Shouting into the Void: Fears of a Writer
Writing is a strange compulsion to have; especially when you didn’t expect to be a writer or have an audience in the first place. Writing is a deeply personal endeavour. A passionate writer can’t help but pour some of themselves into their work. When you pull from a place of honesty, a place of deepest held belief, it leaves you vulnerable, and your inner thoughts are naked to outside judgement.
The fear of most writers I feel is that their wisest words won’t matter, and their most brilliant insights will fall on deaf ears. Their most persuasive arguments will all be for naught. As writers we fear our writing will lay unread, completely forgotten and alone. A wasted effort collecting dust on the ever growing shelve of the internet. We fear that we really are alone in our opinion, and that the world will reject what we have to offer up. We fear we will be seen as fakes and pretenders not fit to write a word.
Every secret author, every internet blogger, every professional writer feels some form of this fear. And at times it’s easy to see it in their work. We send our ideas off like babies into the lion’s den of the marketplace of ideas. Persuasive writing is, at its core, an insecure endeavour. We wish to have more people agree with our opinion and validate our worldview. The writer seeks acceptance for their inner-self.
Journalists and op-ed writers left unchecked can have glass egos, unable to stand back from their work and entertain the idea they could be wrong. This is a trap that can be easy to fall into when you have don’t have people to keep you grounded. The more self-aware yet unsuccessful authors may worry about becoming a belligerent asshole. Letting the yes-men take over, and the idea of fallibility, fade away and your worldview becomes distorted. You can lash out at the public for not responding better to your work and lambaste their lack of taste. You can become a caricature of your writing persona. Beholden to more and more extreme ideas and positions. I think we only need look at places like The Guardian for examples of this in play.
It’s like Goldilocks predicament. Too little confidence and you can’t get your work out there in the first place, but stray too far into arrogance and you end up a uppity little shit unable to handle any criticism. It seems like a bleak choice between obscurity and ruining what made you want to write in the first place. Just engaging with criticism is a tightrope walk. You can’t possibly take on board everyone’s opinions, but you have to be able to absorb corrections and differing points of view.
You have to rely on an inner strength, and be able to wall yourself off to an extent. You need the ability to tune in and back out of the public discourse. You have to make peace with the fact that you can play a perfect game and still lose. You can tick all the boxes, do all the right things, and put your heart and soul into it and still fail.
That’s the ultimate tip, as well as joke, in writing. You will fail and you will have to get used to it to improve. You have to be prepared to kill your darlings and move onto the next piece if need be. A ubiquitous but valuable piece of advice is “writing is rewriting,” meaning your work will often have to go through many painful and sometimes drastic changes on its way to being ready. Not everything you write is going to be a winner.
Writers who find themselves thrust into the limelight without expectation can be overwhelmed by the sudden rush of criticism they receive, even though it’s usually vastly outnumbered by praise. As humans we tend to focus more on the negative then the positive, and we fixate on it. Those who can’t pull themselves away from the rabble of voices shouting in their direction will inevitably retreat, or become constantly embroiled with countering their their critics rather than making their own points.
The internet can feel like a glass cage. You need to know when to stop putting yourself out there, and when you need to take time to yourself for recuperation. Otherwise you can become a circus attraction, a laughing stock around digital water coolers. What the internet calls a “lol-cow;” someone able to be wound up and sent on a tirade for amusement, and milked for laughs. There is nothing sadder than a comedian who can’t take a joke, or a critic who can’t take criticism.
Deep down we fear by railing against hypocrisy we can become the hypocrite ourselves. The counter-culture can become the establishment, and you become the problem you were trying to fix. I’ve seen too many rich, aging hippies try still pretend to rail against “the man” in some form or another.
Rage is a great driver of traffic, and an easy crutch to rely on in writing. This is a theme repeated in my work often, and writers who take part in activism and support causes through their work can have a hard time breaking out of that pattern.
What happens when there’s nothing to get into a righteous fury about? What becomes of the firebrand when the fire goes out? We’re watching a whole industry of writers desperately try to keep the “women are second class citizens in the west” fire alive when those problems have largely been rectified in the places of the world that rally about them the most. Will the same happen for writing critical of established games media?
I spoke in “Video games Are Amazing and Fun, The Culture War is Miserable and Boring” about those who’s entire relevance is tied to maintaining conflict. I fear becoming one of those people, reaching for controversy where there is none because that’s what my audience tunes in for (Editor’s Note: We’ll tell our writers no before that happens. You should see what gets turned down!). If I ever become a loud demagogue who’s outlived their usefulness and I’m merely enamoured with the sound of my own voice, I want you to take me out back and give me the “Old Yeller” treatment.
The deepest fear of the writer is that they’ll wake up one day and the spell will break. That they’ll approach the keyboard and no words will pour out, doomed to stare at a blank page for all eternity. Writing can sometimes feel like muscle memory. You just let your fingers go, and aren’t really fully conscious of what you’re writing until you read it back — you take out the filter and interface your brain directly with the keyboard.
Call it Mojo, call it Je Ne Sais Quoi, call it fucking superpowers I don’t care. The best quality writing isn’t something you can force — it’s like music or painting in that way. It may not require the obvious skill of sculpting a masterpiece out of marble, but you can tell when a writer is phoning it in.
Any writer will tell you about that niggling fear when they have an off day. The fear it could just keep being like this. It can become self-fulfilling; the fear of writer’s block can make you scared to even attempt to write. I know a few good writers who simply get too worked up about the act of writing and it cripples them.
Perhaps that’s why so many journalists and authors are bitter and mean-spirited. They’re dead stars of creativity merely continuing to squeeze out content to make a living. Some of them may have been passionate, good hearted writers at some time, but they live with the crushing realization that they had something and lost it.
I hope some of them have the cognisance to realize they need to be doing something else instead of making themselves and everyone else miserable. Take a bow, and exit stage left with dignity. You don’t want to wake up one day and realize you’ve outlived your relevance entirely; that you’ve squeezed every drop of residual fame from your glory days and no one cares who you are anymore.
Once the ride’s over go ahead and hop off. I hope you enjoyed yourself.
Latest posts by John Sweeney (see all)
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- 10,000 Hours in MS-Paint No.4 – Virtue: The Signalling — December 4, 2017