Validation and the Writer
As every writer knows all too well, validation? Is hard to come by. At a job, it’s “good job” on getting there on time, on nailing that sales pitch, and on bringing in those tasty donuts (teambuilding, people!). At an exercise class, it’s “good job!” for being there, for smiling, and for lifting your knees. In fact, in almost everything else you do, the milestones are fast and frequent, the standards are measurable, and the opportunities for validation abound.
But tragically, for the (particularly unpublished) writer? A lot of those opportunities for validation simply aren’t there. There aren’t a ton of milestones, unless you’re forcing your raw, unedited chapters on the unsuspecting—and they are loving them—and that can feel somewhat forced. And if you have artificial milestones in the form of intermittent classroom deadlines, you don’t necessarily have the time to polish a piece until you’re happy with it, and teachers and editors are there to make your writing better, not to let you know what an unequivocal genius you are.
All this makes it terribly tempting to just cater to those who have the power to offer you validation. But then, that would mean you’ve lost sight of why you started writing in the first place—the thing that gives writing itself meaning, and makes it fulfilling. (Unless, of course, you actually started writing in pursuit of validation. At which point: go to! Have at it. And what are you doing reading this article?) So how do you pick up the pieces? How to you give yourself the necessary validation so that you don’t crave it constantly from others? There are no easy answers here, as everyone has entirely different needs that are answered in entirely different ways. But here are a few things that may help.
Remind Yourself of Why You Started
Do you know why you write? Not “to be published”—but what inspired you to write in the first place. Something like, “to see smiles on my grandkids’ faces,” “to give someone the same immersive escape books once gave me,” or “to slap a bunch of words on a piece of paper.” Then, once you have it, write it down and post it on your wall if you can. And whenever you write, focus on that goal.
It’s easy to lose sight of that often simple, reachable goal. Once we get complimented or published the first time, or see a friend surpass us in the eyes of an awards committee, a writing group, or the almighty sales figures, it can be easy to start seeking that high again, or seeking to compete with our friends, instead of striving toward what truly fulfills us, and makes us happy.
And you know what the funny thing about those simple, fulfilling goals is? They’re often entirely doable! They’re not based in the fits and fancies of a sometimes finicky industry: they’re based on you. Which might, actually, be another thing you to remind yourself of, in a journal or on your walls: you can make it happen.
Remind Yourself of What You Do Well
Everyone tells stories about their lives and the people in them, building their own personal mythologies. Of course, some get cut, to improve the arc of the story, and others . . . may get embellished a tad. But these stories are how we define ourselves, how we think of ourselves. And we can use these same stories as a source of validation.
Chances are, if you’re working to improve your writing, a lot of your mental space for the “writer” part of you is spent on things you need to work on. Things you don’t think you’re good at. And the negative things people have said—those teachers or frenemies who didn’t believe in you—get blown way out of proportion.
So, you’re a writer: take control of your own story. Make a journal of your writing self—the good parts edition. Write in it lines from comments—be they official reviews, a friend’s comments, or an editor’s notes--that really tickled your fancy. And you know how after some distance, you can look back on a paragraph and either be like: “hot damn, that sucks,” or “hot damn, did I write that? That’s actually really good!”? Find some examples of that second kind and cut and paste or write them in that same journal. At the top of each page of excellent writing, write what it is, like “Awfully Good Dialogue” or “Amazing Description.” And finally, every time you have a killer writing session, take the time to write just a paragraph about how it feels in that journal. (Of course, if you have awards, or mentions, or fan mail, or cute photographs of you writing as a kid, or anything else that makes you feel good about your writing, put those in as well.)
Then, the next time you’re getting down on your writer self, take out that book, and flip through it, to remind yourself of your better writing self.
Focus on the Present (Screw the Past and Forget the Future)
You can’t go back and fix the writing of your past. And focusing on the writing of your future--and publishing, and agents, and release months, and book tours, and what-ifs crowded with potential failures—is paralyzing. So Instead, focus on the present. If you didn’t like the last thing you wrote? Focus on writing a better one. You can always improve! If fears that you won’t get published are paralyzing you? Look at that statement you wrote on your wall about why you are writing, remind yourself of what is important about this book, why it is important that you tell this story, and shut the door on all musing about what may or may not be.
It may help to write down every doubt you have, perhaps in that same journal, and then write back an answer. “I feel like I suck at writing: but I’m getting better every day.” It can become a mantra, giving voice to your fears and then answering them, something simple and easy to cling to in moments of doubt. You can even write that, too, on the wall (though, for all this wall writing, I do recommend using paper, and taping that paper to the wall; landlords and such, may find it slightly less validating when you check out.)
Find a Supportive Writing Group
Okay, so this is cheating, when it comes to finding validation from within yourself. But when the need is dire, sometimes cheating is not so villainous a vice. Find a writing group, or even just a writing person. Make sure it is a supportive group or person—good at constructive criticism, but also good at knowing when to be each other’s cheerleaders. Exchange writing with them on a frequent enough basis, that they’ll have a good handle on your writing—and you on theirs. (This prevents any restorative compliments from sounding shallow or ringing false.) Meet once a week, if you can, online or in person, and just discuss the writing process/lifestyle—which in itself can help allay the lack of validation, as it reminds you you’re all in the same boat. And, if you’re in that dark place, and nothing is working? Let them know! Good writing people have been there, and are happy to help hold you up. Because of course, you’d do the same, if they ever needed you.