Over the weekend, I watched the movie Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Based on a true story, Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a down-on-her-luck author fighting against an unsupportive agent, a system that rewards book sales over talent, and most importantly, a lack of faith in her work.
Lee is told in no uncertain terms that the world doesn’t need her ideas, and she translates her failure into self-loathing. She lives alone in a filthy apartment with only a sick cat for company, spending hours staring at the blank sheet of paper in her typewriter (the movie takes place in 1991). When she tries to write about topics that interest her, her agent tells her the world doesn’t need her ideas.
This combination of a lack of creative support and hatred of herself causes Lee to hit a wall. Then, a strange turn of events leads her to discover a way to make money with her writing: she begins forging letters from famous authors and selling them to collectors.
Lee is gifted with a chameleon-like voice that allows her to take on the style of whatever author she is impersonating. She goes to great lengths to research and replicate the style and appearance of these authors’ correspondence.
For a while, things seem to be going great. With her covert letter business, she can pay her rent for the first time in months, take her cat to the vet, and make her apartment into less of a cesspool.
But of course, someone eventually catches on. And when they do, Lee is forced to go to more extraordinary and bizarre lengths to ensure that her scheme continues.
What’s more, Lee admits later in the film that money is not her only motivation.
She also finds the enterprise exhilarating because, for the first time, people are praising her writing . . . even if she is masquerading as someone else.
It’s an incredibly fascinating and unsettling movie, but it sadly reminded me of things I’ve seen in real life throughout my writing career.
I taught first-year English classes for several years. Every semester, there were cases of plagiarism, because the internet. Some of these students tried to pass off someone else’s work as their own because they were too lazy to complete the assignment. When I confronted them, they were mostly unrepentant. They weren’t sorry. They were just sorry they got caught.
But other plagiarists had different motivations. When they sat down with me to discuss what happened, they told me they were afraid that if they did the assignment, their work wouldn’t be any good.
Some of them even told me they felt they would have a better chance of passing the assignment if they stole someone else’s work, even if there was a chance of getting caught.
It makes me wonder what causes dishonesty like what I saw in my college classrooms and the decisions Lee Israel makes in the film. It’s easy to say that everyone has the potential to con others or lie to them, and it just takes the right circumstances to bring it out.
But I have to wonder if, among writers, at least, it has more to do with the fear of having to show yourself to other people.
What Will People Think of My Writing?
Why is it so easy to get caught up in what people might think about our work?
Are you afraid that if someone doesn’t like something you wrote, you’re going to burst into flames? (If this were true, we’d have mass reports of authors spontaneously combusting and no books published at all.)
I think for many of us, it’s a fear of rejection. If you spent any time in elementary school, you’ve been rejected for something, and it’s painful. Moreover, this fear of pain can carry over into other aspects of our lives, including creativity.
So instead of seeing writing as life-giving and a way to express ourselves, we get caught up in this fear feedback loop and decide that the world is better off without our writing, and so are we.
This, of course, isn’t real.
I wrote an extensive post recently about getting out of your head when you write, but I think there’s also danger in trying to get into other people’s heads.
Trying to imagine what other people think about you is exhausting and paralyzing. And more often than not, what you imagine isn’t the truth.
If you hoard work that could genuinely bless some people because you are afraid of being rejected by others, you’re robbing readers of that experience.
It’s Too Hard to Look at It
I had a conversation with a writer friend this past weekend who basically has a finished product. He needs to put some finishing touches on it, but the content is more or less done.
I’ve been wondering what the latest is on this project because, despite this, there hadn’t been any updates. So, I reached out to see what was up. Our conversation confirmed my suspicions about what was happening: this person was self-sabotaging.
This individual has been through a lot recently, and his writing reflects what’s been going on in the background. Typically, this author does not do autobiographical writing and compartmentalizes his work so that he doesn’t have to look at the uncomfortable facts that are too hard to write about.
But now he’s been brought to the point where he can do it, and reality is hitting home. Now that the project is almost done, he’s moving closer to a moment when people are actually going to experience it.
Until recently, I’ve avoided doing any writing about myself, so I feel this. I’m sure I’ll freak out for a minute when it comes time to release the current book I’m writing.
But just because your own “stuff” is difficult to look at doesn’t mean it isn’t going to benefit readers.
That’s what’s so great about personal writing: the more you reveal yourself to readers, the more they can relate to what you’re saying.
Maybe you aren’t stealing like my students or being deliberately inauthentic like Lee Israel, but you are still robbing someone of what you have to say.
Your Work Isn’t Who You Are
I don’t mean to make this stuff sound easy. It isn’t. I can speak from sixteen years of experience doing this professionally and say that accepting criticism and even outright rejection of your work gets easier, but the fear of what other people will say or think never completely disappears.
So, you take that anxiety and fear and learn to counter it with the truth. And a significant truth to keep in mind is that your identity is not found in what you write.
I have spent years trying to get past this line of thinking, and I’ve only recently started embracing it. If I’m not making money with my writing, it doesn’t make me a failure. It isn’t the end of the world if I’m not meeting my own expectations.
If I get a bad Amazon review, no worries; that’s just one person’s opinion. I’d argue that bad reviews are good because they show that people other than your mom and your friends are reading your book.
When you conflate your writing with your worth, you’re discounting things about yourself that mean way more to the world than what you’re creating.
How Do I Start Creating Authentic Work?
One great way to get past the fear of rejection and being authentic is to work with another person who has your interests at heart.
And if you need that person, I’d like to volunteer.
Inkling Creative Strategies is a business, but it’s also my way to connect with people who are currently stuck in places I’ve been and reach out to provide some help.
That’s why I offer a free one-on-one consultation to discuss your writing concerns, questions, and hang-ups so you can stop banging your head against the wall and start reaching your full creative potential.
I like to call it a Virtual Meetup.