Dealing with Dissatisfaction

Every six months or so, I go through a period where I think everything I’ve written up to that point is complete shit. Like clockwork, I exchange a wary glance with the nearest paper shredder, contemplate filing away all my current projects under a “Juvenilia” folder that my future biographers will hopefully gloss over. From now on, I think, my writing has enough wit and depth to be publishable, but everything before this doesn’t count.

Sometimes this feeling is caused by actual improvement. Perhaps the short story I just revised really is the best I’ve ever done. Maybe I’m taking a writing class, or I’ve finished a book that showcases a new style or approach that suits me. But, most of the time, it’s that creeping dissatisfaction that I still haven’t reached the level of skill I want to be at, that I might never reach it. And that, even if I do, my work will lie hopelessly buried in slush piles and its only admirers will be my relatives, if that.

Most of the time, I wait a few days for it to go away. I grit my teeth and put down a few paragraphs somewhere if I’m feeling bold, but it usually ends up being a personal rant rather than anything productive (talk about self-fulfilling prophecy). I try to reason it away, because overthinking is always a stellar strategy. Surely it’s unfair to compare my work with that of geniuses who toiled for years over their manuscripts in the prime of their life. Surely progress and eventual success is inevitable, if I just work harder than the thousands of others clamoring for the same opportunities. And then the moment passes, the birds once more chirp in the trees, and I can safely reread my drafts again.

The truth is, it’s fear. And fear is too stubborn to be waited out, to be cajoled, to be bargained with. It needs to be pulled into the light and given a swift kick out the door.

It’s hard when you’re floundering in the one thing you’ve pinned your legacy on. It can be all too tempting to sacrifice your voice, your style, your views to another vision, because it’s easier to emulate what has been successful rather than try to reach it yourself. I know I’ve done it. High standards seem ambitious, even friendly, until they are conditions, not guidelines. And, ironically, perfectionism rarely leads to perfection, precisely because it rarely leads to anything. It’s a tough enemy because every time it lets you down, you just think you didn’t do it right.

But there is a way to balance personal growth with satisfaction. I’ve learned, over and over again, that writing is a matter of treasuring the process rather than the product. Our view of the product can change dramatically over the course of a single hour, I’m living proof. But–and please let me not be cliché–being a writer is about embracing the verb “write,” not the noun “writing.” I’m always haunted by the idea of the hundreds of past authors and poets who died unknown. Their work wasn’t anthologized or passed around the dinner table. It wasn’t uncovered and rescued by researchers or college faculties centuries later. It passed silent into time. Did they, too, have the same fears? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that they faced the same terrifying possibilities but were able to reconcile themselves to where they could reach. In short, that they kicked fear’s ass.


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