A colleague at Indireads wrote a charming romantic novel with an explicit sex scene. The story could have been written by Shakespeare himself, but for one reader, the thought of sex before marriage between an Indian couple was all that blazed out at him. He left a vitriolic little review for the author along the lines of ‘this doesn’t happen in our culture’. The author was understandably frustrated. “How do they think we became a population of one billion people? Storks!?” But the review affected her enough for her to tone down her words. She told me that her next book had no sex scenes, at least, none that may be construed as ‘against our culture’. She couldn’t be sure, even then, that her words wouldn’t be misunderstood, judged and found to be wanting.
Being a writer means that uncertainty plagues you.
This may not be true for every writer out there, but more than any other profession in the world, writing (and the arts, which would encompass music and film) is evaluated with complete subjectivity. You can be a complete success or an utter failure depending upon your audience’s taste, their mood when they read your book, and comparisons with other writers within your genre.
I don’t know about you, but that leaves me in a constant state of flux between bouts of euphoria and absolute confidence in my words, and deep depression at the possibility of failure. Will my readers hate the book? What if they do? What if one these haters tells people? What if they find mistakes; what if the facts don’t check out? What if I am totally deluded and my writing isn’t really that good? What if the few readers who do like my work are similarly deluded?
What if, what if, what if. Writers have different reactions to doubt. I have two.
It took a great deal of courage and self-reflection for me to send my book to my first reviewer. I wanted an honest review, but I was so unsure that the reviewer would like the book, that I had an ongoing argument in my head for days before I hit the send button. The polite, well-structured email had been sitting in my drafts folder for almost a week before I finally screwed up my courage, convinced myself that a bad review didn’t matter that much, and sent it out. I stamped out possible depression at a negative review before I might experience it. It was one way of overcoming my fear.
I’ve done that before. The first time I lost a race (I was a long-distance runner), I was devastated. I hated second place, and I despised myself for not winning. To counteract the sudden dive in my self-esteem, I convinced myself that winning was no big deal. My reasoning was that if I didn’t care that much about winning, second place wouldn’t hurt so much.
This isn’t exactly a winning formula, however. And giving in to the doubt is worse.
Giving in to the fear would have meant that I never sent the book out. I might never have written it, nor published it. I may never have marketed it, or sent it out to reviewers. To effectively market my book to my potential readers, I have to care for it, believe in it, have pride in it. I have to know that it’s good, or my forays into the world would be timid at best, non-existent at worst. Books, unlike music or film, are unlikely to catch someone’s instant attention. It’s not like hearing a song on the radio, or seeing a trailer on TV and suddenly finding your audience. Excerpts have to be read, descriptions have to be enticing, reviews have to be outstanding for a reader to actually pick up the book. And you can’t hold a concert or an exhibition or a viewing and capture large numbers of readers in one go. Each reader has to be courted individually.
On the other hand, tamping down on our expectations and fears, convincing ourselves not to care so much, can limit our potential. We start second-guessing our own ideas, we shy away from experimentation, from new ways of seeing the world, new ways of representing the world. We conform. We follow the beaten track, take the yellow brick road and look for the Wizard just because everyone else is.
Uncertainty is what brings out the tried and tested, the formulas. It’s what drives mediocrity.
I realize there’s a third face to this coin, however, and like the actual edge of a coin, it’s a narrow ridge that makes for a tough balancing act. It’s a state where you don’t kill the fear, and you don’t give in to it. It may mean that I’ll end up a circus performer, walking a tightrope of doubt and just being one of the crowd. It may be the road to insanity, for all I know.
But I’m rolling the coin now, and I know if I stop moving, the coin will fall. If it does, I don’t care to know which side it will fall on, because neither works for me.