Striving for Authenticity

Until recently, I’ve never had writers block. I was one of those lucky souls, sailing from word to word without a care. Probably because I didn’t have many worries.
Then a series of events happened in my life, turning my world upside down.
And a funny thing happened. I wrote a bad first draft.
Hemingway said: “All first drafts are shit,” so I was in good company. No worries here.
Okay, who am I kidding? It gutted me. All that time—all those beautiful words—for nothing.
And for the first time in my life I had doubt. Not just about writing. About everything.
You see— I’ve always been one of those “special” people. The ones you hear about at inspirational seminars. I dream it. I see it. And then I DO it. It doesn’t matter what the “it” is. If I try hard enough, I succeed.
So when the first little seed of doubt took hold, I didn’t know how to handle it. The notion of uncertainty was foreign, like a little pebble in my shoe.
Since we’re entering The Princess and the Pea territory here, I’ll dial it back a notch. But I will tell you what happened next.
I was so willing to do anything to remove that pebble, I did something I never thought I’d do. I sought advice. Not about writing, per se. Advice about my voice. My style. My words.
I understand the idea of community is a time-honored tradition. I agree with the concept wholeheartedly. Everyone needs help now and then. After all, many of us write—hell, live— in a vacuum.
But I sought this advice out of desperation. And then I followed it to a tee.
If someone would’ve told me to walk backwards twenty paces at dawn, turn three times and then bark at the rising sun, I would’ve done it.
Don’t get me wrong; I got some good advice. I also got some bad advice.
Perception, by nature, clouds people’s suggestions. And if someone tells you it doesn’t—run. If their advice is so blatantly cut in stone—run faster.
Because if you start listening to someone else’s muse, you might lose your own.
In a way, that’s what happened to me. And nature being what it is, things got worse. My next draft was abysmal. And by the time I finished the third incantation of the story I wasn’t sure I could write at all anymore. Because all I heard was everyone else’s voice in my head—along with something else. A gnawing echo in brain rising above the din: “I hate my job. I hate my job.”
That one phrase beat like a drum, the sound of defeat. How could it be true?
I was a writer, full time, blessed with the opportunity to do what I loved without the hindrance of any other distraction.
And the worst part? The echo—the annoying beat—it was so familiar. I’d heard it everyday, many years ago, as I drove to my high-powered job. The one everyone envied.
I used to sit in my office in the glass mid-rise building on the outskirts of Dallas and look around at the opulent surroundings—the bronze nameplate on the door, the expensive leather couch, the mahogany desk—and watch the clock. Waiting for five o’clock so I could escape my lavish prison.
Of course, nobody knew. I was good at my job.
But now I had a bigger worry. My fear was that this—my writing—was turning into that. Something ugly I hated doing.
To make a long story longer, I made some changes in the last few weeks. In usual Jayne style I didn’t use a scalpel. I went after it with a chainsaw.
In reality, I was mad at myself for losing control of my life. For doubting myself. And yes, for how I handled it. I vowed to stop asking for critique on every little sentence. If I was tired of the sound of my own voice I could imagine how those around me felt.
Since I couldn’t quit cold turkey I sought counsel from a very well respected writing coach— a PhD in the field of psychology who happened to have a masters in writing. She didn’t critique my work, though she read it. It kind of went down like this: we’d meet for coffee and I would ask a question. And then she would answer that question with one of her own.
“Do you think my character is too harsh?” I asked after reading her a passage.
“Do you?” she replied.
What the actual f**k?
It was very frustrating since all I wanted was the answer. During our third meeting while sipping latte’s she let me in on the secret: there was no answer.
I felt like we were in the scene at the end of the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy learns she had the power all along. My new friend (I won’t call her an advisor because she doesn’t advise me on anything except for the latest collection of designer handbags we both adore) and I started having coffee a few times a week. Most of our conversations didn’t focus on writing. Again, handbags.
And ever so slowly, my love of the written word returned.
Because she was right—it was in me all along.
I was two weeks into my self-imposed rehab program, writing a few words a day, when a funny thing happened. My friend put me in touch with a literary agent who in turn asked me to send her a few thousand words and brief synopsis of my “work in progress.”
I kind of panicked. I had no work in progress. I was just writing.
But instead of hiding under the bed, I agreed to provide her with the work.
Since I didn’t dare send anything from the three horrible manuscripts stored in my Scrivener, I pounded out three chapters straight from my head.
Even though I was facing quite possibly the biggest rejection of my life, I wrote those damn chapters with a smile on my face.
On Friday the agent requested a Skype conference. Apparently, she loved the chapters. As I sat staring into the green light on my web cam the agent started outlining the next steps in my career.
No, the advance wouldn’t be much—it was about the prestige.
No, I wouldn’t have control of my work and I couldn’t pick my editor.
Book cover? Don’t worry your pretty little head about that, it’ll be fabulous.
“You should absolutely do it,” she said with a big smile.
And that’s when it hit me. Same shit—different day. More advice I didn’t need. Only this time I didn’t ask for it. So I didn’t feel guilty politely declining her suggestions and continuing down the path I’d started.
I was, however, a little concerned my friend who’d recommended me might think me ungrateful. But as I explained my decision over coffee on Saturday, she just smiled. No advice, no recrimination.
And then we started talking about makeup.
Today I got up and wrote seven thousand words. I actually had to go back and calculate them to get the exact count because I’d turned off the device tracking my word count. I didn’t need that kind of validation any longer.
Not from well meaning colleagues or a little silver piece of technology. Because the truth is, neither have any stake in my success.
That’s the most important thing I learned on this journey toward self-discovery. Nobody has a bigger stake in my success or more to lose than I do. The road we travel must be our own and the only voice we should listen to is the one inside our heads.
That’s not to say we should forgo the tools of our trade: editors, critique groups, proofers. And yes, community.
But in the end writing is a solitary venture. It is your name on the cover and your vision on the page.
Kurt Cobain once said: I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I’m not. And I think that’s a good philosophy to have. In life and in writing.