Now that my Silly Tree author interview has gone up, I want to expound upon my answer to one of the questions:
6. Do you have advice for other writers?
Don’t let someone else’s negative opinion about your writing discourage you. If you write because you love to write, you’ll always find it rewarding.
In general, I tend to shy away from dispensing writing advice. I don’t think that good writers always have good advice, and something that works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. But as I’ve worked to get to where I am now (which admittedly is not very far, but it’s a good start), I’ve given this a lot of thought because it’s almost a guarantee that if you’re a writer, you’ll be asked to give writing advice at some point. And this is advice that is important and personal to me; it’s advice I should have listened to ten years ago.
(Wow, I feel old.)
A little over ten years ago, when I was a seventeen-year-old senior in high school, I applied to the creative writing program at SUNY Purchase and was rejected.
I took that rejection hard. To this day I can feel the dent it left in my self-esteem. Maybe that seems dramatic, but those teenage years are rife with rejection of all kinds and all of it feels insurmountable at the time. This instance hit me harder than the rest. It seemed like someone had slammed the door closed on my dreams.
I ended up attending SUNY Purchase as an undeclared major at first, eventually settling on journalism (I already wrote about how that turned out). But during my four years, I did little creative writing in my free time. Just like that, my spark had disappeared. Every time I thought of writing, or even got the seed of an idea, a nasty little voice in my head would say, What’s the point?
Even still today when I’m in a darker mood or hit those moments of self-doubt that I think plague most people to some degree, my writing is the first thing that suffers. I start doubting that I can produce anything worthwhile. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that; maybe I should pretend I’m full of confidence. But I tend to favor the truth, and this is mine.
I let that rejection sink into my soul and apply to me as a person instead of reminding myself that it only applied to my writing—and I forgot that writing can be improved. It’s easier to change than a personality trait; it takes practice and hard work, but it doesn’t necessarily require special classes.
I realize that now, of course; I realized it years ago. But when I was seventeen, despite having friends and family telling me I could still write, that it’s all subjective, I couldn’t bring myself to write anymore.
So that’s why this advice is important to me. The negative opinion about my portfolio (which was justified, because my portfolio had numerous significant flaws) kept me away from writing for years. In the long run maybe it was for the best—after all, you don’t need a creative writing degree to get published (a topic for a future post), and in some ways I think the rejection has helped make me a better writer—but now I wish I had been able to overcome the mental block sooner. You can’t rush those things, of course, but you also can’t make back lost time.
I wish my seventeen-year-old self had listened to the friends and family who gave me variations of the advice I gave in my interview. At the time, I thought they were just being nice. Maybe some of them were. But that doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it’s good advice.
Negative opinions shouldn’t stop you from writing, and sometimes the person with the negative opinions is yourself. That’s when it’s hardest. How can you stay positive with a nasty voice in your head saying you should give up? It always helps to have friends whose opinions you trust, who can help counteract the negativity when it strikes. But, as I learned when I was seventeen, sometimes that isn’t enough. Some optimism needs to be internal as well, or the external positivity has no infrastructure to reinforce. It took me years to find the mental strategies that work for me, and even still they don’t work 100% of the time. It’s helped me to remind myself that although I write because I love to write, that doesn’t make me some kind of writing machine that will be able to churn out X number of words every time I sit down.
However, this optimism needs a healthy dose of reality as well. I’m not telling myself that I’m the best writer in the world. I know I’m still improving and likely will be for the rest of my life, but I can enjoy the process as much as the reward of getting published.
This advice is not the same as “write every day”, and I’ve already covered my opinions on that. It’s okay to take breaks from writing sometimes, whether because of writer’s block or just because you want to go out and have an adventure (or any other reason). The difference is having the intention of returning to writing, whether it’s after days or years. After I received my rejection, I didn’t think I’d ever start writing again, and it felt out of my control at first.
Of course, I couldn’t stay away even with the blow to my self-esteem. Toward the end of my undergraduate studies, it all slowly came back to me. I started letting story ideas take root in my brain again. Then, after some time, I’d write down one or two sentences. Soon, those sentences became stories. In the end, I had to decide what mattered more to me: people’s approval, or the writing itself. I think it’s clear which one I chose.
So if you’re in a slump right now, or just received a rejection, know that I’m rooting for you. Keep writing. Your stories are worth telling.