Jay Lake: Writer

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[process] Being smart about yourself and your writing

Yesterday, I posted an impassioned plea for aspiring writers to ignore writing advice. [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ] Therefore, being the logically consistent fellow that I am, today I am going to post some more advice for you to ignore.

What I really meant, of course, was that aspiring writers should learn to filter.

And that is a damned hard trick to pull. Right on the level with pulling yourself up in the air by grasping the scruff of your own neck.

Take me, for an example. When I first started trying to write professionally, back around 1990, I was convinced I was hot shit. I figured on being the next genius phenom bestseller as soon as I was discovered. And no one had anything to tell me that I needed to hear.

I exaggerate, but only a little. Obviously, this was before I reached the stage I described yesterday of taking everyone else’s advice too seriously.

While not all writers go through it, this drastic overconfidence is a necessary stage for many of us. (The obverse of deep self-denial and self-deprecation that some people follow is often essentially the same phenomenon filtered through different personalities and life experiences.) It requires a staggering amount of ego to assume anyone wants to read what you have to say, let alone pay money for the privilege. That’s true even as a well-established working professional author, as I am today. It’s far more true of an aspiring writer in their earliest stages.

That ego, that drastic overconfidence, is the match that can set the fire. Because honestly, who would go through all this, the years of unrewarded effort, the endless criticism, the “when are you going to get a real job/do something important” comments from friends and family, just for the opportunity to run around pitching agents and editors in hopes of being that one in a thousand manuscripts that actually makes it onto a bookstore shelf.

If you’re doing it for the money, you might as well play the lottery. If you’re doing it for the love, get a puppy. It’s the burning need, however expressed, that drives so many of us.

But that same burning need, expressed as drastic overconfidence, for many years deafened me to good advice I did need to hear. It kept me from seeing flaws in my craft, in my art, in my professionalism. The same match that lit my fire blinded me to the course I had to follow.

(Parenthetically speaking, I’m awfully glad blogs weren’t the done thing around 1994 or so, when I was suspicious and resentful that the only people who got published were the well-connected. It took me years to understand that the reason authors and editors all know each other is because they work together, not the other way around. Thankfully, all the dumb, self-defending, angry rationalizations I made to my workshop and my writer friends back then about why I wasn’t getting published are not now memorialized forever in the Internet wayback machine.)

My point is this: learning to listen to good advice is the complement of learning to ignore good advice. The trick is learning to filter. And if you’re anything like me, you either have had or currently have a lot of noise in your head that keeps you from doing so. Likewise, if you’re anything like me, you don’t recognize that noise for what it is, so it will keep getting in your way until you do.

The best thing I can say now is slow down and think deeply, especially about the events and comments that annoy you or make you defensive about your writing, your process, your career. And try to do some metathinking about what you’re filtering out, perhaps by recognizing moments in the past when the scales fell from your eyes and you were able to identify a blind spot.

I’m certainly wondering right now what blind spots I have today that I’ll ruefully regret in five or ten years. And the blind spots I have now…? They’ll be in that Internet wayback machine. So I am careful what I say.

And still I write.

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