I alluded awhile back to the fact that, even though I’ve had some wonderful things happen in my writing life this year, I’ve been hit by bouts of writerly self-doubt more often than usual in the past months. I think this is something most writers will understand. Mostly I just plough ahead, writing my stories, trying to get them published, promoting the ones that are published, trying not to obsess too much. But there are times when I can’t stop comparing myself to other writers, obsessing about reviews I didn’t get or prizes I wasn’t nominated for, wondering if I’ll ever get the elusive “big break” — you know, like you do when you’ve had more than twenty books published but you start to realize you’ll never have a bestseller and never be a household name, except of course in your own household and your parents’.
So I’ve been moving forward with various projects but still kind of mired mentally, wondering what my next move should be, what career direction I should take. I’ve been trying to tell myself that all I need to do is tell the stories I want to tell, in the best way I possibly can, but it’s hard not to obsess about the other step — getting those stories into the hands of readers.
The other night I got a little inspiration from, of all people, Stephen King.
I was listening to Jian Ghomeshi’s radio interview with King. Now, I have mixed feelings about Stephen King. I hate horror, so it would never have occurred to me until a couple of years ago to pick up one of his books or even to regard him seriously as a writer. Then a copy of his book On Writing fell into my hands, and I loved it. I realized that this is a writer who really knows his craft, and also can put together a good memoir. A friend convinced me to read King’s novel Lisey’s Story, which I didn’t love as much as she did, but I did enjoy it, and at least it wasn’t horror. So I’ve come to think of Stephen King as a writer I like, who writes about stuff I don’t like. I’m interested in what he has to say, especially about writing (and I think I will be reading his latest book, since it’s about going back in time to change a historical event, and I think we all know what a sucker I am for time-travel).
Jian asked him about the attitude of the literary community towards “popular” fiction and asked King if he ever wishes his books were nominated for literary awards. I was kind of pleased to hear him say that even though he knows he doesn’t need the money that goes with such prizes, it would be nice to get the recognition from the literary community. It just underscores my belief that every writer, no matter how successful, has some Holy Grail just out of their reach, some standard they haven’t yet achieved. Unpublished writers want to get published. Published writers want better sales. Writers whose books are selling want to be best-sellers, or perhaps they want to win awards. If they are winning awards, they want to also be on the best seller list and, as Stephen King has just demonstrated, the reverse is also true.
So that was comforting, but the inspiring part of the interview came a few minutes later when, in answer to a question about what motivates him to write, King said, “I think that if you’ve got something, if God gives you something, you should use it. It’s there for a purpose. My job is to entertain people, and my goal is to do it as well as I can.”
Wow. So simple. I suppose you could wrangle for awhile, if that kind of thing interests you, about Stephen King’s concept of God or about whether writing horror novels is the best way to use your God-given talent or whatever. But for me, those words just crystallized something I already knew and had been trying to tell myself for months, but that took on an added weight when I heard them coming from outside my own head.
If God’s given me something — the ability to tell stories — I need to use it. It’s there for a purpose. So I need to fulfill that purpose the best I can. Stephen King didn’t add that the outcome, the sales, the awards, and everything else, is in God’s hands, but that’s the conclusion for me — I do my job, and try, over and over, day by day, to detach myself from worrying about the results. It’s a daily practice, but I’m getting there.
(If you’re interested in that Stephen King interview, it’s here on the Q page http://www.cbc.ca/q/episodes/ under November 10).