Writing: On Calling Yourself a Writer

BY SUZANNE KARIOKI

Writing is hard - which isn’t a new statement by any means, and any writer regardless of expertise or experience will readily give you a list of reasons why it sucks. I think the biggest problem with writers, regardless of their experience level, is that they suffer from a lot of self-doubt. I hesitate to call myself one because I feel like it comes with a lot of expectations that I cannot and have not lived up to : calling yourself a writer, with confidence, means that you’re good, that you can be relied upon to always write good things, that when asked for advice you will always have the best answers (or if you’re real expert, you already know that all writing advice is bad advice). I hesitate to call myself a writer because I am perpetually, painfully aware - or at least a part of me is irrationally convinced - that there is always someone better, that I can never compare to. I hesitate because I value good criticism (not “I liked it” or “this is good” but “I wish you could’ve done this differently” or “have you thought about making this character react in this way?”) but it terrifies me.

 

I wish I could go back to being 12 years old, when I wrote garbage simply because it was fun : I wrote a character who looked like me, but was more interesting to be around, and prettier. I miss never once thinking about how pathetic my writing was compared to other’s, and I miss scribbling down ideas in between classes to type up and upload later. I miss writing self-indulgent fanfiction that gushed with disgustingly cute romance and  happy endings, or tragically doomed relationships.

Writing was hard when I was 12 because I had to think about which words to use to describe exactly what was in my head; once I discovered the thesaurus, there was no end to the many different ways that I could describe exactly my brilliant protagonist’s frustrations. I knew my writing was disappointing and that I could improve, which is why I selfishly fished for compliments every time I posted online. But writing is hard now, not just because I have to find the right words, but because I have to contend with the knowledge that other people might see what I write and hate it. And there will always be someone - people hate Shakespeare and probably Homer too - but I always want to be liked. I know that I can’t please everyone, but when I can’t even please myself, it’s hard to work up the courage to even start. This kind of performance anxiety isn’t rare - 40% of U.S. adults experience some form of stage fright, and some even experience full blown anxiety attacks at the prospect of presenting their hard work in front of an audience. Stage fright can manifest as shaking hands, dry mouth and nausea, which are very real symptoms  of an entirely mental problem. What’s comforting is that this anxiety isn’t exclusive to beginners - even the most world-renowned seasoned professionals experience it in their own line of work. It’s normal.

Academic writing is a monster of its own: I have to prove that I’m smart enough to be there, prove that I know what I’m talking about as soon as possible, because this is writing that someone important is going to see. For some teachers - the ones that haunt me at 1am as I’m scrambling to finish a paper that I put off because I needed it to be perfect from the first draft - whatever I do, no matter how much effort and planning, is never quite good enough. It’s not good, but okay, which really just means that it’s disappointing.

I don’t talk about writing anymore in the same way that I don’t talk about playing guitar: I’m not that great at it and it’s not that impressive anymore when anyone can watch a YouTube tutorial and learn Wonderwall. The really interesting people, my brain insists (especially on quiet, listless Sunday afternoons),  are publishing books or playing piano already and have been doing it since they could walk.

I’m hoping that eventually, I’ll be able to return to writing in the same way that I slowly returned to playing guitar semi-regularly - because I wanted to learn something new just for fun, and not because I was worried about being judged by a bunch of white boys at a party. I want to learn to write again the way I learned to play my favourite songs; there was a lot of cursing involved, a lot of yelling at chord charts, sore fingers and cramping muscles, but it was always worth it when I could play a song perfectly all the way through. So there will be cursing, a lot of yelling at first drafts and maybe a few tears and an hour spent staring up at the ceiling and wondering if it’s worth it. But one day - one day soon -  there’ll be a story that plays perfectly all the way through.