Believing that your voice and story matter can be difficult.
No more so than when you are facing an empty page, a blank screen, a yawning expectation that whatever you compose must justify everything: The time you’ve spent away from loved ones, from work, from sleep; the investment you’re asking readers to make in your world and your characters; the cash you’ve spent on your computer, your fountain pen, your bespoke composition costume,1Please, if you do have a composition costume, send me pictures. on your Word/Scrivener/Final App/what-have-you program, on classes and how-to books and on and on. To prove that you are not a monster of ego, but that you have something to say that the world may enjoy hearing. (The world may well need to hear what you have to say, but that’s an awfully high bar, and if that were the only criterion as to the worth of a story, our libraries would be very tiny indeed.)
Because of this omnipresent self-doubt, you may find yourself glancing sidelong at the writers around you—both published and not. Do that, and I guarantee you wee see only what you are not. Not lyrically gifted, not handy with plotting, not skilled at line-by-line writing, not able to create fully rounded characters. Not organized, not “connected,” not agented, not confident. Not a diverse voice; or alternatively, so far from the mainstream that you fear you’ll have an audience of one. Not a man, not a woman, not a new voice, not young, not wise, not in any way distinctive enough to draw the attention of an agent, let alone an editor at a publishing house and, eventually, a readership.
This is, of course, nonsense.
You are not in competition with any of those other folks. You are in competition only with yourself. (In his hilarious but sage Rules for Aging, Roger Rosenblatt’s Rule 29, in toto, is “Envy no one—ever.” This is wise advice, not only because envy eats at the soul, but because comparison is a step onto a never-ending slippery slope.)
Yes, I know—saying you compete only with yourself smacks of a sort of namby-pamby “Only you can write your story!” twaddle … but it’s true: you are the only one who can write this book. Whatever story you are telling, your goal must be to make it as much the story it wants to be as you are able. You’re not going to be able to do that by looking at what others are doing; your only course will be to look inward, at why you want to tell this story, in this way, and why you are the one to tell it.
Because that’s what will make your story stand out from a crowded field: your particular take on your story; your well-realized individuality shining through in every choice you’ve made; your belief in what you write giving the story an urgency that makes it impossible to ignore.
In his Paris Review interview, Ezra Pound tells a jokey bit about an artist that, I think, gets at this truth.
What are you drawing, Johnny?
But nobody knows what he looks like.
They will when I get through!
Cocky? Sure. But I’m curious to see what Johnny has drawn nonetheless.