“An absolutely necessary part of a writer’s equipment, almost as necessary as talent, is the ability to stand up under punishment, both the punishment the world hands out and the punishment he inflicts on himself.” – Irwin Shaw
No, I don’t mean slaying dragons literally. Though, come to think of it…
I’m talking about the dragons you’ll face as an author. It doesn’t matter what you write, they’ll still be there. They lurk in dark corners, they circle you like prey and when you aren’t paying attention, they’ll steal vision, voice and most importantly, conviction, from your story. They come in all shapes and sizes, some are literal flesh and blood creatures (these are usually of the in-law breed), but others aren’t so obvious. The darkest, most ravenous dragons are the ones we’ve spent a lifetime cultivating, feeding, nurturing; that self-punishment that Irwin Shaw was referring to.
We’re somewhat attached to them, whether we know it or not. They sit next to us as we pen our prose and say snidely beneath their breath, “You don’t have anything to say, not really. You aren’t good enough to write. Why bother?” or “Just because you think you’re a writer, doesn’t mean you are.” What is worse, is that we listen! Subtler glances and expressions can cause more damage than the phrases that repeat themselves in our heads. After a paragraph, a page, a chapter, do we grimace out of habit before we’ve even given the work a decent chance of standing on its own? I want you to think about this carefully, most of you will respond in the negative, “If I’m concerned or dislike a chapter, it’s because it needs work. It has nothing to do with imaginary dragons.”
You sure about that? How many stories have you abandoned? How many times have you run with the breathtaking momentum of a tale, only to a discover a solid wall a few paces down the path? That’s not a wall, it’s a dragon and it will move on its own if you’re persistent enough. After all, you’re the one who told him to stand there. (I did not!) Yeah, actually, you did. You fed him by doubting yourself, you primped his ego by listening to his negativity and then you affirmed his stance by laying down your sword (pen, computer, typewriter). Pick it up! Stand your ground and take a few steps with the confidence that he’ll move aside when you get there. Grab a hold of that conviction you once had—you have a voice, you have a story to tell and no one else is going to tell it for you!
I’m not talking about editing here. I’m not talking about a story that you’re actively working on because it does need tweaking. I’m talking about those abandoned visions and that toxic manner of thinking that will forever leave you questioning your own abilities and your worth as an author. You’ve got to question your motives every time you set a story down. Are you really walking away from it because it doesn’t have merit? That’s a seriously easy trump card. “Oh, I didn’t finish it because it’s awful. It isn’t any good.” Who is anyone to question the author of the story, the authority on that piece? That’s my point exactly. If you say it isn’t, then it isn’t. You alone know the whole truth of it. I’m merely saying that there are an awful lot of fat and happy dragons hanging around and the feeding of a lost story to one of them is the equivalent of giving him a whole cheesecake. You can rest assured that they’ll be quiet for a while! You think you’ve done the right thing because you don’t hear those nagging voices anymore…but unless you slay them, your dragons will never leave you.