“I can’t! I just can’t do it!”
For the hundredth time that day, I was trying to get my mother off my back. Homework had been due, and I hadn’t handed it in. Naturally, she sniffed a rat.
It would be easy to assume I was simply going through a lazy spell – one of many – in my school years and I couldn’t be bothered with such trivial pursuits as doing homework, but that wasn’t it. I’d spent some time working on the answers to those maths problems, and even more time worrying whether my answers were correct. I was going through a phase, all right. It was the ‘I’d rather not answer at all, then run the risk of getting it wrong and having the whole class laugh at me’ phase. Every lesson felt like Judgement Day; every teacher like the guardian to the Pearly Gates.
My self-doubt didn’t stop there. To my dismay and utter annoyance, I carried it through from childhood to adolescence and into my mature years. I learned to hide it better, but I couldn’t shake it off and I couldn’t grow out of it. Like an over-worn onesie that grew with me, this invisible second skin was welded on, not likely to ever rub off.
Why am I telling you this story? Because it is a lesson you need to learn early on in this career. Writing is one of few professions where being afraid of people’s opinions will not allow you to fully function.
When I was writing my first book, I tried to keep it secret. It didn’t work. My husband broadcast it happily to anyone who cared to listen. While he was genuinely proud, I could see the judgement in the other person’s eyes and each time, inside, I would shrink a little. Each time, the doubt I saw in other people’s eyes landed another kick to my already-shaky scaffold, the thin layer of confidence surrounding my little work-in-progress.
I kept away from human interaction as much as possible and hurried on, not even sure I had it in me to finish that novel. I was a writer, and write I did. Soon my book was finished, and the final step could no longer be avoided. I couldn’t protect myself from public judgement anymore, because to do so would have meant never being published. And if there’s one thing I hate more than being judged, it’s wasted work. I had a book; its purpose was to be read by others. That could not be achieved from the warm comfort of my one-piece suit. It was time to be brave, time to step out.
I vividly remember the moment when I sent my first query letter to an agent. I remember how I felt when the publisher asked for the entire manuscript. I remember what it felt like to sign a contract. But you know what I remember most? The day before release. The moment when my book became no longer mine – it belonged to the readers.
Release day jitters are supposed to die out after a while, but mine are still there, five books on. Each time, I worry. What will my readers think about the book? How will the new story be welcomed? Worst of all: what will they think about me, its creator?
In times like these it is important to remember that, just like we have different tastes in fashion, colours or the vehicle we drive, readers are entitled to have likes and dislikes, too. Some will like your book, some not so much, and that is perfectly normal. It is impossible to create a product which is universally adored, unless you’re in the business of manufacturing breathing air (good luck with the patent on that one).
As for what others think about you as a person, you put so much of yourself in your book, it’s hard not to identify yourself with it. But that book is not you, and you are more than that book.
Try it! Write another one. The more you write, the more this fear wanes. Judgement Day it may be, but not for you.