To A Troubled Writer on Thanksgiving

Susan ThanksgivingI’m going to keep this short so you can get back to your turkey, your pumpkin pie, your pinot noir, your attempts to ignore your racist uncle, back to the bathroom where you hide to regain your composure and your fake smile. This is a post to remind you to live in the moment, appreciate who you are today, be thankful for the progress you’ve made, and to trust in the promise that your writing will continue to improve.

I’ve seen Amanda Palmer—rock star, TED talker, and author of the memoir, The Art of Asking—twice recently. In October, she was a keynote speaker at the Boston Book Festival and last week, she was the special guest during a live taping of the WBUR advice podcast Dear Sugar with Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed in Cambridge, MA. Both times she brought out her ukulele and belted out her song, “In My Mind,” an anthem to getting it wrong until you realize you got it right. The Rolling Stones famously sang, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” My plumber has a less optimistic tattoo inked bicep to wrist that reads, “It Is What It Is.” I would put Amanda Palmer’s song somewhere between my plumber’s stoic tattoo and the Stones iconic lyrics. Its message? Expectations lead to frustration when things don’t go as planned so cut yourself a break and celebrate the now.

Between these bookend performances, I’ve been pushing to finish a revision but keep wondering why it’s taking me so long, how it could have taken this long already, whether it’s ineptitude, poor discipline or, worst of all, a dearth of talent on my part. In this mood, I’m not inspired by other novels I read. Instead, I draw comparisons with my work which invariably comes up short. I see writer friends moving forward, hitting milestones, getting agents and book deals, and remember how I imagined myself there by now. Cheryl Strayed includes this quote in her new collection Brave Enough: “Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit bitching.” But that advice is hard to take when self-doubt creeps in, when you keep asking, “Who am I to write a novel?” especially during the holidays when well-meaning friends and family ask the dreaded question (you know the one).

So here, dear troubled writer, are five things you can do for yourself this Thanksgiving to quiet the voices of doubt.

  • Listen to the live Dear Sugar podcast. You’ll hear Steve Almond say, “What we want most is permission to feel what we are feeling.” Permission granted.
  • Read Colum McCann’s Letter To A Young Writer, even if you’re not young. Feel what you are feeling. “Be vivified by collapse.”
  • Listen to “In My Mind” again on that Dear Sugar.
  • Follow more McCann advice: “Try resuscitation.”
  • Do like Cheryl Strayed. Tape the last lines from “In My Mind” to your mirror or your laptop or write it in semi-indelible ink on your forearm: Fuck Yes. I’m exactly the person that I want to be.

Happy Thanksgiving!

8 comments

  1. Jerry whelan

    Absolutely nailed my own writing circumstances, Susan, and, I’m sure, those of others. The only difference is that I’ve become a writing zombie, and therefore experience no self-doubt, no angst, no hope, nothing, because zombies are incapable of all feelings except the inexorable impulse to keep moving. I just lurch on towards inevitable completion. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Kate

    I felt like this for most of the past year, mired in a story that I loved but wasn’t working as well or as quickly as I would have liked, querying the ms that comes before the difficult one in a series, and yes, watching everyone else speed ahead. I hit a breaking point in September when a well meaning writing friend suggested that maybe instead of pulling the mystery I was querying for revision I should put it in a drawer. I kind of lost it. I started writing something totally different. Then I got a offer from a agent and I didn’t jump at it. It was weird. After spending some much time comparing myself to everyone else’s journey, I trusted my own. I haven’t accepted or rejected the agent. I want to start a YA multi-generational roadtrip story. I did revise my first mystery and love it even more. I don’t know what changed by I’m glad it did,

    So, thank you for this. Validation is great. 😀

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