In place of this month's Sunday Showcase, something a little different. And no, it's not just an excuse to reference that Journey song.*
They say that if you believe in yourself enough, you will eventually succeed. They are, of course, lying. You only have to watch an X Factor audition to know that self-belief is not the only prerequisite for success. And even among those who do have some talent, not all will make it. Which leaves those of us possessing any modicum of self-awareness with a dilemma. To succeed, not only do we have to believe in ourselves, and believe that we're worth believing in; we also have to believe that we deserve success more than others who are equally worthy.
Earlier this week, I'd made up my mind that the topic of this blog post would be why I had decided to stop believing in myself.** Because the truth is, believing in oneself as an artist of any kind is hard. There are thousands and thousands of people out there who want to be authors, painters, popstars. And though in theory the rise of the internet has allowed their voices to be heard and their talent to be displayed like never before, the reality is a vast sea of artistic endeavour in which any individual effort is a mere drop. As a result, the usual questions we ask ourselves are How do I stand out from the crowd? How do I get noticed when there are so many others trying to achieve the same thing? And so we obsess about marketing strategies and social networking and new ways to reach an audience. But recently, the more fundamental question I've been asking myself is why? Why should I stand out from the crowd? What makes my work any better, or more deserving of people's limited time, than anyone else's?
It would be easy, faced with the already overloaded market and the babel of a million voices clamouring for recognition, to give up. Because the truth is, my words have no more right to be read than the rest. I may write competently, but so do many others. I may be able to spell and punctuate, but that hardly makes me unique. When I was a child first forming my writing dream, I thought I possessed a special ability that meant I couldn't help but succeed. I thought all I had to do was write something, send it off, and wait for the inevitable. But now, every setback and rejection and negative comment hammers home to me the fact that I don't stand out. I'm not amazingly gifted. I'm not special at all.
After all, if the X Factor teaches us anything, it's that true stars go straight from total obscurity to fame without any hard work in between. If you have that star quality – that X factor – then it's obvious as soon as you start to perform. And by that measure, I'm no star. I'm no longer an impressively young writer or someone who can be said to have had instant success. I haven't released samples of my work to universal acclaim; plenty of people haven't liked even those small parts of the stories I have to tell. More than one publisher has passed me by as just another piece of the slush. There are smarter writers than me, better writers, more impressive débuts to be made. For all I know, I'm just one of the self-deluded wannabes, convincing myself that I have a shot while those in the know pass my submission around as the latest so-bad-it's-good joke.***
To this disheartening train of thought, giving up seemed the obvious corollary. I have a baby to look after, a new house to decorate, a full-time job to go back to. I have little enough space around the edges without trying to cram in what seems an increasingly quixotic endeavour, this writing obsession that drives my partner up the wall and is probably going nowhere. Why not be content with reading and reviewing? With blogging? With editing? Yes, I thought I could be a great writer, a household name, but so do all of us who set out along this arduous path. Clearly, most of us are wrong.
And yet … and yet …
Once I'd climbed out of the pit of bleak self-doubt I'd dug myself into, I began to think about what it is, exactly, I hope to gain from writing. Is it fame? No. Despite my rather flippant words above, I'm well aware that almost no writers achieve celebrity status – nor does said status strike me as being particularly desirable. Money? Well, again, most writers don't have anything like Rowling-sized bank accounts. Sure, I'd like to make enough to live on, so I could write full time, but I don't need to – I have a job already. I don't write in the hope of becoming rich.
Then am I seeking validation from the industry? Partly. This is one I struggle with, because I know I shouldn't need it. Individual editors, agents, critics are just that: individuals. Their opinions come with the weight of experience, but they aren't the be-all and end-all. Yet something in me still yearns for approval from someone 'who knows what they're talking about'. Which, of course, is faintly ridiculous, because the only people who really matter – the only people who can validate me as a writer in any meaningful sense – are the readers.
And that's what it comes down to, in the end. Writers write to be read and enjoyed, and I'm no different from the rest. It doesn't matter whether I make a living. It doesn't matter if only one person in the whole world likes what I do. As long as my words have an audience, somewhere, I will have gained what I want most. Of course, this brings us full circle to How do I get my book read?, but that isn't the point. The point is that it doesn't matter whether I get picked up by a traditional publishing company or go the self-publishing route; whether I get five rejections or fifty; whether I sell a gazillion copies or one. What matters is sharing my stories and finding three or a dozen or fifty people who like them. I write because it's part of who I am is a facile statement, but it's also true – as anyone who's ever wrestled with words will testify. In a very real sense, to give up on writing would be to give up on myself.
And so I end by reiterating the title of this article to my fellow authors, both aspiring and published: don't stop believing. We all doubt ourselves. We all have moments when we think we're not good enough. Yet although it's certain that most of us will never be worldwide bestsellers, all of us have an audience of some kind out there – or at least, we have to believe we do if we want to remain true to that part of us that won't stop thinking up stories. Because although we won't necessarily succeed if we believe in ourselves and our abilities, we sure as hell won't if we don't.
* Though obviously, that is part of it.
** As a writer, that is. Obviously I believe in myself as a living entity, or we'd be getting into some serious philosophical questions round about now.
*** If you've never had this fear then you're obviously better at believing in yourself than I am. And I bet you've never had that naked exam dream, either.