classes.  I wasn’t really a writer.  I would have to settle for aspiring.  And maybe, one day, if I was really lucky, the book gods would look down upon my trite efforts with favor and invite me up into their club.

And then one day I had something of an epiphany.  I realized that writers were people just like me.

Shocking right?  And yet, I bet you’ve been there before too.  It’s easy enough to do.  It doesn’t even have to be someone with a big name.  I’ve caught myself doing it with other bloggers recently.  I’d look at their following with wonder and awe and say, “They must be something special.  I could only dream of having a blog like that.”

I’m not saying this to cut anyone down, but those people aren’t special.  They’re just successful.

This is good news for you and here’s why: if they’re not special you can do it too.

Seriously.  I mean it.  Stephen King? Stephanie Meyers?  J. K. Rowling?  They’re all just people like us.  They don’t have some writer gene woven into their DNA.  All they have is hard work, a little luck, and even more hard work.  We can do what they do.  It won’t be easy, but then it wasn’t easy for them either.  It’s time to stop letting our idols have so much power over us.

BUT.  Here’s why this is bad news for you: if they’re not special you can do it too.

No, you’re not experiencing deja vu.  See, once you’ve gotten rid of the idea that famous writers are somehow special, and you realize that with a lot of hard work you can write just as well as they can, then the burden to become a better writer has suddenly fallen squarely on your shoulders. You can’t hide beneath the shadow of your idol any more, and the sun of truth is bright and harsh.  If they are nothing more than mortals just like you, then you have a responsibility, and obligation even to follow in their footsteps, to work your craft until you know it inside and out, to polish your style until it shines.

The truth is scary.  I can’t blame you if you want to go back into the comforting shadows of self-deception.  But if you’re going to do something important with your life and with your writing you’re going to have to come out into the light.  Only there will you see that your idols are nothing more than empty stone.

4 responses to “Tear Down Your Idols

  1. I guess it says something about current literature if examples of “gods” are King, Meyers, and Rowling. My “gods” were the likes of Dostoevsky, Balzac, Tolstoy. Later, when I was older, it was Camus, Sartre, Hesse. But I grew up in a different universe.

    It’s hopeless to model yourself after the writers you most admire, but who you learn from is important. Is it to be writers who are popular and successful by monetary standards, or writers who endure through time because of the power of their words?

    • You make a good point, but I was trying to choose writers with a big presence in the popular mind today. I’m a something of a fan of Stephen King and I did enjoy the Harry Potter books. Stephanie Meyers on the other hand…well let’s just let that one lie. The point is the names don’t really matter. Anyone you idolize is nothing more than human.
      And as to your last question, the answer is definitely money. Because, lets face it, Shakespear may be the best regarded author in the English language, but he’s also dead. On the other hand, money is something I can actually do something with while I’m here. I’m halfway joking here, but only halfway.

  2. Oh man, my worst phase of this was in high school. I believed I had to “live an author’s life,” if I was going to be an author. And for some reason, that meant make bad choices, it’ll give you more to write about. And trying to live like Anais Nin and Emily Dickinson at the same time is just ridiculous. Extremely ridiculous! I’m glad I eventually snapped out of it cause I was a big jerk then. On the bright side, I wouldn’t change any of it, those events shaped who I am today and why, and I’d never take that growing back.

  3. Haha. It is so true. I used to regard authors as gods of the prose. Now, after seeing more into their world. I feel better about my own self and some how bad. As if I had revealed the man behind the curtains, but having them so close to home brings about a new experience too.

    When I was in high school, I felt that anyone who did not write like my favorite author was not worth my time. Oh, how I have come a long way since then.

    I know the work that lays ahead of me and I am not so jolly about it, but I do look forward to it.

    Thanks for the post

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