Tag Archives: inferiority complex

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.

Memoirs of an Imperfect Snowflake

When I was learning to write (and who am I kidding, I’ll always be learning) I knew I had to read a lot of books in order to hone my craft.  After all, I could learn all the writing “rules” in the world, but I knew the best way to grow as a writer was by absorbing all the subtle nuances and hidden rhythms that make up good prose.  So when I started blogging seriously I took the same approach.  I figured if I was going to have a blog, I was going to need to study other blogs, good and bad, to see what worked and what didn’t.  If I was ever going to be successful I needed to know who was doing it right and who was doing it wrong.

But yesterday I hit a snag.

Let me set the scene for you:  A new reader named mlkabik had just commented on my blog.  Whenever someone does that, I always check out their blog and try to find something I can comment on beyond just saying “I like this post.” There are two reasons for this.  First, I’m trying to build a following here.  I know if another blogger knows I cared enough to click through and comment on his work he’ll be more likely to come back to see what I have tomorrow.  But second and just as important, I really do enjoy encouraging my fellow-writers.  If no one ever commented on this blog I’d probably get discouraged and give up, and I know I’m not the only one in need of encouragement out there.

So I clicked through and took a look at mlkabik’s blog.  Here is a small sample of one particular post that caught my eye.

The smell reminds me of my awkward flirtation, both with her and her church (though only one smelled like my hands do now). The overstuffed couch and her wandering, milk-fed legs. The early morning drives to my mom’s – the fogginess of what the night was.

Now I don’t know about you, but I love this stuff.  The meandering evocative prose is like manna to my soul.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is, I can’t write like this.  Not even close.  Well, okay, I could try to write like that.  I might even manage some kind of success if I sat down and really worked at it.  But it wouldn’t be me.

Once upon a time that bothered me.  I’d read an author and think, “I can’t write like this guy can write.  This sounds so different from my stuff.  I’ll never be as good as he is.”  If you’re a writer you’ve probably experienced the same thing.  And what’s worse, that feeling of inferiority can be crippling if you let it fester.  You’ll start to think to yourself “If I’m never going to be as good as this guy, I might at well hang it up. What’s the use in pounding out my second-rate drivel?”

But recently I realized I was approaching the problem in the wrong way.  Because the truth is I’m not a bad writer.  And if the comments are anything to go on neither are you.  Do we need some rough edges knocked off? Sure.  Do we still have a lot to learn? Absolutely!  But we’re not inferior just because we can’t write like someone else.

Don’t believe me?  Keep reading.

Ever heard of Ernest Hemingway? If you haven’t you should stop reading right now and go and read The Old Man and the Sea, because it is awesome.  Seriously, go.  We’ll be here when you get back.

Done? Good wasn’t it? But do you know how Ernest Hemingway got his start as a novelist?  He started reading after F. Scott Fitzgerald.  You’re probably most familiar with Fitzgerald as the author of The Great Gatsby which is another fantastic book.

But the two have a style that is nothing alike.  Fitzgerald could string out grandiose and magnificent sentences of such eloquent beauty and poetic perfection that it’s hard not to cry when you look at them.  Hemingway, on the other hand, wrote sentences like a man swinging an ax.  Methodical, rhythmic, effective.

Now imagine if Ernest Hemingway had read Fitzgerald’s work and said, “My writing isn’t like this at all.  I should give it up and go home.”  We would have lost one of the greatest writers of our time.

Because the truth is we don’t all write alike.  We all have a voice that shines through our words, and that voice, when all the distractions and all the insecurities are stripped away, is something as complex and unique as a fingerprint.  And that isn’t a bad thing.  To become better writers we must study what other writers have done, but that doesn’t mean we’re under some obligation to produce the same kind of work.

Because I may think mlkabik’s writing is like manna from heaven, but every once in a while, I’m in the mood for a little pumpernickel rye bread, lightly toasted, with just a scrape of butter on the top.

And now, I’ve made myself hungry.


On a completely unrelated note today’s post is number 111 and it falls on 1.11.11.  I didn’t plan it that way, but I think it’s uber cool.