I just read a small commentary on history books from Thomas E. Ricks on Foreign Policy, who gave an insightful reason why the first half of books are often better than the second.
Listen to what he wrote:
The writing of most books, I think, is a race between resources and understanding. As the author proceeds, his or her resources (energy, time, money) diminish, even as his or her understanding of the subject increases. The question is maintaining the resources long enough to finish at least a first draft. In many and perhaps most cases, fatigue overcomes the author, and so many books are weaker in their endings than in their beginnings. That is the way books end, not with a bang but a whimper.
Read the whole thing here. It’s short, but packs a punch.
You’ve got an idea and want to put it out there for the world to see. You visualize how it might serve other people, and think, “yes, that’s what I want to do.” Perhaps you’ve jotted a few ideas down in your trusty moleskin (does anybody else carry those?), or typed them in your Iphone’s note app.
But then when the time comes to put your ideas down on paper, you freeze. You pass the buck.
“Later. I will definitely do it later,” you say to yourself, closing your laptop and pressing the Netflix button on your home television controller.
Why does this happen?
There are a number of reasons why, but I’ve narrowed a few down for those of us who are not just writers in name, but in practice. That is, we are writers because we write, not because we tell other people we write.
This sort of fear isn’t the same thing as being afraid of heights. I would never fall out of an airplane 20,000 feet above the ground, and it has nothing to do with my own personal fears. I value my life and couldn’t risk even the .01 percent chance that I fall out of an airplane and my parachute fails to open.
The sort of fear I’m talking about as it pertains to writing is a type of paralysis of being known and revealing your flaws for other people to see. Here are three ways those flaws are manifested:
It may be manifested in the thoughts you conceive, thoughts that are opinionated. Wherever there is an opinion, there is always a contrarian. Always. And that contrarian is looking to poke holes in an argument that we think we’ve fully thought out. Perhaps we haven’t.
Contrary to what we’ve heard during the political war epic of 2016, you are not your opinions. You are more than that. Thus, if you try to engage an issue, see that as a mark of courage, not dishonor. It doesn’t even matter that you got it wrong. We place a little too much emphasis in getting things “right,” which is as squishy a word as there ever was. Getting things wrong has value as well. You can learn from getting things wrong.
At the very least, writing will allow you to think through things differently, and that has value in itself.
2. Grammar Mistakes
It also may be manifested through grammar mistakes, which was something I struggled with early in my writing career. When someone found mistakes, I took them as an assault on me. I got defensive, looking to push back against any corrections.
Why did I do that?
I later realized that I wanted to skip the part of my writing life where I would do the art badly, and skip ahead to the end where I would be a master at the form. Nobody is a genius at the beginning. Nobody. I don’t care who you are. Because first you have to learn the sounds of language. Then the words. Then the phrases. Then the parts of speech. Then the structure of sentences. Then the paragraphs. Then the essays. So on and so forth.
I am still in the process of learning. I still make mistakes. How I view them, and how I view correction has radically changed.
3. Hasn’t someone else written this before?
A lot of writers feel like there work is derivative. That makes them throw the work they’ve done away. Or instead of continuing to refine it, they choose to stop in the middle of it. The cold, hard, truth: a lot of it is.
Again, this is something that happens to a lot of writers. We read Ernest Hemingway and want to follow his short, crisp prose, or we read Marylinne Robinson and want to co-opt her harrowing voice.
But we quickly realize that we aren’t those writers.
You are you. And there is no one who can write a story like you can.
In the coming days, I’ll answer each one of these fears that I dealt with. I’ll provide some balm for writing wounds. In the meantime, here is a video on writing that I find very inspirational by the author Neil Gaiman, who was featured on The Nerdist podcast.