What I do when I’m depressed about writing

I just read my last post about creating quirky characters and groaned. Out loud. And made that hideous pig-snorting face reserved for people who have just done something stupid.

What kind of an idiot makes herself into a cutsie fake character on a blog? To make matters worse, I read this passage by Charles Baxter about two seconds after I hit the publish button.

“Isn’t there something deeply interesting and moving and sometimes even beautiful when a character acknowledges an error? And isn’t this narrative mode becoming something of a rarity?

Most young writers have this experience: They create characters who are imaginative projections of themselves, minus the flaws. They put this character into a fictional world, wanting that character to be successful and—to use that word from high school—popular. They don’t want these imaginative projections of themselves to make any mistakes, wittingly or, even better, unwittingly, or to demonstrate what Aristotle thought was the core of stories, flaws of character that produce intelligent misjudgments for which someone must take the responsibility.” — Charles Baxter, from Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction

Thank you, Mr. Baxter, for that yummy dose of humility. I guess I thought giving my character hairy legs was a big enough flaw. I mean, it’s kept me from being “popular” in the past. My brother used to call me Fur Leg.

But I know that’s not what Baxter means and now I’m worrying, Do I just craft characters who are imaginative projections of myself? And if so, are they the kind of people who are really boring and never make mistakes?

I think back to the story I tried to draft “live” on this blog.

SIDE NOTE: The story is a flaming pile of shit and I’m going to take it down and it just proves that I’m the kind of writer who absolutely has to revise before anything good happens.

The characters in that shitty story probably were both projections of myself. They DID have flaws, which is good, right?

It was the story’s fault. It sucked. And the writing, which kept switching haphazardly between past and present tense, also sucked. *my face is puckering into a big pig-snort again*

Now I’m wondering, Is every good character a hot mess?

I can’t even answer that question today because I’m a hot mess.

My fiction is stalled. This blog post is sounding more like a drunk dial than thoughtful prose. And the only public representation of my work (until that tiny piece in Narrative–which is probably a fluke–comes out) is the horrible story that I need to pull down from my blog and re-write or just trash.

When I get depressed like this about writing, there’s one thing I do. I don’t know why exactly, and I’d love to hear if anyone else does this.

I go to Amazon or Goodreads and look up my favorite books. Then I read all the one- and two-star reviews for those books.

It always cheers me up.

9 thoughts on “What I do when I’m depressed about writing

  1. My husband and I call this “getting in a whirlwind.” We’re both writers (him paid, me not paid), and we have days when we panic and think we suck and need to find a new life goal. These whirlwinds don’t usually last more than a few days, and when we’re in them we’re totally irrational.

    I like your idea about reading bad reviews of your favorite books. What I do is read bad reviews of books I hate. Then I feel validated. It’s very petty.

    Hope you get out of your whirlwind soon!

    • Love the term “getting in a whirlwind.” Thanks for the shared angst, Aubrey. I hate getting totally irrational, but I do it all the time in spite of myself. Or maybe sometimes TO spite myself. Writing’s ridiculously hard and head-trippy and exposing, as I’m sure you experience, too.

      I tend to read good reviews of the books I hate because it’s like knowing that imperfect people can find love, too. If bad writing finds audiences then maybe my writing, even if it’s flawed, could work for some readers. That’s strangely consoling.

      The funk is already starting to fade. Thanks for the encouragement.

  2. Don’t you dare trash the story. Take it down, if you want, but finish it. I have been waiting to read more. Sure, it needs some work, but it struck a chord in me — some primal fear of my own. That, one day, while just taking a breather to get my sanity back, I will not be diligent enough in my supervision and something will happen to my children. Isn’t that what good stories do? Connect with the reader on some deep emotional level? Keep trying and don’t give up. You are brilliant, in more ways than one! And, if the writing doesn’t work out, you can always have your boring government job back!

    • Oh, Amy! You’re awesome. I laughed so hard when I read your comment about coming back to government if writing doesn’t work out. You’re funny and sweet and so smart. I miss you. And I’m grateful to you for pointing out one of the few things worth salvaging in the story. I share the fear that my own needs as a human being–the need to take a break or sleep or shower–could put my child at risk. It’s this tortured mix of human fragility, guilt, need, love, fear…the burden and pleasure of mothering. Awesomeness. I so appreciate you reminding me why I could possibly care about those characters. Thank you, Amy!!!

  3. That’s hilarious and it’s not a bad idea. The good thing about blog posts is that they’re easy to delete. And the other good thing about blogging is that we can post bad/weird stuff and it doesn’t really matter. It’s not like anything really happens except we feel embarrassed. And I’m not saying your last post was bad/weird, weird yes, but not bad. A part of our journey’s as writer’s is moving through these growing pains, whether they’re in our heads or on the internet forever. It’s ok if your fiction has stalled. I think that’s a part of the process too. Just keeping showing up to the desk. Fiction doesn’t like to stay stalled forever. For a long long time maybe, but not forever.

    • Thanks, Ross. Yeah, I guess feeling embarrassed isn’t the worst thing ever. I like your concept of the “growing pains” of a writer. Mine feel more like really bad menstrual cramps, but the point is the same: sometimes learning hurts. I’m tempted to leave the “hot mess” posts up to remind me that even when I screw up, I don’t need to go into hiding or self-loathing mode. I can just write something new. Maybe I won’t write something new today, or tomorrow, but I will eventually. And statistically speaking, the more we write, the greater the chance that we’ll write something worth reading.

    • Thank you! I really appreciate your comment. For some of us (me!), it’s hard enough to accept our own imperfections. Purposefully giving characters flaws and throwing them into impossible situations feels cruel. But it’s what we have to do. And it’s more authentic to the human experience.

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