In my years of teaching and speaking, I’ve met a lot of writers. Each of them, it seems, has a pet fear. Some writers are afraid of poverty, others of obscurity; some are afraid of writing a dull book, others of writing a shallow one; some are afraid their writing is too literary, while others fear that theirs is not literary enough. The list goes on and is as varied as the stories these writers tell in their workrooms. But the more I’ve listened to their worries, the more I’ve been convinced that every writer’s pet fear stems from the mother of all fears: What other people think of what I write is more important than what I think of what I write.
What makes this particular fear so seductive is its apparent practicality. It seems practical because we are not just writers; we are authors. It doesn’t matter whether you have published thirty New York Times best-selling novels or have just sat down to begin your memoir. If you have ever shared even one thing you have written with another person, you are an author. The moment you surrender this thing you wrote in the supreme privacy of your imagination to the unknown of another person’s mind, your relationship to your writing changes. You are no longer writing in your journal or diary. Now this poem or story or essay is destined for another human heart, and every author quickly understands that he has no control whatsoever over what occurs when that other human heart receives it.
It is a little disorienting. If I am an author, it is quite natural to want—indeed, even to need—the validation of others. If I have any aspirations toward making a living at this, I certainly require other people to like it. I need an agent, an editor, and a publisher to like it. I would prefer if a few critics like it; and I certainly need readers to like it. If no one likes it, then I might as well be writing in my diary.
But writers have something else in common besides this shared fear: They prefer solitude while writing. This is exactly the problem with what other people think of what I’ve written: Those other people aren’t with me while I’m writing it. No matter how much I want other people to like it and how much I dread the idea that they will hate it, I am still the only one writing it. I can receive all the feedback and editorial notes in the world, but in the end I must go to my workroom alone and choose every word. No one can make these choices for me. It doesn’t matter who my target audience might be, how big a contract I receive, or how many Twitter followers I have—I am still the one choosing. Whether I like it or not, the only way to write is to consult my own curiosity and imagination. Nothing else can tell me what word or sentence or scene should come next. Like it or not, my imagination and curiosity are all I have.
In this way, writing is a form of deep self-acceptance. But do not make too much of this term. It is often seen as a spiritual mountaintop, accessible only by a dedicated and holy few. Writing has taught me that we accept ourselves all the time; it’s just that many of us don’t realize it because, in truth, self-acceptance often feels as natural as breathing. The moment I stop fretting about what other people think of this paragraph or that sentence, the moment I have accepted that no one else is actually in the room with me and that to write I must consult only my own curiosity and imagination, I have accepted myself. Nothing is more unique to me than my curiosity and imagination. I am never more myself than when I ask, “What interests me most?” Only I know the answer.
Finally, here is a strange truth with which writers must live: Even if no one likes what I have written, I can’t stop being interested in it. I may be embarrassed, hurt, disappointed, suicidal even, but my curiosity does not actually turn off or change shape because someone else isn’t as interested in what I have written as I am. That curiosity cannot simply vanish; it may get stuffed down, ignored, or disguised as a different story, but it will remain in place until I shine the light of my attention on it again. It is as if beneath all the fretting, jubilation, and despair that often accompany sharing my work with others, my curiosity, my imagination, and I don’t actually care what anyone else thinks. No matter how bad I feel if someone doesn’t like what I’ve written, I cannot correct my curiosity to please other people, even if I wanted to. I’m stuck with it.
This is why the moment I believe that someone else’s opinion of my work is more important than my own, I am lost. I have nothing to guide me through the uncharted waters of a story. If I believe this, then I have annihilated my own curiosity in favor of another person’s. I have nothing to offer, and yet I keep writing and wondering why I don’t like a word of it.
I admit that I came to this understanding by a long and torturous road. For much of my writing life, I didn’t just believe that I cared deeply what other people thought about my writing—I knew it empirically! Every time someone told me they liked what I had written, whether in the form of a critique or an acceptance letter, I felt good. And, conversely, every time someone told me they didn’t like my work, I felt bad. It was as predictable as fire feeling hot and ice feeling cold. My goal was to become such a Good Writer that people would almost always like what I had written, and I would consequently almost always feel good. After all, I couldn’t think of a moment in my life when I preferred feeling bad to good. So I had no choice but to care what people thought, because their opinions determined how I felt, and how I felt was extremely important to me.
By and by—by which I mean about twenty years—I questioned whether I truly cared what other people thought of my work, or if my motivations went deeper. If I only cared about what other people thought of my writing because their opinions seemed to make me feel good or bad, didn’t this mean that my ultimate goal was simply to feel good? I began to wonder: Did their opinions actually, scientifically, immutably cause me to feel one way or another? I asked myself if there was one instance where someone’s praise hadn’t made me feel significantly better or one instance where someone’s disinterest or downright dislike hadn’t made me feel any worse. I recalled, of course, numerous such instances. is meant my response to those opinions wasn’t as predictable as re and ice. Which meant that something else besides those opinions was responsible for how I felt.
Exploring that “something else” is best left for another post. In the meantime, remember this: You will find your confidence and begin to write fearlessly the moment you stop caring about what anyone else thinks. That’s it. Really. I have suffered greatly over my writing life. I’ve felt blocked, gotten rejected, and have abandoned stories I couldn’t finish. In every instance, my suffering abated the moment I stopped caring what anyone else would think of what I was writing.