Everyone knows that writers should be active readers. They should read broadly, both in their genre and outside of it. It is perhaps the most common piece of writing advice offered in books on writing craft. Plus, most writers love reading, so it isn’t a dreaded task to crack open a book. I love reading and the experience of getting lost in a story. But, I’ve also found that as I continue on my writing journey, self-doubt starts to creep in when I read some well-told tale.
I can’t speak to how other writers feel, but sometimes I find myself getting overwhelmed and discouraged while I read. Of course, there are still plenty of times where I find myself being drawn into a story, but there are other times where I start a comparison game that always leaves me feeling terrible. Sometimes, while reading some beautiful sentence or while hurriedly turning a page to keep pace with an exciting scene, self-doubt creeps into the back of my mind and settles in. I can’t write sentences like that or plot a novel in the same way as this or that popular writer. I start to ask myself, what the hell am I even doing? Suddenly, whatever I’m working on seems terribly shabby and embarrassing.
Of course, it is a testament to the skill of the writers I am reading, but it is discouraging. It is hard to feel motivated to write when you feel like you’ve been coldly reminded of all the ways in which you are singularly deficient. Those negative thoughts can slowly spread, finding their way through the cracks and crumbles until they’ve infested your every waking thought.
It isn’t productive. It is stupid and self-defeating. Writers all have their own voices, tell their stories in their own ways. There are certainly lessons to be learned from reading other writers’ work, but the takeaway shouldn’t be that they are doing everything right and you are doing everything wrong. It’s usually not so black and white as that. You can learn from great writers, borrow all their little tricks and patterns until you figure out what ones work for you. But, you don’t need to do that either. After all, Stephen King and Nicholas Sparks are both writers, but tell their stories very differently. There is more than one way to skin a cat.
Stories are what we love. We love to read them, to lose ourselves in the world of someone else’s imagination for a little while. We love to write them too and, if you’re anything like me, you have to write them down. I write because there are stories I just need to tell, words that have to be committed to paper. So, when you start to feel fear that your writing will never be enough, remember why you write and push on. We can always strive to improve our writing craft. The mechanics are easy to fix. The bigger issue is letting fear keep you from trying.