There’s This Thing That Happens Sometimes…

There’s this thing that happens sometimes.

You’re chugging along, doing your thing — and in this case, I mean a creative thing. Maybe you’re a writer, a painter, a cheese-maker, a Brookyln-based hipster widget artisan, a techno-fuck-shaman — then suddenly comes this moment where you catch a glimpse of another human being doing that same creative thing you do. And they’re doing it at such a level, you experience a moment of awe that punctuates the moment before you tumble into darkness. You step onto this grease-slick slope, sliding down through the shadow of envy, doubt, uncertainty. You feel smaller and smaller as you fall farther and farther. You tumble face-first into the revelation of your own inadequacy, your grotesque and unconquerable imperfection, your worst failures —

And suddenly your doubt has the hunger and gravity of a collapsing star.

You feel like you want to go to sleep.

You don’t want to count sheep but instead, count your mistakes.

Again and again, over and over.

You’ll never operate at that level, you think.

You’ll never write with such elegance. Or tell such a glorious story. Or make people think and feel the same way this book has made you think and feel. You’ll never publish as many books. Or for the same amount of money. Or have the same number of readers or win the same awards or have as many fans or be anything at all, ever, ever, ever.

You’ll never compare.

You’re a mote of dust in a giant’s eye.

This feeling is a pit.

It is a slick-walled, vertical pit.

It is lightless and it is empty of anything and everyone but you.

I’m telling you this because I feel it, too, sometimes.

I’m telling you this because some of you have told me that I make you feel that way. Which makes me laugh because I don’t feel I could possibly deserve that, and the belly laughs keep on coming because I feel this all the time when comparing myself to other writers. I’m constantly teetering on the edge of that chasm.

But I try not to fall anymore.

Just as I want you to try not to fall, either.

You will never get anywhere comparing yourself to others.

It seems useful, at first — they represent a goal you can achieve, and that might work if other writers were a bullseye you could hit, or a percentage you could nail. They’re not. Their work is always outside yours. Their work will always be different, and it will always feel stronger than your own. Someone will always be doing better. Sometimes by millimeters, sometimes by miles. Getting published doesn’t fix that. Publishing ten books doesn’t fix it. Awards don’t fix it. They might pad you a little. They might buffer you — a bulwark against the buffeting winds of wild imperfection. But you will always find your way back to that pit. You will always look in the broken mirror of foul water and see a version of you that fails in comparison to others.

Stand against this feeling.

Remind yourself that you are you and they aren’t.

Be clear with your own traitorous mind: they feel it, too. We all feel it.

Step away from the pit by recognizing that while you aren’t perfect, you can always do better. We can commit to improvement. We can challenge ourselves. In this great big creative RPG we can level up in a character class of one — the character class only we belong to. (I am a BEARDED WENDIGO KNIGHT and you are not. Who are you? You’re someone I can never be. And that’s amazing.)

You’ll never be them.

You can only be you.

You can improve yourself in that direction only.

And that direction is opposite of the pit. It’s walking away from the sucking void.

It’s walking toward yourself and your own mighty efforts and endeavors.

I just wanted to say all this because we all go there. And we can all get through it. None of us are singular beings in this feeling. It hits some of us harder than others (and to those who manifest this as bonafide depression, I can only remind you again that you are genuinely not alone). But it’s something we all experience. Doubt. Frustration. Fear. The envy of others. It won’t do much for you. It’s a poison. Stop drinking it. Spit it out.

Step away from the pit.

Be you. Don’t be me.

And create the things that only you can create.

136 responses to “There’s This Thing That Happens Sometimes…”

  1. I’ve been having this issue on and off for the last couple of months. Only recently have I somewhat stopped trying to compare my own writing to that of my Author Idol (Jim Butcher). He’s so far out and above me that it won’t be possible for me to reach. But at the same time, I have ideas he may never have or will never execute. And may someday he’ll read my stuff and say “Oh I wish I did that, that’s cool.” or maybe he’ll never even meet me or hear of me. And that’s okay too. It still amazes me how many people haven’t heard of him and he’s a NY Times best seller. Seems strange to me.

    Chuck, I own four of your books on writing (and thus far have finished “Blackbirds”. Your writing keeps me motivated and gets me out of those “writer funks” whether it be because I feel inadequate in comparison to another authors literature penis or just because it’s one of those days where the fuckers won’t do what I need them to. You keep me going and laughing and remind me that I can either complain about shit or get shit done.

    Thank you.

    • To riff off that, don’t compare yourself to the Gods. Find those moments where you touch the hand of your Muse. Anybody can do that. Celebrate them. Rejoice that even just for that one sentence, that one moment, you allowed the reader to reach a better place. You made them laugh, cry, blush, think.

      Under this name, I mostly write stroke books. I’m not ashamed of it. But I’d be ashamed if they weren’t good stroke books. And inasmuch as they have stories, they are serviceable stories, entertaining and logical.

      And every so often, every once in a while, Erato reaches down and bops me on the head, and something amazing happens. Characters refuse to do what I want and do something better. Deals with demons turn into unexpected victories for the Light. And everybody still has lots of sex. It’s not The Lord of the Rings. But it’s art. I’m proud of it.

  2. Speaking as both a copyeditor and a reader, I can say that comparison is wasted energy. It’s apples and orangutans. No two writers are doing the same thing, and it’s useless (and often destructive) to think otherwise.

  3. Related thing I’ve been thinking about lately: if all short story writers in my genres are improving their craft while I do so, I may never change my relative status and hence ability to actually sell stories. Don’t get me wrong; I get some very lovely personal rejections that tell me I was close. But it can be disheartening to think that even when I get better, I will still only be close because everyone else is getting better, too.

    My solution: just keep writing and submitting. What else am I going to do?

    • Never assume everyone is advancing at the same rate you are. Or, frankly, at all.

      Usually, most writers don’t really make the effort, I find. Many writers aren’t even writers — they talk about it, but never really do it. So, go on keeping on and improving in the direction of YOUR own work. Worry not about what everyone else is doing. That way lies a boggy mire.

      — c.

    • Everyone is most definitely not advancing at the same rate. I was an editor at a very well-regarded lit mag for years. Some people would send in the same kinds (as in quality) of stories year after year. Some would submit, submit, submit, give up. Occasionally, someone you had been watching and rooting for would submit something wonderful and you would rejoice. Keep at it! 20 years ago, I started writing with quite a large group of writer friends; only a few of us are still at it.

  4. Wow, I so needed these words today. Self-doubt is tough to overcome, but knowing that you’ve done it yourself helps.

  5. Every artist – and by every artist, I mean every person, since we are all artists someways – should read the magnificent book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s a quick read, entertaining, and it will help you realize that that pit our gracious host speaks of is both inevitable and escapable. It applies to all artmaking, not just the visual arts. It is a godsend to the aspiring (and the accomplished) creative.

    Probably my favorite line is a conversation one of the authors had with their piano maestro. They observed, in frustration, that the music in their heads sounded so much better than the music from their fingers, and they felt like they’d never truly master it.

    “What makes you think,” replied the maestro wryly, “That that feeling ever goes away?”

    Just so. You feel it. I, who think of myself as rather humdrum but who other authors (and other artists in other fields I have worked in) have occasionally expressed admiration for, feel it. Our noble host, an accomplished and successful author, feels it. Stephen effing King feels it. J..K. Motherfucking Rowling feels it. Why do you think she published those books under pen names? Part of it, I absolutely goddamn guarantee you, is that she wanted to see if she could do it again… to prove to herself that it wasn’t a fluke, that she really is a good author. King has outright said as much about why he wrote the Bachman books.

    Here’s the book. Read it.

  6. Thank you for the encouragement. We read for inspiration and to aspire and then tear ourselves apart for not being good enough. Indeed poisoning our minds against our own creativity. I find myself in this state of mind frequently with writing and other work related creativity. It’s disheartening; paralyzing when it goes on too long. It’s good to remember that those we look to as “the greats” in creativity also have their “greats” who also have theirs. It’s a circle, not a line. No one is first, so no one has to be last.

  7. Sigh, I’m reading Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series) – again. Her turn of phrase and vivid imagery make me want to weep with despair thinking I will never be that good and yet I keep reading, and still I keep writing.

  8. Sir Wendigo,
    Thou rockist. As I stand here, trying like a mofo to pull this damn sword of a story out of this stupid stone, thou inspirist me to yank on. And write on…

  9. The timing of this post is amazing. I started reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch to see what all the hubbub was about. I loved A secret History, so I expected dark tale of some kind. I didn’t expect to be blown away by her descriptions of emotion, the rain, paintings, as if I stood right next to the characters. I had to keep reminding myself that I was comparing a Pulitzer Prize winner to my first book.

  10. Love it. Thanks. I know this stuff, but it’s so different when someone else says it, someone whose writing I respect, someone who seems to ‘have it all’ and your article makes me say “Aha, right… got it. I remember now, we’re all slogging through it.” this kind of post is the reason I just squeal with glee when I see my in-box and there is a post from you.

    • I’m on a few writers forums for critiques and so and wonder sometimes whether the way new or lesser writers are encouraged and advanced writers are nitpicked is the way to go. What results, I find, is that some writers who really aren’t yet publishable on a technical level begin thinking they should just go ahead and start querying. While some pretty excellent writers start thinking they’ll never get there. Sometimes the really good ones are the ones who need that final push to get it out there, while the ones who are still having trouble at the level of proper sentence structure need to be told they should work at their craft more before trying to take the next step. Just my two cents.

  11. Ugh. Chuck. Let me love you.

    This article is perfect. I actually said something similar in my Ask the Author thing over on Goodreads when I got to the question,”What’s your advice for aspiring writers?” I feel like 70% of this job is trying to stay in your lane and not looking over at the Mercedes Benz right next to you and wanting to crash into the median out of pure misery. So much of being an indie author, or hell, an author in general, means having to read about the ridiculous success of others and fighting the urge to give up because you’ll never be as good or as popular or as profitable as them.

    But I think posts like this are what help alleviate the pain. Too many bestselling authors aren’t willing to talk about the days when all they could afford was Ramen and Kool-Aid. They never want to talk about being broke nobodies who were ignored and neglected at first, and that’s what causes a lot of depression for young writers. It feels like everyone around you is winning the lotto and you’re stuck with a quarter. You’re an incredibly successful writer, one hell of a funny guy, and an inspiration, and even you have days where you feel talentless. That’s monumental. That makes me feel ten times better, knowing that someone who has a career I’d kill for still has insecurities and doubts.

    Keep doing what you’re doing, man. I sincerely hope to be able to make this post someday as a full time, successful author. I think greatness isn’t achieving the impossible. I think it’s stopping, turning around, and holding out your hand to the people on the step below you.

    You rock, sir.

    • I drive a red Mercedez Benz 2014 CLA. It’s a $32,000 car. Fancy, huh? Well, yesterday, on my way to work, on the 101 freeway in Los Angeles, going the same speed as everybody else (stop and go) I sat behind a fire-engine red Ferrari 599 GTO. It’s a $450,000 car, of which only 599 were built, and it’s Ferrari’s fastest road model ever. And yes, it looked completely gorgeous.

      So while some lady in a honda civic might be drooling at my car, I was drooling at another.

      Stop drooling. Work hard, you can do it.

  12. Man, talk about good timing. I was on the precipice of the slippery slope yesterday. So much so that I almost didn’t read this because the existential hangover is still strong. You’re exactly right. I’ve been reminded of this. I’ve reminded others of this. It’s harder to remind yourself. Much obliged.

    • My first response to that was, “You know, you could kinda describe some of the things I saw at MEEHU as techno-fuck-shamanry.”

      So if you’d like to get into the biz, I could probably introduce you to people.

  13. Usually your posts have me giggling and guffawing but this one actually had me sniffling. So true, so right on, so applicable to many parts of life. Thanks Chuck, as always!

  14. I’m printing this and posting it near my computer so I can re-read it when I find myself near the abyss. Thank you!

  15. Well said, Chuck.

    I have a few yellow sticky notes on my monitor. One of them reads “There will always be someone better at writing than you.”

    That may sound defeatist, but I find that it helps me to write without becoming paralysed by wondering how my writing compares to everyone else’s.

    That question is already answered: Someone, somewhere is kicking my ass at writing. Guaranteed.

    Accepting that I’ll never be the best writer in the world lets me focus on just becoming a better writer, bit by bit, every day.

    One day, I’ll eventually become the best writer I can be – and that’s the most I can ask of myself.

  16. Last week was a four-rejection week — and even though three of the four said “Hope to see more of your work”, it didn’t help. Thanks for reminding me to get back up and get on the horse, and that even the best (and I know it was Stephen King, one of my Author Idols, who said he fantasized about using a rejection slip for Kleenex) have been through this. The only way on is up. Thanks for the reminder.

  17. Great to know that no matter where we are in our careers, when it comes to self-doubt – we’re all in the same boat.

    Pretty sure every writer will be able to relate to this post 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  18. I think… I think I’m going to print this out and carry it with me. Read it once a day. It’ll help anchor me as I climb back up that damned slope.

    Thanks, Chuck.

  19. Human nature at work. Like riding a roller coaster. You have to take the good with the bad and realize it can’t be all uphill or downhill. Sometimes all you can do is hang on and take the curves as they come. Your choice whether to scream or laugh or cry.

  20. Step away from the Sarlacc Pit of self doubt!
    Loved the post Chuck, definitely feel that way sometimes. One comforting thought is that; if you have an author in mind whose work you really admire and think you can never match, there will be people out there (if only one) who actually prefers your work to your writing hero. Everyone is different in their tastes and law of averages dictate this will be the case.

  21. Thanks for this, Chuck. This whole year has been a pit of doubt, angst, despair and isolation when it came to writing. I had to step away. I had to stop following a bunch of people on twitter (sorry, you were one) because I kept doing exactly what you’re talking about here, comparing myself, wishing I could be better, frustrated with the editing process, feeling jealous, feeling inadequate, feeling like I needed to create a social media presence, have a great blog, meet people, do all the things. Oh yeah, and manage a family life and full time job.
    Ugh, what a mess.
    Recently, the spark has returned, that little thing that started me on the path in the first place… the love of the story. I read something I wrote and realized, wow, this isn’t the steaming pile I thought it was! So I’m nursing that flame. Trying to get it to catch and feed a larger fire.
    Hopefully things will build, but right now it’s just baby steps.

    • Nathan, I don’t know you. I’m JD, nice to meet ya. Seems like we’ve had similar years. I got a lot out of this post and you did, too. The funny thing is that I have written similar sentiments many times. Then there are stretches where I can’t seem to remind myself that I can just be the best me I can be. Anyway, this post has proven that we are not alone in our wandering malaise. I see it in writers all around me. And I see it in myself. It’s a battle we all fight, I reckon.

      Keep taking those baby steps, brother.

  22. “We can challenge ourselves. In this great big creative RPG we can level up in a character class of one — the character class only we belong to. (I am a BEARDED WENDIGO KNIGHT and you are not. Who are you? You’re someone I can never be. And that’s amazing.)”

    This. 🙂 Thanks, Chuck.

  23. “I cannot write like Shakespeare, but then Shakespeare cannot write like me. Only I can tell my stories.”
    —Wolf Lahti

  24. Thank you for this post. I get this issue a lot. Indeed I am a martyr to professional envy! It’s a bloody annoying trait I have there especially because my brain knows that you are right even if my heart is busy having a screaming raving hissy fit and repeatedly sticking a fork into itself.



  25. I feel like this especially with my sales, I try to find the connection and I’m led back to the fact that they write different genres to me and they write better. No one wants to read horror anymore. It’s a hopeless feeling and sometimes the only thing that gets you through is the hope that one day you’ll get there too. Just gotta be patient and keep working away.

  26. I think I feel this way nearly every time I read a new book. I always feel like the style, elegance, coherence, are all better then I could ever do. It’s extra intense if it’s the same subject of a project I’m working on. It takes a lot to get over. I agree with what you have to say on the matter. We all feel this way. Just gotta keep working, try to be your best and get better. I try to remind myself that different isn’t better or worse, it’s just different, and just because someone else is doing something, maybe the same something as me, even better, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a place for me.

  27. I never thought that anyone else could feel like crawling into a deep depressing pit of self unworthyness like I can and feel like you are so flawed that you don’t deserve life. Well maybe not that far. But in this world of millions you are never ever alone in how you feel because after all… great minds think alike.

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