Writing, rewriting and editing a novel requires faith in your abilities as a writer. But what if you don’t have that faith? How do you maintain it when it lags? And do we really need faith to succeed as a writer? I asked myself these questions as I grappled with my own faith behind the writer’s curtain. Here are my answers:
What does it mean to have faith in your writing?
It means that you hang onto your belief in your talent, even when the critics rip it apart. You hang onto that rope that tethers you to the chair, to the keyboard, to the notebook. And when the critics snip away at that rope, you make it stronger—through practice, through learning, through experience.
Some might say it’s not faith we need, it’s an idea so strong that it won’t let us go, it drives us to the keyboard, keeps us awake at night, shows up in our dreams and our observations, and shadows our conversations.
That’s faith. Faith in an idea.
What are the signs that you don’t have faith in your writing?
You stop showing up. You find other things to replace the importance of writing in your life. Like filing your nails.
You blame it on writer’s block.
You know you lack faith when you write something, and immediately, as the black letters crawl across your screen or page, you condemn the words to the trash bin. You tell yourself you don’t have the chops, the juice, the genius to write a novel. So you stop.
If you had faith, you’d keep writing. You’d let that voice have its say and then you’d write past it, leaving it hollering in the dust of the road with its battered suitcase until it’s just a tiny speck, and then a memory.
What can you do if you lose faith?
If your faith lags, you need to clip a winch onto it and haul it—for a mile, a day, a week, six months. You’ll want to set the load down and sleep for a good long while, but keep hauling that massive weight until one day you realize that it’s not heavy at all. It’s light as dandelion fluff. All you need to do is protect it with your heart so it doesn’t blow away and disperse. But if it does disperse, remember this: it will plant new seedlings of faith for you to find. And you will find them: in the encouraging words from a fellow writer, in the advice from a mentor, in a renewed perspective when, after time, you pick up your work and read it from a compassionate heart and see the possibility.
When doubt creeps in, when it opens the door and slips through and darkens your view of the work, If you don’t see that doubt for what it is, you’ll lose perspective. To get your perspective back, you’ve got to push doubt aside. You’ve got to rise above that shadow and find one glowing sentence. Aha! There it is. I knew I had it in me.
Why is faith important? Can’t we just write anyway?
Ah, but will we? If our goal is to get published or to have eyes other than our own read our work, will we hand it over?
If you don’t have faith in your writing, who will? Certainly not the busy commuter at the train depot looking for an entertaining read on the spinner rack. Certainly not the housewife who relishes the ten minutes she hordes to read a chapter, sitting at the kitchen table. If you don’t have faith in your writing, you won’t attract that publisher who, in an alternate reality, is eager to get your work into the hands of that housewife, that commuter. You won’t even set foot in that alternate reality, because the reality you’re creating is only as good as your faith in your ability to write.
Why bother filling the chair with the weight of you?
Because you must. To build faith.
How do you get faith if you’ve never had it?
You earn it through doing the work. You write a draft and read it, and it stinks. It’s certainly not worthy of that rack at the depot. Doesn’t matter. That’s part of the process. You’re a toddler learning to walk. You take a wobbly step and drop onto your backside. Do you give up? Do you stay put? No, you crawl a bit, get up, fall, get up, totter two steps, fall, get up, and on and on until you’re so old that you’re back on her backside; but by then you’ve experienced the world. You know. You have faith in the process.
So, writing is a process. You write two sloppy paragraphs and then you’re stuck. You get a cheering section to urge you on. You write two more paragraphs and eventually you finish a piece and then write another and another until it all starts to click, and one day when someone gives you critical feedback it doesn’t topple you. Because you have faith that you can improve.
But be warned: even when you have faith, it will be tested. You’ll cry when someone critiques your work. You’ll rant. You’ll be ready to admit defeat. You’ll kick your chair and neglect your computer and then you’ll discover that the person who critiqued you had a kernel of valuable advice. When you look at it from a different angle it gets your synapses firing; you’ll want to start writing again. Or you’ll discover that the person in that online writing group, who said your work is boring, is a fifteen-year-old boy! What does he know about life yet?
Plenty, maybe. Or not so much. But you’re not about to throw away your talent because of some fifteen-year-old you don’t even know.
That’s the attitude you need.
Any last thoughts?
It’s my belief, and I want you to hear this good and clear, it’s my belief that if you have an idea that holds your interest longer than a minute, an idea that grabs you and shakes you to the core— something you can’t kick away—if you’ve got this idea, and you know the language of which you speak, and the elements of your craft, and you want to spell out this idea, you want to share it with others, sit down and start writing. Sit down with this idea that has you by the tonsils, and squeeze out a description. A sentence. A paragraph. A scene.
Writing a novel requires faith. Faith that the words will come, the idea will hold interest, the characters will appear real and dimensional, the conflict will grab the reader, the book will get published. Faith that whatever you write is worthy, and that you have the talent to make it so.
Well, that’s a truckload of faith, you might say. But I’ll tell you straight up: it only takes a seed. Belief.
Belief is telling yourself it’s so. Telling yourself it’s so is putting words in your head. Putting words in your head is something we do all the time. So why not choose the words you want to believe?
Who says you can’t write a novel?
Well, plenty can.
Make sure you’re not one of them.