Have you ever had a fantastic idea for a children’s book, for a personal essay about dating in your 20s, for a political op-ed, but stopped yourself because you write (fill in the blank)?
I’ve realized that I sabotage myself this way all the time. I identify as a fiction writer first. Horror writer second. Before that, a “literary” writer. Which means I didn’t let myself dabble in any genre fiction or nonfiction. For eight years, ideas for crime fiction, science-fiction, children’s books, and personal or political nonfiction would pop into my head, begging to be written. I would admonish myself, “NO, Tom, you’re a literary fiction writer. Stay in that lane.”
There’s one specific type of perfectionism I’ve been haunted by. It’s absurd and embarrassing. Heck, I almost hesitate to admit it, but it’s my truth, and maybe it will help someone.
I worry about legacy.
I know. Yikes. Here I am, most assuredly a Nobody, worrying about whether my ideas are on brand or not, instead of finishing manuscripts and publishing them. Worrying about how the public will view me when the dust of my golden years settles.
I always sought to write in ways that satisfied a particular self-image I wanted to conjure. At first, at my most naive, I wanted to be Hemingway; then, as I matured, it turned into wanting to be Stephen King, Denis Lehane, Ray Bradbury, Laird Barron, etc al. So I would have these phases where I would, again, put blinders on to all of the things I want to say about the world, and write exclusively in my “genre-of-the-week.” Of course, when you do this, last week’s writing may get thrown out the following week. After that cycle repeats itself enough, you have years without publications, nor even submissions.
Does this sound familiar? I think it might. A lot of us love literature and love writing fiction, but a lot of us also, if we’re honest, aspire at one point to achieve household literary fame. It’s strange to state that so baldly, but now that I have, I understand that it has kept me from expressing myself genuinely for three-quarters of my life. Gulp.
I encourage you to write whatever the heck your heart desires. But to be more practical, let me remind you that every writer of status, did not stifle their creativity. They wrote journalism and they wrote weird essays and average poetry and short stories you have never seen because they haven’t been put in collections. Nowadays, the big writers of tomorrow probably do freelance copy writing and content writing and also write strange flash or micro fiction we’ll never know about, even when they’re NYT bestselling authors.
Cormac McCarthy is my favorite example. He worked as a mechanic back in the day, and wrote these complex, regional, literary novels that on the surface would only be appreciated where the stories were set, in Appalachia. Suttree had a first print run of three thousand copies, and his number of fans hovered around that figure for years, as he plodded on writing Appalachians and some Westerns. Blood Meridian, held by many as one of the greatest novels ever was his sixth book. And then, All The Pretty Horses came along and became a bestseller. It took seven books. And then, boom, his back catalog went back into print and his new releases sold like hot cakes.
Imagine if McCarthy had cast aside his five ideas prior to Blood Meridian? Imagine if he was so caught up in his “image” he hadn’t written those (“I’m gonna wait until I can write a Western, I’m a Western writer!”) and therefore did not have the publishing credentials to get his sixth and then bestselling seventh books published. Furthermore, he might be a mechanic in El Paso, Texas right now who writes as a hobby…
The point here is to express yourself for your own well-being. Be congruent with yourself, your worldview, and what interests you. Write what you believe and finish things. The genre or categorization doesn’t matter. Submit your work and then publish it. Make a difference however you can. Lest you look up at thirty, like me, and realize you’ve wasted a solid chunk of life fretting about nonsense.
So long as you can see the way back to the main trail, don’t fear the sun setting through the trees.
I’d love to hear if you relate to this.
I’m in the early stages of brainstorming for children’s books about American History. This is a huge departure for me, but I think it’s a way I can make a difference in the world, perhaps moreso than escapist fiction.
What are you currently writing/struggling whether or not to write?