I’ve been practicing my fiction writing skills for a couple of years now, and though it happens less and less frequently, self-doubt often comes knocking. Is this dream of making a living out of my hobby a vain pursuit? Am I too far behind to catch up to those who’ve practiced since they were kids? Do I even have the talent necessary to write killer fiction?
I don’t think this will ever go away. Even professional writers often suffer from the imposter syndrome, thinking they’re frauds and the world will realize any minute. This is because of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which you can read more about here. But for those of us which haven’t yet reach the self-loathing level of the Donning-Kruger effect, it’s another issue entirely.
For us, this fear is based on something more real, right?
Partly, it’s grounded in reality. I mean, the risk of failure is always present, in some cases more than others. If you’re dreaming of making a living teaching others or if you’re hobby is programming software, then you’re way more likely to be able making a living with your hobby than if you’re say, dreaming of becoming a professional footballer. It’s a matter of supply and demand. The world just doesn’t need that many football players compared to how many kids run around with that particular dream.
This means that you’d have to work much harder to make it in one of those high risk fields. And there’s the talent bit, right? You need talent to make it.
Well, yeah, and then again…
I’m probably better suited to sit in a formula 1 car than to be shooting hoops on a basket court (yeah, I’m not that tall), so there are physical limitations that could be considered talent or lack thereof. But that doesn’t mean it’s all important. Mark Webber finished third in the formula 1 world championship three times, and he’s 6’0″, making his height a serious liability. And then there are guys like Nate Robinson, the only three time winner of the NBA slam dunk contest. He’s 5’9″. So is Isaiah Thomas who’s played in multiple NBA all star games. And both have played in reason years, Thomas still being active, so it’s not like these are players from way back when the average height in NBA was far from what it is today.
But aren’t those just outliers?
Well, yes. But the mere fact these outliers exists proves that you can achieve success in a competitive field even if you don’t have the talent.
But what if you’re up against a regular Mozart, doesn’t talent matter then?
First of all, in writing we aren’t really competing the same way as in sports. If some reader likes some other writer’s story, it doesn’t mean they won’t like mine as well. Of course, people have to chose which book to buy in the shops, but if they buy a science fiction book and like it, then they’re also more likely to buy another science fiction book next time, which might be mine.
And going back to Mozart, he’s the example most likely to come up when people are speaking about talent and being naturally gifted. But he’s also a perfect example talent and dedicated practice being mixed up.
Mozart might have been a gifted musician, but we’ll never know. But what we do know is that he was trained by his father, maybe the best music teacher of his age, from a very young age. And he followed a vigorous training program, sacrificing his chances of a normal childhood for his musical success.
And here, I think, we get to the bottom of it. Mozart grew up to be awkward as an adult, acting like a child because he never had a childhood, not unlike Michael Jackson, another musical prodigy.
The point is, they couldn’t have it all. They had to choose (or in their cases, their parents did the choosing) between a normal life and success in a highly competitive field.
Have you ever listening to athletes giving post game interviews? How learned do they generally sound? Right. Of course most of them have nothing interesting to say. All their life have focused on their particular sport. What would they have to talk about. (I’m not trying to bring down professional athletes, but this really seem to be the case. Besides, they can always wave on their money in my face along with their carefree life once they hit retirement at what, 30, 35. I think they’ll be okay with this. I would.)
We live in an age were we, at least in what we commonly call the western world, have constant access to top performances in the arts, sport, science, everything. We see these people succeed all the time, but we never see what it took to get there, what they had to give up.
At the same time, social media stuffs us with the everyday successes of all our friends and relatives while most of their failures stay hidden. Add to that, that many of us have been brought up with the mentality that we can achieve anything. So is it any wonder that we get the feeling that everyone around us have achieved success in every aspect of their lives while we lack behind?
Suddenly, you can achieve anything becomes you can achieve everything. And if your mentality is that you have to achieve everything you ever dreamed of, then you’re going to fail.
If you have the resources available and have no particular handicap standing in your way, then you truly can achieve anything, but it requires rock hard dedication and a razor blade for trimming all the fluff off your life. You need to prioritize and work both hard and smart and keep doing it for years.
But what if you’ve, like me, found your passion late in life, how are you ever going to catch up?
Well, I’m not going to lie; maybe you’re out to late to ever reach a professional level. I’m nearing thirty, any chances of having a sports career have flown by years ago. Music could potentially be a thing, but even here there are so many soon-to-be professionals who’ve practice vigorously since they were kids that it seems impossible. And many of the high risk professions are like this.
Writing however, is, at least in my opinion, different. Which is why, in the end, I still think there’s a realistic hope that I might turn this hobby of mine into a career one day.
Aging has a limited effect on one’s ability to produce or practice narrative writing, and many writers are well into their thirties, forties, or even fifties when they break through. And while many writers might have been avid readers or even writing fiction from a young age, it sure isn’t true of everyone. Brandon Sanderson, for example, didn’t really read fiction until he was sixteen. Besides, written fiction isn’t the only place to learn from stories.
So yeah, I might have some catching up to do when it comes creating great prose, but I’ve been watching and analyzing movies and TV series for as long as I can remember, picking apart what did and didn’t make the stories work.
A final comforting thought is the fact that, from what I’ve seen, many would-be writers, including some who are very serious about their craft, don’t practice very effectively. How often do you hear about aspiring writers doing writing exercises? How many of the ones you know do you think focus one improving a single skill with every short story or chapter they write instead of just writing mindlessly, dreaming of publishing the story?
I thought so. That’s why I think applying deliberate practice to my writing makes it possible for to some day make a living as a writer of fiction.
Next time I’ll be talking about in more detail what the chances of making as writer actually are.
How about you, are you chasing your dream? Are self-doubt bringing you down too, and how are you battling it?