For years I kept a handful of John Steinbeck quotes on my office wall, among them: “The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”
I loved how that quote captures the two mental states—fierce optimism verging on egotism, alternating with humble, down-to-earth realism.
In Steinbeck’s version, we must hold onto both simultaneously.
But we can also think about when to lean one way, and when to lean the other.
On the day this blogpost publishes, I will be 100 days away from my first Ironman triathlon, in Arizona. I’ve been training to do an Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run) for a year and a half. I had planned to compete earlier this year, then got knocked down by Covid and started back at nearly square one. Looking back, I probably wasn’t really ready, even without getting sick. In truth, I needed many more months doing workouts at the outer edge of my ability.
Despite being given the unexpected gift of additional training months, when I’m in realism mode, I simply can’t believe I’ll ever manage to endure for 16 or 17 hours, the expected time I’ll take to finish an Ironman. My doubts are legitimate. And yet, I’m registered. I plan to be at the start line in November.
For many months, doubt made sense, because it pushed me to locate information, rally help, acquire new skills, train hard, and envision Plan Bs. But at some point, doubt stops being functional. It becomes nothing more than self-sabotage.
For the next fourteen or so weeks, in addition to maintaining my training schedule with the rigor that intense anxiety makes possible, I am going to try to act “as if.” As if I can do this thing. As if I am ready, with the most important base-building already behind me. As if I’m in the normal, final stages of race preparation, and I have no reason for fear or doubt.
Cue Steinbeck: Even when I know it isn’t true.
Back to writing.
If you are in a doubting place, that realistic negativity may help you. It might prompt you to take a 49 Writers class, find a writing group, attend a retreat, hire a coach!
But if you’ve done what you can to learn, find community, and surround yourself with support, then the doubt stops being so helpful.
When we start a writing project, especially a book-length writing project, it is nearly impossible to plunge in and keep going unless we cultivate some kind of healthy delusion. It’s too much of an energy drain to keep reminding yourself, “This might not pan out…I might get to page 100 and flub it…no one will want to read this…I’ll never have the skills…I simply can’t endure the endless revisions required.”
Those statements might be true or, more likely, partially true. But especially once you’ve listened to them a hundred or ten thousand times, they’re not useful.
What is helpful is “I can approach this new project as if it will work out, as if my interest level will stay high, as if I will learn whatever skills are required along the way.”
If you’re like me—stubborn—you might still have a voice in your head insisting, “But lots of ideas don’t pan out!” And: “I could finish this and it still might not be published!”
True. And yet
How does it help to show up at the start line not believing you can finish? How does it help to start writing something you feel certain will never be published?
Steinbeck’s quote goes beyond “I can write this.” He was asserting the need to believe one’s work is the most important thing in the world! Such hubris, even if it is tempered by his humble, illusion-accepting addendum.
In a Substack newsletter about suspense fiction that I co-edit, we have recently interviewed three different authors who sell their novels prior to completion to their publishers, usually in the form of a premise, minimal early pages, and sometimes an outline. By presenting their ideas early, there is a good chance that some proposals will be quashed, perhaps prematurely.
As Edgar-winning mystery writer Erin Flanagan said, “Right now I’m in the process of [submitting a proposal] for the next book, and so far I’m on the fourth go. Building it out of nothing, beginning to believe in it and really love it, and then having to knock that sand castle down and start again. It’s kind of devastating in the moment, but in this weird way, it’s something I’m also really proud of. I’ve always been a one-idea-at-a-time kind of girl, and to have to do this, scrap it, and come up with another idea and really love it has been oddly exhilarating. I feel like I’m reaching new levels of creativity through these exercises.”
Consider the energy required to jump back in and invent a new novel premise, as Flanagan regularly does.
Consider the wisdom of Steinbeck, able to cultivate multiple opposing mindsets, simultaneously.
Are you just starting out as a writer, or learning some new aspect of your craft? Or are you embarking on a big project or even in the middle of a major effort?
Consider where you now stand, in a place of high confidence or murky doubt. Is it the right place for you and your work—the useful place?
Believe me, I know how hard it is to change one’s mindset; it’s something I’m struggling to do and will need some self-discipline to keep doing until November. Furthermore, being overconfident can be counterproductive at times.
But there are times when you’ve got nothing to lose by believing in yourself and your work, one hundred percent. Only you can know if that time is now.
Andromeda Romano-Lax’s sixth novel, The Deepest Lake (Soho Crime), will be published in May 2024. She is a book coach with a passion for developmental editing of novel and memoir manuscripts, as well as a back-of-the-pack triathlete.