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August 2016

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You Have to Defend It: Writing and Self-Doubt

A friend of mine once said that a doctoral defense is a form of academic hazing, a trial presented to you to prove you belong in the cadre of scholars in your field, that you can hold your own no matter what anyone throws at you. I bought a suit especially for the occasion. I sweated right through the silk camisole beneath it, but I kept my hands folded on top of the desk and tried not to squirm in my seat every time one of my professors pitched a curve ball at me.

Doctoral defenses are rituals. They signal a journey from student to scholar. To dilettante to professional. My advisor is from the Netherlands, and there they have this whole medieval pageantry set up around the defense. She had to wear a ball gown. A man came out with a scepter to pound on the floor to announce the beginning, the end, and the deliberation. The whole public comes out to see you sweat. Like The Hunger Games, I imagine, but with footnotes and, you know, in Dutch.

My defense was in a small conference room, and the first question one of the professors threw at me was the one question I prayed no one would ask. It was the one thing, the one glaring oversight in my whole dissertation I simply had no time to remedy before filing it. Graduate students are trained in deference, in admitting defeat, in owning up to the holes in our arguments. It’s what makes us open to feedback, makes us better at critical thinking and revision. When I received this question, I reverted back to this kind of behavior, this defeat. My imposter syndrome kicked in, and I nodded my head. “Yes, I should have delved into that more. Yes, I should have supplied the primary resources on which my entire argument hinged. Yes, a footnote would have been helpful there.”

“Wait. Stop.” My fifth reader waved her hand. “Stop.”

A fifth reader in a defense is a person outside of your discipline or outside of the university, someone who has never worked with you. She’s there to provide fresh eyes to a dissertation, to supply an unbiased point of view. My fifth reader was Irish, which doesn’t matter, really. But because my dissertation was in Irish literature, in my case, it mattered a great deal.

“I’m going to have to stop you,” she said.

My stomach dropped to the floor, and my hands shook. This is how it ends, I thought. All those years, all that money down the drain. The Irishwoman from the German department found me out for the fraud I was, and now it was all over.

“Sorry?” My voice wavered.

“I’m hearing you apologize for what you didn’t do in your dissertation, but I don’t care about that,” she said. “This is a defense. I want you to defend it.”

Her eyes pierced right through me as if in a challenge, and I sat up a little straighter, throwing my shoulders back. I’m a scrapper. You had to be in the places I grew up. I didn’t know if my answers would ring true, but I had to play defense. I had to defend it.

I’m reading through my manuscript for Book 2 one more time before we send it for formatting for galley proofs. We’re in the homestretch, as they say, and this book has definitely been a journey for me. I wrote this book in the middle of two polar vortexes, and it poured out of me fully formed, as if the story had been waiting in the wings for its cue before barging out to the center stage of my mind. I’ve revised it, re-revised it, sat through several editorial meetings to negotiate scenes and various endings, and now it’s reading like a book. A real, actual book.

But I have to tell you, like so many writers, I suffer from self-doubt. Loads of it. But is it any wonder? We spend months, sometimes years of our lives in deference to our critique partners, our beta readers, our agents, our editors. We have to open ourselves up to criticism, make ourselves and our creations vulnerable to change, to complete annihilation sometimes in the name of some higher goal. We revise and revise and revise and we reach a point where we stare at the words and wonder…is this any good? Have I fooled myself into believing I could be a novelist? It sounds dramatic, sure, but it’s a part of the cycle—the destruction of everything in order to build yourself back up again. Because at the end of the day, when the marketing machine starts to whir, when the blurb goes up on goodreads, when the ARCS get sent out to book bloggers, we have to defend it.

You have to defend it.

And by that, I don’t mean screaming back at your reviewers or going batshit on social media about how no one understands your “vision.” I mean, you have to box up all that self-doubt, all that deference, all those inner fears, the bullshit imposter syndrome, put on your armor and defend it. Stand by it. Say to the world, “Yes, I did a thing. Here it is. Poke holes in it, kill it with fire, but I’ll stand on this mountain of ash. I’m not leaving.” We have to be the guardians to our own artistic output, to the incredible circumstances and hard work that led us to this place.

James Baldwin once said about publishing,

“You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it…But, if a book has brought you from one place to another, so that you see something you didn’t see before, you’ve arrived at another point. This then is one’s consolation, and you know that you must now proceed elsewhere.” (from Conversations with James Baldwin).

I’m so proud of the book I’ll be sending out into the world this fall, and I do feel confident about it artistically, as a piece of storytelling that I think really works on several levels. What I am most proud of, though, is the journey this story took me on, not just in the telling, but in the retelling, the revisions, the feedback, through the late nights talking with critique partners and reworking scenes. It brought me to a new place as a writer, and that is a place I can stake out and defend. No matter what.