The Mark Blog

Bookmark This: Lies Writers Tell Themselves

The Awl's Alexander Chee shares an essential guide to existence. All writers take note:

21 Lies Writers Tell Themselves (And How They Can Stop Lying To Themselves And Become Awesome!)*

1. Underwear is definitely pants.

This has been an issue, I believe, ever since the first writer ever worked at home.

A general guideline: underwear isn’t pants. That is, you can’t tell yourself, “At least I put on pants today,” if it was just underwear—and no, you shouldn’t sign for a delivery like that.

There's no shame in working in your skivvies, though. Victor Hugo used to get undressed and have his valet take his clothes away. Be proud; just know that it's not pants you've got on. Now go back to work.

2. All you need to be a writer is talent.

Despite the success of many untalented writers, this myth persists.

No, you need to be persistent, and writing needs to matter above other things. Most often, talent only means that you can do easily what others work hard to achieve—and this almost always means you don’t value it the way others do. You probably don’t even know how you do what you do. Talented people are often very frustrating to work with because they lack good work habits.

If you find you're talented, learn to work your tail off. And if you’re not (or don’t think you are), work your tail off—persistent people usually learn to do what talented people can do. Also, read on.

3. My talent and its demands protect me from the responsibilities of normal people.

I see this a lot at writers colonies, where I get to the kitchen and someone has just left their dishes despite the ‘please wash your dish’ sign.

While most people still think talent matters more than anything, in my experience, character will doom talent more than most other challenges a writer faces. Certainly, you don’t need to be a good person to write a good book, and what’s more, lots of people who write good books take advantage of others to do so—and they usually find someone who will uncomplainingly do what they will not do. Those dishes in the colony sink are usually an invitation to you to become their next little helper, in fact. Don’t fall for it! Don’t be their helper and don’t be the person who tries to get other people to do your chores. Just be a person. Do your dishes, take out the garbage, say “I’m sorry,” text people back, do some of the grocery shopping and so on.

Because even if you can find someone who will do everything you require to make sure you can write and ask for nearly nothing from you in return, just watch Kathy Bates in Misery, or read Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives to see how that turns out. That little helper will punish you for it eventually.

4. I’m almost done.

You just want to be done, which is completely different from almost being done. Usually you can’t know, though, until you get to the end.

5. When I’m not engaged in the process of writing, I’m thinking about writing, therefore I am writing.

Well… most likely you’re blocked.

Caveat: If you’re Edward P. Jones you may not be. I heard him speak at the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference a few years ago and he said he spent most of the years working on The Known World watching DVDs and thinking about his characters, living in an apartment with no furniture. He wrote most of it near the very end of that time after a lot of thinking. But he really was thinking about his characters, getting to know his characters. If your brain works this way, then yes, your thinking about writing counts as writing. Otherwise, write.

6. My writer’s block protects me from humiliating myself.

When have I ever said this, you say. Well, this is the script in your unconscious, one you tell yourself unconsciously when you’re blocked. As such, it is usually hidden from you.

If there is some idea you both cannot write about and cannot let go of, the problem is usually not with the idea. If you are blocked this way, it may be you need approval of some kind you can’t quite admit. You may fear being disliked generally, or fear the loss of approval of a parent or maybe even someone you barely remember. If you think that if you write it, it will destroy you, underneath that fear is a need for someone’s approval that you fear losing, and underneath that is you as a captive to that need for approval. It’s not even that you have writer’s block in other words—you may have Stockholm Syndrome with your writer’s block. You may even have dressed your block up with the aura of a tragic romance, because of how it keeps you from destroying your relationship to this person who you fear would disapprove if you were to become a writer.

And, chances are, that relationship (or at least, that need for approval) is exactly what you need to destroy.

From here, you can go forward with one of two narratives. One is the actual book that you were thinking of and are too afraid to write; the other is a story of yourself as a complete failure. Both will be incredibly detailed and nuanced, but one will be potentially publishable while the other will only ever appear in your private theater of pain (seats one, immediate seating available). You’ve made choice number two, for now at least, and so there you sit, not writing, thinking you’ve saved yourself, your writing goals and aspirations out there dying in the wind. If this is true for you, you need to reverse the polarity—you need to make it so that you are afraid of not finishing, afraid of not getting the writing done, and that you’ve protected yourself only if the writing is done.

Don’t sit there imagining disapproval instead of imagining your novel. Find out. Write it, get people to read it, send it out. And don’t just send it out five times. Rejection is perhaps the only thing writers work with more than language. Get used to it. Eat it for lunch, or maybe with lunch is better (rejection is not lunch, it’s true) and walk on.

7. I don’t care that my frenemy from grad school got a million dollars for that literary crossover novel.

The good news is that a million-dollar deal really is something to wish on an enemy. It almost never works out (I refer you to Snooki, Mid-list author). Also, the literary crossover is the Bigfoot of publishing. So rarely do they appear.

Whoever it is inevitably becomes The Person Who Talked About Their Bookdeal For Three Years. This person is not beloved. Also not beloved: The Person Who Talked About That One Person’s Book Deal For Three Years. Back to work!

8. I don’t care that I got a million dollars for my literary crossover novel. I’m going to just keep it real. This doesn’t change anything for me. You know.

Come on. COME ON

9. I don’t need to back up my computer.

Same answer as 8.

10. Publishing this book will change my life.

Maybe. But usually people who believe this actually believe their debut will purify them somehow, make them into a better, more attractive person, the person they have always wanted to be. [Cue close-up, star filter, sound track]. And chances are you are better off preparing for the possibility you will still be the same person with all of your bills and character flaws afterward. Some of the most desperately insecure people I know are littered in awards and achievements.

What will change your life is committing to regularly producing work. More than any single opportunity, usually a commitment to writing succeeds instead.

Read the rest of the list here.