The Curse of the Writer

I have more conversations with clients about their feelings of anxiety, apprehension or insecurity than almost any other topic. Nearly every writer I have ever worked with as an editor or an agent, at some point in their career or in the process, severely doubt themselves.

Doubts occur in the midst of creation. (“They are going to find out the truth…I have no talent.”)
Doubts occur when the “letter” arrives from the editor. (“They hate my book. I’m a failure!”)
Doubts occur when the disappointing royalty statement arrives. (“Why do I work so hard for so little?”)
Doubts occur … just because…

It is the curse of the writer. Writing is an introspective process done in a cave…alone. It is natural to have the demons of insecurity whisper their lies. And, in a cave, the whispers echo and build into a cacophony of irrepressible noise.

Once I had an author with dozens of titles in print and over three million books sold turn to me and say with a somber voice, “Do I have anything left to say? Does anyone care?” I didn’t quite know how to reply so tentatively said, “Well, I like it!” The author responded with a harrumph, “But you are paid to like it.” After we laughed, we agreed that this lack of confidence would pass and ultimately it was a normal thing to feel.

When all is written and done there is the extraordinary feeling of accomplishment when the book is finished and that ministry of words begins. However the doubts don’t go away because critics will write reviews. One or two stars show up on Goodreads or Amazon. Or, even worse, no one cares enough to write a review at all!

Writers complain, “But my book has only sold 3,000 copies!” Instead of focusing on the few, consider focusing on those who bought the book. Put all 3,000 people into one room. Imagine it. An auditorium filled with people, wall to wall. And every person in that room has paid money to read your book. And then you walk out onto the stage to give the glory and honor to our God. That can help put things in perspective.

I hope we don’t write for fame. I hope we don’t write for our own glory. We write because we must. There is something in you that must get out. So many authors will say, “I can’t not write!”

Maybe your magazine article arrives on a doorstep the very day that reader is struggling with a wayward teenager. You’ll probably never hear from that reader, but your words are a salve to the soul. Books aren’t the only way to get published.

Maybe your blog or podcast is forwarded by someone to a person in need. Someone you don’t know.

My advice? Know that the curse of doubt is normal. See it for what it is, simply part of the process. Embrace it but don’t let it debilitate!

 

[a version of this post originally ran in September 2010.]

62 Responses to The Curse of the Writer

  1. Elaine W. Miller September 20, 2010 at 6:13 am #

    Thank you, Steve, for encouraging us cave dwellers. At a writer’s conference somewhere I heard that on average each book sold is read by 5 people. Mine has sold 10,000 copies, so I envision 50,000 people. That’s exciting!

  2. Nancy B. Kennedy September 20, 2010 at 6:42 am #

    LOVE that visual picture! It does make you feel better about those anemic royalty statements.

  3. Lynnda Ell September 20, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    Thank you, Steve. I needed that.

  4. Janet Thompson September 20, 2010 at 10:00 am #

    My cave is exactly what my husband calls my office and since I’ve been in it most of this year, I’ve heard those negative voices. Then I’ll get an email from a reader who said one of my books was just what she needed at the time…and I know being a cave dweller isn’t so bad cause God is in the cave with me. I just need windows and a view:).

  5. Michael K. Reynolds September 20, 2010 at 10:31 am #

    Thanks Steve.

    It’s a long road on the way to writing and publishing a novel. There’s great value in having someone come alongside you in those weary moments to remind you the reason for the journey.

  6. Sharon Gillenwater September 20, 2010 at 2:16 pm #

    Wise words and a good reminder that I give myself from time to time — ever since you first said it to me years ago.

    I like Janet’s thought, too, that God is in that cave with me.

  7. Cynthia September 20, 2010 at 7:47 pm #

    Thank you for this perspective, Steve. Your wisdom is always highly valued. Thanks for your efforts to help us grow as writers…and people.

  8. Sally Apokedak September 20, 2010 at 8:00 pm #

    Great picture. That just about covers the feeling of, “What right do you have to speak? Why should anyone listen to a word you say?”

    An editor once told me that Isaac Singer, even after he got the Nobel prize, would turn in a manuscript and then call right away and say, “Is it any good?” That editor has worked with some of the greatest children’s writers ever and he says every writer is insecure. Without exception. So I guess it just comes with the territory.

    Katherine Paterson says, “I was a very shy child who loved to show off. Still am.”

    That’s an odd combination to juggle.

  9. Rebecca Barlow Jordan September 20, 2010 at 8:06 pm #

    Great blog, Steve. As writers, we all need that encouragement often! Visualizing the people who read it afterwards helps–as well as visualizing them when we write it in the first place. I like what you said, “We write because we must.” For me, it’s the fire in my bones that begs for expression–for someone, even if it’s just for God alone. Sometimes, we just have to write it for Him–and it’s amazing and humbling what He does with our simple offerings to touch people around the world. Thanks for your good words of encouragement.

  10. Marlo Schalesky September 20, 2010 at 8:26 pm #

    Oh good, now I don’t have to call and have this same conversation. I’ll just pretend I called, and this is what you had to say. 🙂 Very efficient. I love it. 😉

  11. Peg Brantley September 20, 2010 at 8:53 pm #

    Doubts occur in the midst of creation.
    Doubts occur when the disappointing royalty statement arrives.
    Doubts occur … just because…

    AMEN.

    I stopped querying agents because I decided my finished (third-ish) manuscript wasn’t good enough. “Certainly it isn’t as good as the one I’m writing now”, she said with conviction. But encouragement from a published author and an editor (both my critique partners) have convinced me it’s just my own angst and to get back to it.

    And still . . . I’m waiting to ‘get back to it’ until I return from a conference next week. And wondering what I might find to once again postpone the overture.

    Doubt or rejection. What a choice. Much better to forget the outside static and focus on the inner connection.

  12. Ellie Kay September 20, 2010 at 9:54 pm #

    So when we have the courage to come out of the cave, we find ourselves standing on a very high ledge. Then you have to talk us off the ledge. I know, don’t say it, I’ll go back in my cave and work on my next proposal instead of reading your blog.

  13. Michael Snyder September 21, 2010 at 3:17 am #

    Great stuff, Steve. Thanks for sharing it.

    I heard a highly respected writing teacher say that he loves it when one of his students comes to him and says, “I just finished this story but I think I hate it.” The teacher said, “Good, that means you’re improving.”

    Self-doubt and self-loathing are icky bedfellows indeed. But they may help prove that our inner critic is alive and well…that we still care…and that we’re probably learning something as we go.

  14. Dee Bright September 21, 2010 at 6:11 am #

    While in the throes of completing my first contracted manuscript, I told God the labor would all be worth it if our book touched the life of just one woman. It’s amazing how quickly I forget that little agreement when someone asks, “So, how are your book sales doing?” This blog will go up on my office wall–along with a picture of a packed arena– to remind me that my words are for His use and His glory, not mine!

  15. Lenore Buth September 21, 2010 at 11:36 am #

    What a great visual, Steve.

    I love the idea of picturing all the people who actually paid to read one of my books all gathered in one place.I’ve thanked God for them from the beginning, but now I’ll have to shout.

    Once again you’ve encouraged me to keep on working and keep on trusting. Thanks.

  16. Andra M. September 21, 2010 at 12:47 pm #

    Excellent advice, Steve, as usual. I’ve learned to embrace the lows as a way to prevent my already over-inflated ego from pushing the roof off my house.

  17. Heather Sunseri September 21, 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    That is a wonderful dose of reality, Steve. Thank you.

    By the way, I really enjoyed your class on “Working with an Agent” this past weekend. Very insightful! Thank you for that as well!

  18. Jill Williamson September 21, 2010 at 2:29 pm #

    Adrenaline is addictive? Well, that explains a lot about me…

    I was feeling melancholy today just because conferences take a lot out of me and now it’s back to work. Great picture choice, by the way. I think I was sitting that way on the plane ride home, trying to figure out everything I needed to do next.

    And now? Into the cave with me!

  19. Joseph Bentz September 21, 2010 at 10:24 pm #

    Thank you for this sane and helpful perspective!

  20. Meredith LeBlanc September 22, 2010 at 7:43 am #

    Sitting in my cave wondering if it is too late for me. No, never too late. Thanks for the encouragement.

  21. Paulette Harris September 22, 2010 at 10:09 am #

    Thank you for your blog. It spoke volumes to me today as I struggle as a writer right now. I feel the same as you when you were thanking the writer that ministered to your family and teenager. Please pray for me as I seek the Lord’s direction in my lonely cave.

  22. Chris Solaas September 24, 2010 at 11:33 am #

    Thanks, Steve, for your class at ACFW on agent/client relations, and for this blog post too.

    It’s nice to know that there are other writers out there who go through that too. Practically all of us.

    I also appreciate your soft-spoken and Godly advice here that it’s all for His glory anyway, and not for ours.

    It’s amazing that now that I’ve been in a class by you, I heard your voice reading your blog to me. Does that make me an auditory learner?

  23. david w, fry September 24, 2010 at 7:53 pm #

    This is a tonic for those of us inhabiting the “Cave of the Unpubbed” as well. I think I’ll let the Holy Spirit interpret those groans, grunts, & mumbles for me. Meanwhile, I’ll be grabbing some charcoal,red ochre and black maganese to make my post on the wall(s) … wait, this isn’t Facebook is it?

    Steve, Thank You for being a spark in the bonfire of the creative activities!

  24. Lancia Smith October 1, 2010 at 5:15 pm #

    Blessings to you, Steve. Just the words I needed to see before sinking into the quicksand! The isolation of writing is costly. Thank you for also giving a window in the process.

  25. Lois Kennis November 20, 2017 at 4:10 am #

    That curse of doubt can only be overcome by the Word of life. Thank you for your words of encouragement. God bless you as 2017 rolls into a new year.

  26. Karen Saari November 20, 2017 at 5:36 am #

    I’ll add my thanks to the others. We need to be reminded of this over and over. Writing is such a solitary profession, sometimes it’s hard to know how well we’re doing. I have a writing partner. We read each other’s words and give feedback. “No, that doesn’t work.” “Yes, that’s great!” It can make a world of difference.

    But, at the bottom of all of it, is the fact that I’m writing because the Lord asked me too and gave me the ability to do it. And it may very well be that I’ve written a series of three books in order to touch one heart. And that’s okay with me. I’m His servant.

    • Steve Laube November 20, 2017 at 11:27 am #

      Well said.

  27. Joey Rudder November 20, 2017 at 6:11 am #

    I needed this right now. Thank you, Steve. I was lying awake last night, suffocating under this heavy blanket of doubt. Both fear and doubt have consumed me since I started working on my book proposal. I keep reminding myself what you wrote, that I’m not writing for my glory or fame but for God and because I have something to get out there. I know I have to keep pushing forward.

    So today I will finish my book proposal. I will not let this musty, tattered blanket weigh me down any longer. I’ll stand, let it fall to the floor, and lift my hands to God. I’ll let go of the doubts, knowing and trusting that He always has a plan, and I’ll wait with hope and praise to see His plan unfold.

    Thank you again for this boost of courage to, “Know that the curse of doubt is normal. See it for what it is, simply part of the process. Embrace it but don’t let it debilitate!”

    May God bless you abundantly.

    • Steve Laube November 20, 2017 at 11:27 am #

      A suffocating blanket called doubt.

      But it is so nice and cozy under there! If you adjust it right you can’t hear the phone or the cat or the incessant buzz of business awaiting you….

      Love your imagery.

      • Joey Rudder November 20, 2017 at 12:07 pm #

        How true! But I don’t dare get too comfortable under it. I’m sure I’d find a way to get tangled and choke myself like old Scrooge. I’m saying no to the blanket! Now a heated blanket…that’s a different story. 🙂

  28. Barbara Ellin Fox November 20, 2017 at 6:18 am #

    I love this blog post and am absolutely laughing at myself! Thank you. It’s a great way to start the morning.

  29. Damon J. Gray November 20, 2017 at 6:49 am #

    Yikes! Yes, I face those doubts, and more. One of the obnoxious voices in my head arises when I read the work of other gifted writers, and the voice says something like, “Your writing is elementary by comparison. You could never write like this!”

    For example, I am just now reading Tosca Lee’s Iscariot. It is brilliant – absolutely brilliant. And I most certainly do say to myself, “Damon, you could never write the way she writes.”

    • Steve Laube November 20, 2017 at 11:25 am #

      Damon,

      And Tosca Lee could never write the way you do.

      Turnabout is fair play.

  30. Pearl Allard November 20, 2017 at 6:54 am #

    Thanks for the encouragement, Mr. Laube. Get in line, and join the human race, right? I heard it put like this once and it’s stuck with me: Feel all the feelings — then go write anyway.

  31. Lynne Hartke November 20, 2017 at 6:59 am #

    Thank you, Steve. Looks like I am echoing many voices here.

  32. Martha Whiteman Rogers November 20, 2017 at 7:11 am #

    What an encouragement to writers this is. As a multi-published author, I have experienced most if not all of the doubts you mention in the post.

    Back in the late 90’s, you were in Houston with an ACW conference. I had a one-on-one session with you, and I was so intimidated by your knowledge and experience that I was scared to death to meet with you. Then I did and you were so encouraging to me. You asked me why I wanted to write. I told you that I had so many experiences and stories in my head that I wanted to share with the world and show them what Jesus can do in their lives. You told me to keep going and not to give up.

    Thank you for still being that encouraging word for us writers. I am so honored and blessed to be a part of your agency.

    Those of you who have experienced or are experiencing doubt as stated in many of the comments above remember Galatians 6:9. It may take years, but if it’s God’s will and plan for you, good things will happen with your writing. It took me until the age of 73, but that was God’s plan, and I have been blessed. Oh, I still receive rejections which make me doubt, but I plan to keep at it until He says no or calls me home.

    • Steve Laube November 20, 2017 at 11:24 am #

      Martha, You are an inspiration to us all.

  33. Carolyn Knefely November 20, 2017 at 7:19 am #

    Gifts do come in all kinds of packages. Steve, your post is an uplifting encouragement that is a difference maker for us who attempt to write.

    Coming off the stage after speaking and teaching, two women rushed to me and asked if I had a book. My insecurities and doubts in my writing abilities weigh me down like cement slippers. So, I had to say, “No, but I’m working on it.”

    Your words today, were like chisels freeing my feet and allowing me to see that cement slippers are normal for writers. While my feet are free; because of this post, I’ll do the happy dance as well as allow my fingers to dance across the keyboard to continue writing. Thank you for this gift of freedom.

    Write on! We’re reading and applying.

    • Steve Laube November 20, 2017 at 11:23 am #

      What an expression! “Words like chisels freeing your feet.”

      Pause and contemplate that image. A chisel is not a “quick tool” but methodical and powerful. A jackhammer is too much, but a chisel is enough to leave your feet intact.

      • Carolyn Knefely November 20, 2017 at 2:23 pm #

        Jesus has been using a chisel on me for years. He has created many facets in this once lump of coal that He has squeezed into a rough Dimond. A chisel doesn’t destroy in the master’s hand while He uses it to transform. The real beauty comes from His light within allowing the sparkle to shine without destroying the core. If He had used a jackhammer, I would have crumbled long ago.

        Your words today were a tap to remove the flaw of doubt. This is an encouragement keeper. I appreciate the insightful response.

  34. Angie Dicken November 20, 2017 at 7:47 am #

    Thank you for this post! Sometimes it is tempting to just shut the “book” and say, “no more”. To stop putting my heart on a page, and my dream in the hands of others to accept or reject. This is my debut year, and I thought myself to be pretty tough after years of rejection, but reviews take it to a whole new level (expectations that I am learning to manage)! Even so, we writers continue on. I think a bigger curse is having a story to telling and not telling it. It is a constant tug-of-war.

    It’s great to know that an agent “gets” it, and still encourages us to keep on writing!

    • Steve Laube November 20, 2017 at 11:21 am #

      The obedience of writing and the exercise of placing those words on screen or on the page is as much for you as it is for your reader.

      I never fail to be amazed how words I have written end up on my lips as I speak to a group or an individual. They go hand-in-hand.

      • Angir Dicken November 20, 2017 at 11:27 am #

        Absolutely! I agree with that. I can look back at each of my stories and realize the heart work God was doing in me at the time. I have found healing in the journey of writing a story. Truth in fiction for sure.;)

      • Lenore Buth November 20, 2017 at 8:53 pm #

        Amen to that, Steve!

  35. Susan Mary Malone November 20, 2017 at 7:51 am #

    I have this conversation with at least one of my writers every day. Doubt is so normal, and doesn’t ever really leave us, does it.
    I truly believe the gene for being a writer has on its flip side, doubt. They just live together. Writers knowing they’re not alone in this makes all the difference!

  36. Tracey Dyck November 20, 2017 at 8:30 am #

    This is so encouraging. Even more so is all the feedback in the comments–we’re not alone!

  37. Carol Ashby November 20, 2017 at 9:07 am #

    I love that image of 3K people in an auditorium. Even giving a talk to a room of 300 is enough to fire my jets…or even 30 when they truly care about the topic. Each person is of infinite value, and if what I write helps even 1 grow closer to God, all those hours at the keyboard are worth it from the eternal perspective. That one might just be a beta reader of something that never goes on sale.

    I don’t discourage easily, but I guess I’m lucky to have trained in my day job to have a high tolerance for setbacks and redirections. The whole point of research is to figure out what no one has before in science and to make what no one else has in research engineering. That means lots of things that either don’t work or only sort of work. That’s the “re” part of research. But each failure or “lesser success” points the way toward the better solution. And the fastest advances are made as part of a highly skilled team where everyone is expert at their part. Sounds a lot like being an author to me!

    It’s like I always tell my kids. You haven’t failed until you give up. I won’t stop writing until the stories God wants me to tell stop coming.

    • Steve Laube November 20, 2017 at 11:18 am #

      May your stories never stop.

  38. Michael Torres November 20, 2017 at 9:20 am #

    Just read this morning in John 15, “…and He will tell you things to come…” So, you’ve been listening! You can’t go wrong with a post like this, but what is marvelous to me is the ministration of the Holy Spirit and how often you and your colleagues post uncannily at the exact hour a word of clariity and encouragement is needed. Just what the Good Doctor ordered after a weekend of swashbuckling smelly imps.

  39. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D November 20, 2017 at 9:31 am #

    Thank your for your words of wisdom and encouragement, Steve. Just….thanks!

  40. Tonya Ruiz November 20, 2017 at 9:36 am #

    My favorite sentence- “When all is written and done there is the extraordinary feeling of accomplishment when the book is finished and that ministry of words begins.” “Ministry of words” made me stop and think about using words as a ministry. The gift of words. 🙂

    • Steve Laube November 20, 2017 at 11:17 am #

      Tonya,

      The gift is wonderful. Think of the letters you treasure or the books you still quote or refer to.

      It makes it obvious why God chose to use words as one eternal way to express His message to us.

  41. Jerry B Jenkins November 20, 2017 at 11:08 am #

    Great stuff as always, Steve. I’ll recommend it to my tribe. But with all those literary types in your office, couldn’t someone have rescued you from this in the first paragraph?

    “Nearly every writer I have ever worked with … severely doubt themselves.”

    • Steve Laube November 20, 2017 at 11:15 am #

      And this is why writers need editors.

      I confess, I’m not a very good writer which exacerbates the issue.

      At least I don’t doubt my lack of ability. I exhibit it for all to see.

      • Brennan S. McPherson November 20, 2017 at 3:04 pm #

        If the expectation is perfection, I’m pretty sure we’re all hopeless.

  42. Tisha Martin November 20, 2017 at 2:26 pm #

    Steve,

    As most of us are receiving comments back from contest judges or working feverishly on the next manuscript that’s due to critique partners or editors or the publisher—gasp!—next week, this post couldn’t have come at a better time.

    Thank you. This lights the fire under me once more and urges me to keep going, keep writing, keep editing, keep polishing.

  43. Lenore Buth November 20, 2017 at 8:51 pm #

    Thanks, Steve. You know us well and this post is worth reading every week or so. Thanks for blessing us with your word picture of those who actually plunked down cash to read what we wrote.

    As you said, writing is a solitary pursuit. At least if we were hollering down a well we’d hear a faint echo.

    Now, thanks to you, I can picture my readers in one place. I seldom hear from my blog readers, either, and there’s no chance of a royalty with them. But I know they exist, so I think I’ll swell my crowd by adding them in. Love it!

  44. Lori Wildenberg November 21, 2017 at 5:28 am #

    I had no idea other writers felt this way. I thought I was the only one. Thank you , Steve.

  45. Mary-Anne November 21, 2017 at 12:30 pm #

    Steve, I love your posts. They always encourage and seem to be exactly what I need to read on that particular day – thank you!

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