… and the Importance of Peers

So the first half of this topic was about how self-doubt will wander in when the insecurity at the core of my Writer’s Ego pounces. This second half (well, ‘half’. Part two?) talks about one of the best ways I’ve found to combat insecurity beyond hacking your brain and modifying your expectations.

When last I wrote, I said that I pestered my friends for reassurance when self-doubt rears its irrational little head, and that’s true. More specifically, rather than just bothering my friends, I actually approach my writing peers. There is no replacement that I’ve found that fills the role that a writing peer does, nor one as effective as shaking my Writer’s Ego until it calms down.

I use ‘peer’ here very deliberately.

The dictionary definition of peer is a little bit bland, I admit. Merriam-Webster only says that a peer is an equal, especially one within the same age, status, or social grouping. I’m calling up more of the current connotative definition as I understand it. A peer, for me, is someone who–more than a friend or simply someone of equal status or age–has similar experiences and can thus understand your frustrations and insecurities.

A writing peer, then, is a fellow writer who is treading their own path on a similar journey. This is to say that peers aren’t necessarily mentors–and, in fact, there is an inherent power differential in the idea of a mentor-mentee relationship that nixes a mentor from the ‘writing peer’ grouping–and they’re not necessarily friends either, though they can be. The crucial thing that makes writing peers helpful (aka the best people ever) is that they are the people who are going through the same struggles as you are, who can commiserate with you and share what works for them without coming from either a position of authority nor as a writer whose inexperience causes a disconnect.  These are the people whose opinions you trust who are also doing what you are doing. In a very individual-oriented and solitary profession, in a way, these people are a writer’s colleagues.

To chase the colleague metaphor very briefly, writers, artists and other freelancers don’t have the benefit of a social environment in which to do their work unless they seek one out. In Ye Olden Days, that’s how you ended up with great writers of different eras and nationalities clustered in various cafes all over the world. It’s also why there are now coworking spaces that basically mimic an office environment for people who’d otherwise just be stuck in their homes slowly starving for human interaction. Writing is one of the few professions where being an introvert is more the norm than not and holing up away from people is considered commonplace, but not everyone prefers the hermitage model. In addition to the social aspect, which really shouldn’t be knocked, discussion with writing peers can mimic the mutual forward progression that sharing ideas and strategies between colleagues fosters. You and your writing peers may not be working on the same project, but half the reason there’s any progress at all in cutting-edge disciplines is because of people bouncing ideas off of one another until pieces click together. I’d argue that writing is one such cutting-edge discipline, if only because of a reader’s thirst for new experiences.

Colleague aside, though, finding good writing peers is a little bit like joining a support group. This isn’t to say that that you need a formal group, however, mostly because a writer’s group is a different sort of animal and there are many different kinds of groups that fill different needs, and that’s very much a topic for a different time. It’s just that a support group and a loose collection of writing peers can serve the same purpose. You share stories. Triumphs and failures. The little ins and outs of your day that, really, are best understood by others who write. Not that stories of your tribulations can’t be amusing for people who are not writers, but finding people who have the spark of shared experience is a reassurance all its own.

It’s sort of like, for example, one of my pregnant friends joined a pregnancy forum that allowed her to chat with people who were in the same stage (and the same month) of pregnancy as she was. Being right down in the middle of something at the same time as someone else creates a sort of bond, because no matter how good your memory, details get lost by time, and the emotional spike of ‘that’s what I’m struggling with also!’ is a powerful thing. To be connected in some small way with people doing what you’re doing, experiencing what you’re experiencing, helps you, as a writer, keep from losing perspective. Insecurity, especially in the moment, is a force that skews perspective and (as you’ve probably seen in various author scandals) can cause a writer to sort of go off the rails a little. Having a connection with the grounding influence of peers is not just wise, it’s often necessary.

Plus, this idea of traveling with others at the same stage as you neatly segues into the concept of a cohort. Again, I’m using more of the connotative definition for cohort. Strictly by the dictionary, a cohort is a friend, or a group of people in a study that have some demographic thing in common. A cohort, in the sense I’m using it, is the general group of other writers and artists who you travel through your life milestones with. They’re the ones that started their careers around the same time you did, like a bubble of people traveling through life following roughly the same patterns. This cohort consists of all the people you get to know as you go to events and get involved.

The idea of your writerly cohort is actually how you get the fun-and-interesting phenomena of having all the famous writers of an era somehow know each other. You see this with Tolkien and Lewis being friends and swapping mentions in their books, and you see it in how Gaiman and Pratchett co-wrote Good Omens. Your cohort is going to be the people you collaborate with, the people you have professional relationships with, the people you meet at conventions and readings and random writers groups and retreats as you pursue your career. Additionally, a cohort is all of the people you know right now that– if you’re just starting–are also just starting. None of you are fabulous and famous yet, but your cohort are the people who will become fabulous and famous right along with you as you all improve and get your names out there. They’re your fellow travelers on the rocky road toward having people read what you’ve written.

Your writing peers come out of this cohort.

Peers, however, aren’t your therapists, or even necessarily your friends (especially if you met them in a professional capacity), so you don’t necessarily whine to them about how everything sucks when self-doubt hits and your Writer’s Ego starts chewing the mental furniture. Your peers can relate to you, though. Their experiences can inform you on how to get through a nasty spate of self-doubt, and even if there’s no advice to be had, sometimes a peer can give you feedback on the success or failure of a work and put some of your insecurities to bed that way. The idea of feedback elaborates on the idea from a few paragraphs ago that a peer can help you put everything in perspective. Writing peers don’t just help mitigate your anxiety responses when dealing with the uncertainties of audience, but they are also valuable for a reality check on the work itself.

As I’ve been singing the praises of cultivating writing peers, I should probably make it pretty clear that it is an excellent idea NOT to alienate your peers, but cherish them. I recently read an article (and if I could FIND it, I’d link you, because it was fascinating. My googlefu fails me),  wherein the writer had gotten a book deal and her writer’s group/critique group went cold on her. Whether it was jealousy or some other cause for the relationship to sour, it did so and the woman who wrote the article was by turns baffled and ‘good-riddance’ about her former group. This article got brought up in my writer’s group recently, and we universally decided it was bullshit of the highest order. First, because we enjoy each other’s company and work and only want what’s best for one another, and second because (and I might not have mentioned this one out loud at the time), because our careers aren’t going to progress in lockstep.

A writing career moves forward in fits and starts, and your friends, your peers, aren’t likely to all get a magical publishing deal within the same week, same month, or even the same year. You’re a cohort because you travel through milestones in a general sense. Someone is going to get there first. Someone is going to get there last. There’s nothing in the timing that makes one writer inherently better than another.

In that vein, too, even if there can be a sense of rivalry (and sometimes that’s unavoidable), a writer is not in competition with her peers. Even though you’re possibly at similar stages of writing and even if you’re competing in a general sense for eyes via internet advertising, or traditional publishing slots on the yearly publishing schedule, there is no physical way you can satisfy every reader’s tastes. Hell, you can never write fast enough to satisfy even just one reader. There’s no reason to get caught in a trap of superiority/inferiority based on the whims of an audience, especially because of how very insecure a writer’s relationship with any given audience really is. It’s sort of like the time Joshua Bell played in the Metro as part of a Washington Post social experiment and only a handful of people stopped to watch. You could be a brilliant writer (or concert violinist), and the wrong audience will earn you 27$, an interesting article in the newspaper, and not much else.

Now, all of this is well and good, but writing peers don’t spontaneously generate. Luckily, there are a wide variety of place to find other people who like to write. In no particular order:

  • Nanowrimo
    • Nanowrimo stands for Nation Novel Writing Month, and it’s an event that takes place in November where you write as fast as you possibly can to get as far as you possibly can toward of a goal of 50k words by the end of the month. The reason it’s a good place to meet other writers is because it sections you out by regions and encourages you to go to write-in and chat with other people in your area who also like to write. I moved to LA last year, and going to write-ins was a great way to get me out of the apartment and socializing with other locals. Plus, you’re all there for the same reason, and it’s very welcoming to new faces, whether you’re a new writer or a veteran.
    • always, always has critique groups popping up, some pretty active. Since there are often a good number of them (depending on your area), you can also shop around a little until you find a good mix of people you like.
  • Local Community Colleges/Universities
    • Now, I’m not recommending you take a class, necessarily. Though, of course, you could. If you’re in college or younger, check in and see if they have options. If you’re an adult, you could try a class if you can scrape up funds for a continuing education class. As a writer, you never stop learning, and even a grammar class as a refresher course wouldn’t hurt. What student environments like this have, however, are clubs and interest groups and other ways to connect to one another. Even if you’re just checking out the class list for the name of the teachers, oftentimes you can find a teacher has other writing-group opportunities outside of the academic structure. If a club/group is well-established, they might have ties to their alumni members and you could sound those out to find people who might be willing to link up.
  • Cowoorking Spaces
    • I mentioned coworking spaces above, where you basically pay a fee to subscribe to a workplace. It’s similar to getting a gym membership. Downside: costs money, sometimes quite a bit of it depending on the space. The good news, however, is that most coworking spaces have some sort of ‘free trial’. If you’re just looking to meet a few fresh faces and swap a few business cards, all of the coworking space owners that I’ve met have been very enthusiastic about trying to show you just how brilliant their space is.
  • Writer’s conventions
    • Writer’s conventions are one of the few event-type things I know of that really allows you-the-writer to bridge generational gaps, especially if you’re on the younger end of things. They’ve been around for years and they’re full of people Just Like You really wanting to make connections and find their peers. Plus, this is also where you can sort of take the pulse of your genre and swap knowledge. They’re fun, too, especially if you’re an extrovert or a social introvert. An important thing to remember if you go to a Writer’s Convention, is that you’re there to immerse yourself in your own industry (because publishing is an industry, no matter how artistic a writer you consider yourself to be), and while ghosting around without interacting might be nice, you’re also there to touch base with your peers. And, of course, this list is about Places To Find Peers.
  • Writer’s Organizations (join them!)
  • Libraries
    • Libraries continue to be amazing. Hunt down your local one and poke their events listing. Authors will roll through and give talks. Teachers will come in and basically hold panels. Libraries and the attendant Librarians will lure local speakers in with promises of an audience, and you’re likely to find kindred spirits in whatever room the event is held in. Plus, again, learning more is always a good thing for a writer.
    • Weirdly, some bookstores also function like libraries in this respect, and they’ll hold events for writers’ groups. If you’re looking for peers (and friends, perhaps), poking a bookshop’s event list might also be wise if you want to leave no stone unturned.
  •  Growing your own writer friends
    • I’m biased about this because I have had excellent results, but I encourage literally everyone I talk to who has even the barest inclination towards writing to set down and start. Encouraging people to write is how I ended up with my current writer’s group being so robust (it originally more focused on physical arts, if I recall correctly), and it contains some people who only barely considered writing before. I’ve encouraged my past roomates (one of whom is now published!), as well as far-flung friends and random people I’ve met at writing meetups. As a writer, and as I previously mentioned, I’m not in competition with anyone else who writes, and I absolutely love seeing the writing that people come up with.
  • Friends of friends
    • Everyone knows someone who is a writer, and sometimes pursuing those leads can end up going pretty well. That’s how I ended up with an excellent beta reader, and how I began chatting with some of my current peers. Of course, sometimes the friend of a friend thing ends up putting you in touch with someone who is a hilariously poor fit personality-wise, so use caution. Social dynamics being what they are, always use caution when pursuing this method of peer-hunting.
  • Become a Regular
    • This… is one of the more nebulous of my suggestions. The basic idea is that you show up to someplace repeatedly, and the people who also show up to that place repeatedly have a higher chance of being those sorts you’d like to interact with. Originally, this was ‘go to coffeeshops or the library’, but this can work pretty much anywhere where there’s space enough to write. Like a park, or a beach, or campus.
    • Some coffee-shops encourage a studious environment. I know when I lived in Boulder, most of the coffeeshops near CU campus were filled with students camped out with their homework. Further north, however, I started to see work-from-home types venturing out. Saying hello to faces you see again and again at the places you frequent has nabbed me a writing peer or two. Also, even if they’re not fellow writers, you might end up with a new friend.
  • Online communities
    • Last but not least, the internet has a plethora of places that you can prod to produce peers. These range from informal to organized, and even a tiny forum can be helpful if it suits your niche and is an environment where you can both contribute and get the sort of feedback that best helps you.
    • Some examples:
      • Challenges:
        • Get Your Words Out – A Writing Decathalon – GYWO has a healthy livejournal community and a presence on dreamwidth, plus a friendly group of regular chatters.
        • Camp Nanowrimo – Like Nanowrimo, but instead of being in November, it’s in April and July and they sort you into ‘cabins’ to help encourage socialization. It’s (potentially) not as stressful as November Nano, because you can choose your own word goal.
        • {insert name here} Big Bang – If you write fanfiction, and certain sorts of original fiction, you can join a Big Bang for the type of story you want to write. It’s basically a fiction festival that pairs you-the-writer with an artist, and when you post your story (either to LJ or some other media venue) you are gifted with art. I joined a Dragon Big Bang a couple of years ago, and I’ve written for fandom specific ones as well. A Big Bang is not something you join to produce something saleable, due to the nature of fandom’s gift economy, but if you’re looking to simply meet people, they’re fun challenges to join.
      • Forums:
        • The Absolute Write forums – Home of ‘Writer Beware’, the best listing of scams and shady dealers to watch out, the Absolute Write forums are a place where pros as well as the aspiring go to chat around the virtual watercooler.
        • There are also smaller-scale forums out there, though none that I’m personally on at the moment. Any further recommendation would come from my googlefu, so I suggest investigating further into your genre-of-choice if you’re going to find some sort of forum to support you. Over the years I’ve bounced through several small ones, though, like any community, they often have a lifespan of only a couple of years, even if you hang on to some of the people you met there.
      • Social Media:
        • It must be said, but you can always flail around on social media. Whether it’s twitter, tumblr, or something else, the people who might have stuff in common with you are shouting into the void waiting for some response other than an echo. If you shout back, you might find yourself with a new peer (or even a new friend). There might be a learning curve on the culture of any particular social media platform, but generally there’s a way to find other aspiring writers, whether it’s through people getting connected via advice-giving tumblog contests, or complimenting people throwing their 140 character tweet pitches at agents.

In conclusion (now that I’ve written way more than I thought I would on this particular topic):

Having writing peers when you’re a writer is a positive thing, especially for kicking self-doubt in the face. As a writer you need your peers to give you reality checks and feedback to reassure you that it’s okay to keep going, that no matter the past, success is still on the horizon. Also, sharing ideas with your peers is one of the crucial ways in which you grow as a writer, since it’s all too easy to fall into the trap where an unsuccessful piece becomes solely the fault of the audience not ‘understanding’ your vision and a solid boot to the head by a peer is can help you recalibrate. Whether to combat arrogance or insecurity, though, finding your writing peers is a necessary part of being a successful writer.

And that wraps up my two-parter on self-doubt, friends! Next time it’ll be a whole different ball game. 🙂

The Cyclical Nature of Self-Doubt…

I’ve always conceptualized all of the separate bits of my personalty that pertain directly to my writing as my ‘Writer’s Ego’. I picture it as sort of a fuzzy ball with eyes and feet, rather like Fizzgig from the Dark Crystal:

Fizzgig from the Dark Crystal aka a Writer's Ego

My Writer’s Ego (It’s so fluffy!)

So my Writer’s Ego is this little ball of fluff that needs a great deal of cuddles and brushing. If properly tended, it will bite anyone or anything that tries to stop me from writing, and will stubbornly cling to good writing ideas that I’m not quite yet sure how to write about. It’s this bulletproof, bulldog-perseverant mush of beliefs and desires that is the reason I want to write and keep writing.

It’s also this ball of hair, teeth, and ego that I blame for self-doubt.

There’s a lot of good advice out there about self-doubt from a bunch of awesome authors, and all of them sort of acknowledge how self-doubt is something most (if not all) writers suffer from and that it’ll attack no matter who you are or how good you are. It’s a thing that happens.

Of course, me being me, I hate it when things just happen. I need to know why.

To that end, I’ve found self-doubt to be almost entirely cyclical. It doesn’t just leap out from behind bushes and out of darkened hallways. It might pounce and dump its payload of ‘What the heck am I doing?! Who let me near the written word‘, but the resulting surprise (and despair) is more akin to falling out of your chair after you’ve been nodding off.  Depending on who you are, there are often warning signs and patterns and predictable triggers, and when you start to look at it from the oh-no-here-it-comes perspective, self-doubt becomes less an insurmountable barrier to writing and more one of those things you have to wait out, like an epic line at the DMV, the last few minutes of a particularly one-sided ball game, or one of those freak storms dropping golf-ball sized hail.

The actual why, though, depends on my Writer’s Ego, because the idiot ball of fluff is both arrogant and deeply, deeply insecure.

Writing is one of those subjective things, though ultimately the axis upon which it’s judged isn’t really good vs. bad, but successful vs. unsuccessful, and a particular piece of writing’s success is really only determined by the intended audience’s opinion/reception. A piece you thought was decent but not brilliant might strike a cultural nerve and become an instant bestseller and win ten million awards. One you think is stark glorious might sell five paperbacks and mosey into obscurity never to be heard of again. Like any art, the audience’s reaction is largely out of the writer’s control, able to be manipulated only a little by various tools in a writer’s toolbox. There’s really nowhere solid for a writer to stand, view their work, and definitively say: ‘my audience will love this.’ You can guess, but you don’t know.

Well, unless of course the writer is the intended audience, which is probably one of the best ways to combat your Writer’s Ego’s insecurity I’ve ever found. If you’re the one making the final decision on whether something is a successful piece of writing, then everyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter, does it?

Insecurity, however, is a fun thing, because it only really evolves out of relationships. You can have an insecure relationship with a person, certainly, but you can also have an insecure relationship with a job, or a home, or food. Insecurity is the state of not knowing if something will be or won’t be, this Schrodinger’s Cat quantum in-between state that seems to fry the decision-making process. It’s the ‘not knowing whether the action will produce the intended consequence’ that makes gamblers into addicts or mice into button-pushing maniacs. It makes you cling harder in the fear someone/something might leave you behind, it makes you deeply anxious that you haven’t done something that needed to be done and now it’s far too late,  and it makes you burn up and burn through whatever you’re insecure about because if you don’t now then it might not exist later. It’s both a fear of change and a fear that you’ll never know for sure.

Consider the moment of maximum tension in a horror movie right before the actor turns the doorknob and the music has become this violin tremolo to prepare you for a jump-scare. Is the closet empty? Is someone about to be eaten? Insecurity is that moment stretched out over time.

The fluffy little heart of my Writer’s Ego is formed of insecurity based on the relationship that I have with my audience. It’s why I was terrified of my critique group’s opinions in the beginning, because I didn’t know if they’d be kind or get awkward or my writing wouldn’t affect them like I wanted to. I didn’t know, and the ‘not knowing’ meant I didn’t share at all. That’s why the best advice against self-doubt and failure to launch is always some flavor of ‘control what you can control and let go of the rest‘, and that’s why the Serenity Prayer is part of twelve-step programs and printed on bookmarks and wall placards.

My Writer’s Ego can be shaken up by even the smallest change, too, and I absolutely admit that. As secure as I am in most aspects of my life, my Writer’s Ego hates that it can never predict how my audience responds. It’s anxious about me sharing with my critique group. It’s anxious about me putting my words in front of people I don’t know. It’s anxious about me exploring certain themes and using certain words and putting all my subconscious biases down in writing.

Heck, my Writer’s Ego is even anxious about me getting better at writing.

I have a concept of ‘leveling up’ that I use relatively often, and I’ll probably dedicate a whole post it it eventually, but it boils down to the idea that every once and a while you make a jump writing quality. You figure something out, epiphany-style, or you read just the right advice column at just the right time, or something else – and everything clicks into place. Then you go back and read your work from a month ago, or a year ago, or five years ago, and you go: ‘this was AWFUL’ and ‘I thought this was GOOD’. So you doubt yourself and your skills and pretty much the opinion of everyone who has ever complimented you since kindergarten.

My Writer’s Ego hates leveling up because its angry, toothy core of insecurity takes it as an excuse to call into question my self-perceptions and everything is a little wobbly for a while until I find my feet again. Except–the definition of leveling up is that I’ve gotten better. I’ve gained greater skill (or at least greater self-awareness), and it’s a natural byproduct of gaining experience as a writer. Since a writer never stops learning, that also means that this leveling up process is something that’s going to happen again and again over the course of my life. My Writer’s Ego also hates the prospect that the stuff I think is good now is certainly going to be less-good than the stuff I produce later…

But, honestly, that way lies madness, and since I’d much rather improve than remain stagnant forever, my Writer’s Ego doesn’t get an opinion on this topic.

Beyond petting and coddling my Writer’s Ego and foisting it on friends to deal with when I’m 1000% done with the obnoxious little thing–and beyond the solid advice from some of the linked anti-self-doubt blogposts that people have already written–I try and remember two things: my audience isn’t likely to lie to me and my audience isn’t a monolith.

The success of a novel or a short story or a poem or anything else can only be determined by this audience in aggregate,  and on the whole, an audience is going to respond as they’re inclined to respond. Just like the audience for live theater, or live comedy, there’s a vibe you get back from your audience as a full group that’s different in character than the feedback you get from an individual. It’s a sense of engagement, of energy, a thrum that makes a ‘good’ audience very different from a ‘dead’ audience.

The writer gets this too, though audience feedback starts to come in pings on a radar that encompasses many vectors. It’ll be a cheerful email to your inbox thanking you for a pleasant evening’s reading, or a post on a book club’s forum about how awful an author you are because they are now emotionally scarred, or it’ll be a nasty Amazon review,  or it will be the fact that you never hear anything from anyone. Most of it’s indirect, though, like taking a pulse rather than asking the patient how fast their heart is beating. Eventually, though, there’s a sense of how successful your writing was, and now you have that knowledge as ammunition for next time you ‘perform’.

Overall, there are very few situations where even a smallish audience can lie to your face, and I think there’s a certain amount of stability to be gain from trusting in that, even if you later decide that the feedback wasn’t particularly useful or the reader(s) giving the feedback missed the point entirely.

Additionally, even when looking at your audience of readers as a group, there’s also something to be said for remembering that ‘readers as a group’ is going to encompass a lot of subgroups. One of those subgroups is going to be the five or six of your ‘1000 true fans‘ (you’ll note, they probably don’t actually number in the thousands). Another is going to be ‘people who review books while hating the genre and who have no concept of the conventions’. Another group is ‘people vaguely offended by your content’. Another is ‘people who will read any and everything in your genre regardless if it’s good and probably don’t remember you name or your book’s title.’ One friend even sent me a review by a person who didn’t understand protagonist’s main motivations and so panned the book because she thought it was ‘unrealistic’.

It’s understanding that not all subgroups within an audience are going to respond the same, but that they are going to respond in a way that’s authentic to them, takes away a lot of the insecurity surrounding the writer-audience relationship.

My Writer’s Ego is more enthusiastic about putting things out there now that it’s ever been, because I’ve done a lot of work to convince it that the core of its relationship with my audience is less about validation and more about ‘reading’ the audience right back. When I’m focused on determining how effective I’ve been at achieving my goal, it’s like being any artist standing in front of a group and practicing my showmanship. There’s not a lot of room for my Writer’s Ego to start wailing if my audience, my readers, are giving me what I need to improve. Even silence on my readers’ behalf is a sign that I need to change something if I want a response, even if that ‘change’ is the decision to stop chasing after someone who only responds with silence.

That dealing with self-doubt is sometimes just a matter of hugs and a kind word, of repeated reassurance, certainly, but attacking the heart of the problem is always my preferred method. Anything I can do to remove the inherent insecurity of the writer-audience relationship, and re-frame it to give me a little bit more control over what I get out of it, I will. I can’t get rid of the in-between waiting awfulness, but I can trust that if and when my reader (whether publisher, not-quite-Mother-in-Law, writer’s group, or unknown audience) finally reads my book, that whatever feedback (or lack thereof) I get is going to give me more information than I had before.

If there’s one thing my Writer’s Ego does like, it’s more information. Knowing whether that horror-movie closet is empty or not gets that decision-making processes started up again, and there’s nothing my Writer’s Ego likes more than ordering me around.

I mentioned above, a couple of times, that I will sometimes pass my Writer’s Ego off to someone else when I’m frustrated with it, but it’s a bit more complicated than simply pestering a friend for reassurance. However, that is a topic all it’s own, and I plan to explore it in my next post.

** This is one of the first topics I decided I wanted to write about when I started this blog and, just my luck, once I actually sat down and began it ended up being a two-parter.