This Story is Beneath You

A confused fan searches for one of my books
Almost two years ago I started my 6th novel. Plotting and planning, then writing like mad. Research, plot adjustments, pondering, and more writing like mad.

Somewhere along the way, it crashed.

More precisely, I crashed.

Flashback to Success

On November 11th of 2011 I released 6 books simultaneously. (11/11/11, get it?) In the previous 6 months I’d written (or compiled) 4 books and co-authored 2 more, all books about business philosophy and process.

I switched to fiction. Finally followed up my first Irish adventure novel with a second, then started another series, and a third.

It was like driving a Lamborghini steamroller.

Then, I got some professional advice.

Flashback to the Opposite of Success

A respected writing coach volunteered to read some of my stuff. After finishing the first straight-from-my-fingers unedited draft of my 5th novel, they praised my ability to write, but closed with “This story is beneath you.”

It still hurts to think about it.

Crash and Aftermath

I reconsidered my abilities.

I looked into different genres I could be better at.

I considered giving up novels and sticking to songwriting.

I talked myself into finishing the book and published it.

I tried to talk myself into finishing the time travel fantasy I’d already started. Made progress in fits and starts, then ground to a halt.

I read every motivational book for writers I owned and a bunch more from the library.

I got feedback (universally overwhelmingly positive) about the half-draft of the time travel fantasy (“Don’t you DARE not finish this book!” was one comment.)

I got feedback on my fiction writing in general, again, universally positive (either my fans are a bunch of liars, or they already love what I write.)

I sat staring out the window a lot.

But I didn’t write.

I couldn’t.

The Odd Couple: Stephen King and Mark McGuinness

Mark is a poet. He also uses his training in psychiatry to help artists overcome their challenges to creativity.

King is an author. You knew that. You might not know that his best book is a memoir called On Writing which, far from being instructional, is purely anecdotal. Also the most inspiring giving-myself-permission book I’ve ever read.

Here’s the man himself on feeling exactly the way I felt:

“I was ashamed. I have spent a good many years since—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who as ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.”

“. . . in my heart I stayed ashamed. I kept hearing Miss Hisler asking why I wanted to waste my talent, why I wanted to waste my time, why I wanted to write junk.”—from Stephen King’s On Writing, p50

Poor sap. If only he’d known he was wasting his time. He could have gotten a job at the filling station instead of whatever it is he’s done with his life.

I mulled that for a week, all day, every day.

If Stephen King can be, not only told his work was “beneath him” but even, to this day, feel shame about the whole thing, and still write, so could I.

In a coaching session with Mark, we talked about why the comment hit me so hard (see Handbook of Psychiatry under “family”) and some practical ways to talk back to Resistance when it rears its ugly head.

I Can Do This. So Can You.

It’s not going to be easy. It’s never going to be easy.

It is doable.

I write what I write. It’s what I love. Every book is better than the last. None are perfect. Neither am I. My fans seem to love my books anyway.

Writing takes effort, emotional work, every single time you sit down.

After 2 years I’m ready to put in the work, face down Resistance every single day, and get back to creating art I love, art I love sharing.

What’s In This for You?

I’ll be writing regularly about what Resistance is, why it affects us, and how to make it irrelevant. I’ll answer any questions you have, and offer specific advice about any challenges you’re facing.

After all, once I’ve blazed this trail, it’d be silly not to make it available to others.

16 thoughts on “This Story is Beneath You

  1. Yay! Very happy to have you back at the keyboard. My newest WIP, I have already been told by some prior readers, family included, that I will lose them because I’m changing from PG/PG13 to R. In short, I don’t care. This novel isn’t for them; it’s for me. Period. And I have relayed that exact message to them. It’s both powerful and freeing to not be hindered by writing to try to please someone else. 🙂

  2. Ohhhh. First, Joel, I’ve waited for this post. Outside of Kurt Andersen, your way of expressing yourself has been my favorite voice of the many. Why: your taut-as-a-wire way with humor, the vulnerability you openly share, and the confidence you wave like a king’s gloved hand all over the page. I love the way you write and the very Fact that you write and keep offering it and keep offering and keep fighting and keep moving, this I absolutely love about you, Joel. So there you have it; this one is a Super post, yet again. Second, not that I’m either Mark McGuinness or a psychiatrist, but this thing with resistance (no capitals) — I can only say what I’ve previously gone on and on about: resistance is nature, nature is resistance, and what Is resistance? It is I. So why on earth or in heaven would I “fight” myself? Is this going to make it all go away? No no, I just work with it as an aspect of me that’s just as smart and capable as The Great Artist or whatever else I might pretend I also am. NOT resistance is out there and I’m in here and I must destroy it…very biblical… Could we liken it to the completion of mastery in a martial art? Perhaps I make too much of the odd notions expressed by Pressfield devotees, almost a rabid “I’ll kill you and your little dog too” attitude toward inherent, respectable parts of Oneself. Give me a break, I always say. Maybe that excessive sanctioning of internal violence is itself part of the path of completion as a martial artist or as any other kind of artist; and as such is not actually so necessarily “negative” as I’m construing it. So I’ll just put down my weapons on this argument. As with everything else, “honestly? I just don’t know.” Great work, Joel, Great. xoxo

  3. Oops, I did forget #3, though. Should be #1: If I were told, “this story is beneath you,” my first thought would be that “oh, this means I am capable of even more sophisticated work or I could easily up the intensity of my stylistic efforts” or what have you, anything like that! I didn’t automatically think this comment was meant as Anyyyy kind of downer on your creative outlet’s abilities! Not at all. It bothers me, a lot, that you suffered so much for that. Did you ask him (if it’s Mark) to elaborate? If so, what did he say? Of course, you don’t have to answer that, Joel, haaa, but I’ll just say I’m so glad you got this great stuff you got out of the whole period you went through. Kind of somehow makes it alright…

  4. Brain overload 🙂

    Not Mark. Mark is very positive. Nudges with questions, doesn’t denigrate.

    The tone of the comment, though, was precisely the same as the tone of King’s English teacher: “Why you wanna write garbage?”

    Again, I’ll set aside the concept of fighting to create, and remember that anything worth doing takes effort. Climbing a mountain, running a marathon, writing a book, staying married. It’s work. Our natural state is chaos, our natural tendency is entropy. Without effort, nothing happens.

    Creativity is an emotional state, and emotional accomplishment. Therefore it requires emotional effort to create. All effort encounters resistance (otherwise, it would not be effort, any more than floating weightless in space would be work.) Sometimes the effort is akin to pushing your hand through the air; other times it’s like pushing a boulder uphill.

    My next post is going to be about why acts of creativity give rise to emotional turmoil. There’s solid social and psychological science behind it.

  5. Excellent, Joel! I look forward to that next essay, as this discussion has led directly into that question. I like it. Everything you say here is clear, has logic, and also meshes with my own experience and (apparent) understanding of things. Also well-put. (p.s. sorry about the brain overload)

    “Why ya wanna write garbage” is pretty flippin’ negative, no doubt. That hurt. Yet…I still see it (in Your case) as having been a really immature way of saying that “you are capable of great material, so perhaps find a genre that the world, in a larger way, can benefit from”(??). Haa…I’ve noticed with myself that how I take criticism offered (that is, if it feels negative) is something I was already worried about being the truth anyway.

    Hey now, get the new post up soon!!! xoxo

  6. something I was already worried about being the truth anyway

    In this case, that reasoning is what shut me down for 2 years.

    Realizing that the criticism was entirely wrong is what’s letting me get started again. The fear that “I’m not good enough” is universal among artists, and no artist ever needed someone else to say it for them. It’s destructive, with zero upside. “Why you wanna write garbage?” has no relation to, say, a kid mowing the lawn and dad saying “Nice job. Maybe next time you could mow in straight lines and see if that looks nicer.”

  7. So You’ve been able to see and to realize that it’s NOT anything like truth. I’d like to get there, Joel, sounds like a great spot to relocate.

    Wow, we’re like little eggshells that didn’t get enough calcium. haa.


  8. I learned what Resistance was while reading your blog, Joel. Before that, for years, I had no idea what it was, I was only suffering from what it was doing to me… Now that I know what it is, everything feels easier. Not always easy, but easier!

    Please keep writing what you love to write, and keep writing about Resistance because this is so important.

  9. H’ray! Thanks so much, Myriam. Every time I look at your book (and the magnet on the front of our fridge) I’m glad you did the emotional work to make that happen.

  10. Aw, yeah!
    This book has a sequel now, and I have a comic book album, and so many more projects! It all started with one book…

  11. Love this, Joel. Thanks for sharing your experiences. It’s amazing how such little comments can derail us so thoroughly, and how much strength it can take to get back on track.

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