The moment you realize you can conjure a tempest with words you’ll be ruined. Whether or not you start legitimizing the title on your business cards or writing under a nom de plume, the madness will start seeping in. The vulnerability of exposing yourself between the lines makes all of us writers our harshest critics, and many of us strive toward the elusive goal of “being good”—yet we have outrageous expectations as to what that actually entails.

Image source
Image source

For most, “being good” entails a bestselling book, a blog whose posts explode with comments within minutes of a post being published, a website whose content routinely goes viral, or a dedicated fan club whose members beg to have their unmentionables autographed. For some, “being good” happens when you get your articles featured on websites whose traffic, numbered in the thousands, makes your bank account balance into an embarrassment. For a handful, “being good” translates to someone other than the Microsoft Word wizard or your mom reading your words. For very few, “being good” translates to putting your heart into your prose, writing about things of significance to you (regardless of where they rate with other people), and challenging yourself to become better with every piece you transcribe.

Unlike most careers and hobbies, writing is a skill that’s worth relies on the connection between the finished product and its creator. Think of Pinocchio and Geppetto, but with less lying. When a writer fits arbitrary words together like tessellations, they’re sharing an excerpt of their heart and mind. Borne out of this tie between creator and creation is a helplessness that can make writers insecure in their quest for “good”ness.

I've read things that made me want to hide in Snoopy's dog house and give up.Image source
I’ve read things that made me want to hide in Snoopy’s dog house and give up.
Image source

Despite the beautiful snowflake, shiny gold star quality of every writer’s unique voice, we become possessed of the notion that everyone else’s writing success necessitates our own failure. We read articles whose articulate and vibrant presentation inspires a laptop slamming temper tantrum, complete with a foot stomp and a petulant, “Why didn’t I come up with that?” We skim blog posts whose punchy humor has us damning our bad karma, swiveling in our chairs while turning the same thought around in our mind: “Why can’t I be that funny?” These are our more innocent reactions.

On tougher days, we read these same articles and tear them down with, “I’ve written better essays than this,” or “This isn’t that good; why would anyone like this?” We underestimate our own potential so earnestly that we perceive our own peers as threats, and instead of learning from other bloggers, journalists, essayists, or novelists, we treat them like competitors whose accomplishments diminish our likelihood of “being good.” The real snake in the grass is the underestimation of our own skill.

I’m guilty of it myself, and maybe you are, too. I read blogs all the time whose poignancy, word choice, title, delivery, wit, satire, or imagery suddenly make everything I’ve ever written seem inferior, like my cute little blog is a toddler trying too hard to walk in wobbly high heels in a world full of Candice Swanepoels.

I’m going to offer some unsolicited wisdom from the pep talks I routinely give myself when I get too absorbed in this concept of “being good”:

1.) It’s tempting to compare yourself to other writers, but you can’t. You’ll always fall short in your own eyes because you’re too close to your experiences, your voice, and your inspiration—that proximity has a weird way of lessening their value. The only progression that matters is your own, and the only way to truly measure it is by looking more closely at your writing, not by poring over every brilliant line written by a stranger with a serious journalist-sounding name from San Diego.

2.) You can’t look at the milestones you haven’t accomplished yet as things that are definitely never going to transpire. Maybe it’ll take a few years, or maybe it won’t ever happen after all. Regardless of the outcome, one thing’s for certain: adding a fellow writer to your shit list because they achieved something before you did isn’t going to bring you any closer to making it happen for yourself. If anything, it’ll only bring you closer to a premeditated murder conviction and an orange jumpsuit.

3.) There’s no ordinance that states every time one writer succeeds, another one fails forever. It’s not like a horrible alternate ending to It’s A Wonderful Life. So when you react like a sore loser to news of your peers’ triumphs, check yourself, and keep in mind that there was a time when they weren’t on top of the world. Even now that they are (in your eyes), they probably still have many of the same doubts about their work as you do about your own.

You can “be good,” even great or spectacular, without everyone around you totally sucking. Do you really want to be the William Faulkner in a small pond filled with those espousing caveman diction anyway?

45 thoughts on “The Absurdity of “Being Good” As A Writer

  1. I’m glad you said all of this. It’s all too true. Instead of people being supportive, it’s terribly competitive, and not in a good way. My philosophy is to write what I know and stick with what I am best at, and not worry about what my peers are writing because there’s more than enough room on bookshelves and e-readers for all of us.

  2. Reblogged this on …..And The Moon Sees All and commented:
    This is all too true. My distinct feeling on this is that there is room for all of us on bookshelves and e-readers, and as a community, we should all be more supportive of one another. Though I openly admit, some people make it very hard to be supportive of their work. However, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. (I officially just became my Grandmother!)

  3. Testify!!!! — In all honesty, I can say I agree with every bloody word you wrote and feel compelled to revel in these words. I write for me first. Then if someone says, “wow, that is good” I feel rather successful. It makes me happy, I work, I eat cake and I go to bed genuinely feeling that the world is good. When the dark-side creeps in and I am reminded that I have won no awards and my stuff is not on Oprah’s reading list…well…I casually remember that there are a great many writers that never saw their books in print and yet I studied these books at Uni. I think I endeavour to be the writer that gets read at some point in the history of the world. However, the absolute joy I have from writing something and putting it “out there just because I can” is absolutely ace.

  4. I have to give myself this pep talk like every other day. In fact, I was just in the bathroom mirrors saying, “Well all that matters is that I liked it!” Then I slammed my head in the toilet and gave myself a swirly.

  5. So true. Being a writer means being insecure. I will never get the right words out no matter how hard I try. So I tell myself, if I like what I wrote, that’s more than half the battle. If others like it, great. But I have to take that chance and jump off the cliff anyway without that guarantee anyone will like it but me. If I crash, I can always jump off again.

    1. Exactly. I think being proud of what you create is the first, hardest, and most important part of it all. The support is great, but it won’t mean anything if you don’t believe it for yourself first.

  6. I’ve found myself guilty of almost all these negative behaviors at one time or another. You’re right, and it’s not just that I’m trying to compare apples to oranges– these negative feelings and reactions can be destructive, especially to my motivation to write at all. I need to value what’s unique to my writer’s voice. After all, that’s why I started writing in the first place– because I have something unique to say. We all do.

    1. Definitely! I totally agree. It all makes perfect sense when you think about rationally, but faced with someone else’s jaw-droppingly awesome article… It all goes out the window.

  7. Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes YES!!! Did I write enough yesses? Especially yes to this: “There’s no ordinance that states every time one writer succeeds, another one fails forever.” Thank you for saying these thing. Usually I have the presence of mind to know these things myself, but we all fall into the comparison game at one time or another…or another. Maybe you could just make a note to send me this post once a month in case I start getting all pissy about my writing (which usually happens about once a month…every six weeks if I’m lucky).

    You’re such a smart lady. Smart and sassy…just the way I like it.

  8. I have had that too many times to count since I have started blogging it’s mind blowing really. Your’s is among one of them, so I might still just secretly be hating spitefully right now. Hm. On that note, the saying about lessening your own worth due to your close proximity with your experiences and voice? Darn once again.

  9. A lot of those signs of being good (book sales, high traffic, viral articles) are really just signs of a successful writer – which is not necessarily a “good” one. But a lot of people probably do confuse these two concepts.

  10. Preach it, lil sis!

    The more I write, the more it becomes a part of my identity, and the less I give a fuck about being validated. I do it now because it’s who I am. I love it. I love being in the midst of a community of people who share that same hobby too. I love my style, I’m not gonna front! It’s my voice and I love evolving it.

    I think you’re on to something here, kiddo.

    Oh yeah,

    “I read blogs all the time whose poignancy, word choice, title, delivery, wit, satire, or imagery suddenly make everything I’ve ever written seem inferior, like my cute little blog is a toddler trying too hard to walk in wobbly high heels in a world full of Candice Swanepoels.”

    There’s no need to compare yourself to me like that, but I’m flattered nonetheless 😉

    Seriously, you do really good shit. You’ve come a long ways, and I’m impressed by how much you create. You’re making me feel like a bit of a slacker, dude…

    1. I completely agree about loving your style. I mean my style, but you’re style is pretty bomb, too.

      I have time to kill everyday on the train ride to and from work, and too many ideas.

  11. “Despite the beautiful snowflake, shiny gold star quality of every writer’s unique voice, we become possessed of the notion that everyone else’s writing success necessitates our own failure.” SO TRUE. I never compare myself to other people because I can only be me. People would be far better off practicing their own craft than imitating that of another.

    Great post!

  12. Artists of any genre are very much in need of constant validation, aren’t they, Katie?
    By the way, I know it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme, but for what its worth, I felt this was one of your best posts ever.

    1. Definitely. I think it’s because putting something out there is always a risk, and we start feeling insecure when we aren’t validated all the time.

      Thanks, Hook. I appreciate it.

  13. Being that I have just started blogging (actually putting any of my work out there at all) I often feel very juvenile and insecure when writing. Nervous to hit the “Publish” button, as though I’ll hear laughter the moment I do. No one has critiqued my writing or posts, and yet I always feel these judging eyes as I type. Like there is this ethereal writing nymph that is scoffing at me every time I try to put pen to paper (fingertips to keypad). It is so refreshing to read posts like this, celebrating our courage to even put our work out there! So thank you Katie! It’s bloggers like you who make this feel like a community, instead of a firing squad.

    1. Welcome! It’s unbelievably rewarding. I’ve been only been blogging since September 2012, and it makes such a difference having an audience. It’s really helped me develop my voice and become comfortable with saying what I want to say, how I want to say it. But enough about all of that.

      I’d worry less about the possible trolls and more about your opinion of your own work–I think that can be a lot more damaging. When you love and believe in what you create, the people that read it will, too. It has a funny way of coming across without you even realizing it.

      I love what you said about the community versus the firing squad. It can definitely feel like a little of both, sometimes.

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