Writing: An (Unfortunate) Exercise in Trust
I’m intentionally not making eye contact with anyone as I say this, so no one thinks I’m talking about them.
Trust issues are very common.
What does trust have to do with writing? Well, unfortunately for those with the issues, pretty much everything. Love it or hate it, it permeates every facet of the gig. Let’s look at some of the ways trust is important and how we can work toward improving our use of it for each.
Yourself, the Writer
Trusting yourself is the most obvious example, so we might as well address it. I think that to create any writing worth reading, you have to believe you’re capable of it. I’m not talking about an obnoxious level of ego here, either. I’m talking about a basic level of self-value. If you don’t believe that you’re even possibly going to write something worth reading, you probably won’t sit down to try, right? So at some level, the act of writing alone is a sign of trust. (Or hope, perhaps.) But bare bones isn’t enough.
I end up saying this quite a bit as a compliment during critique (I don’t say it unless it’s true): “Your prose strikes me as confident/self-assured.” People always kind of blink at me in bafflement when I say that, but what I mean is this: I felt I was in good hands as a reader. There was a poise and ease to the prose that told me we were going somewhere with intention and skill. There’s nothing – absolutely nothing – that grabs my attention in an opening paragraph better than a quiet sense of authorial confidence. It doesn’t matter if the opening is shocking, violent, subtle, poetic, sad, funny, quirky, or deep. If I sense confidence in the prose, I’m in. And when you flip confidence sensed by the reader to the writer themselves, it’s nothing more than trust.
If we, as the writer, can’t trust ourselves to do good work and say something of value, then we can’t expect the reader to trust us either. Want someone along for the ride? Believe you’re going somewhere worth going and that you’re the best one to take them there. Trust that you are capable of this, and let that trust infuse your work.
Let’s say you did the hard part and got out of your own way to trust your authorial voice. Now what? Hand that trust directly to someone who will tell you clearly and bluntly how you did – even if you failed miserably. More importantly: listen to them.
It goes without saying that not all feedback is created equal. We all have to search to find our ideal critique partners, beta readers, editors, etc. But once you’ve found them? Hand them your naked, fragile heart. Will they always be right? Of course not. But if you’re not going to first assume that they are and seriously consider everything they have to say, don’t waste their time in the first place.
As with any self-improvement (don’t you just loathe that phrase?), you have to be willing to see the flaws before you can fix them. Very rarely are we the best spotter of our own weaknesses. That’s why we have to find someone worth trusting and then actually trust them. You show me where to fortify, and I will fortify. Trust.
This, to me, is the least obvious but maybe most important place that trust breaks down in the writing cycle: you have to trust your reader. This invisible stranger who may or may not someday read your work. At some point, you have to trust them or you’ll be doomed to a never-ending cycle of stripping the art from your writing.
Part of trusting your reader is, indeed, actually trusting yourself. If you’ve said something in a beautiful, subtle way, don’t then restate it to clear it up for someone who might’ve missed the first time. Trust that you did it well, and then trust that your reader is smart enough to pick up on it. Don’t over-explain or dumb it down.
Will every single reader understand every single thing you’re trying to do? Of course not. Rather than being disappointed by that, let it free you. You’ll never reach every person, so stop trying. Write for the reader you want. Trust yourself to do it well. Trust them to understand. That’s the only way to end up with work you truly love.
We’ve all heard “trust the process.” We’ve all wanted to punch whoever said that first in the face at least once, right? (Just me? Well then I was kidding, obviously.) It’s such a maddeningly vague platitude. Trust the process. It feels like someone telling me to trust in magic, and I don’t believe in magic.
And yet… sometimes trusting the process is all we can do. Unfortunately for many writers, often times it’s all we can do. No matter which path you’re on or which stage you’re in, publishing is a beast dictated largely by persistence and luck. No matter how hard we work, study, and strategize, much of this is beyond our control.
Even the parts that seem like they should be in our control aren’t always. We can sit down and write every day, sure… until we can’t. (Life happens.) We can submit relentlessly to our favorite markets or publishers… until we’re out of options. We can try to keep a positive mindset and persist in the face of setbacks, but even the strongest people need breaks (and breakdowns) sometimes.
When so much of the field is beyond our control, trusting it – no matter how frustrating – is the only way to persist. We have to trust that each bust will be followed, eventually, by a boom. That each rejection is one step closer to an acceptance. That each block will break, that each flop teaches us new lessons, that if we just keep pushing eventually we’ll break through. Because to do anything besides trust it is to doom ourselves to failure before we’ve even started. If we don’t trust that we can make it, that the process works (from our own routines and patterns to the industry at large), then we won’t be able to push through the inevitable slumps.
So, yeah. Maybe we do have to believe in magic – just a little. And not just believe in it, but trust that if we stand in the right place for a long enough time a tiny little sparkle of it will eventually brush off on us.
I basically just told you to trust in the whims of a metaphorical pixie. Why do we do this to ourselves? Answer: because at the end of the day, no matter how grounded or cynical or blasé, we trust that we can do it, and we trust that it’s worth doing. Funny how that comes full circle, eh?
The good news is, if you do the work to improve your trust with writing, you’ll probably save yourself time at the therapist’s for the rest of your life. (Just joking, kind of.) Truly, though, looking hard at our weakness extends into the things that make us most uncomfortable. If you’re one of those who squirms at the topic of trust, ask yourself why. And, if you apply that with intention to your writing, can you use it to strengthen your talent?
Writers, do you struggle with trusting yourself, your reader, or the process? How about readers? Have you ever felt disconnected from a book because the author didn’t trust you to “get” what he/she was doing?
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