Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pardon me while I throw up

I haven’t told many people – in fact I haven’t told anybody other than Kristin – but Friday is a pretty big night for me. I’ve been asked to read my story "Summer Fun" at the first Joyland Chicago reading.

This will be the first time I’ve read my work out loud in public. The thought of it makes me want to throw up. Actually, I think I just did a little bit in my mouth.

At this point my fear is winning. I’ve wavered about whether or not I will cancel or just not show up. Then my sane side (I do have one – though I usually keep it hidden) reminds me to calm down, it will be fine.

Self-confidence has never been my strength. While I’ve begrudgingly accepted I have some writing ability, I never believe I can write well enough. I’m not alone, either. I’m sure many, many writers feel the same way.

I don’t know if that comforts me or scares me even more. I do know it’s weird to hear someone like Chris Jones express a similar lack of confidence about his writing.

Jones, a writer-at-large for Esquire, can lay claim to being one of the best magazine writers going right now. His narratives are rich in detail; his style nuanced; his words perfectly chosen. I read his stories with delight, but with a sense of jealousy for knowing he’s pulled off something I can’t do.

Apparently Jones feels the same way … though I’m sure it’s not after reading one of my stories. In a recent Q&A he did for the Nieman Foundation’s Narrative Digest, Jones talks about a story by fellow Esquire writer-at-large Tom Junod.

Mercenary” is a remarkable piece I’d encourage people to read for themselves. I’d try to summarize it, but fear I’d give away too much. It’s best to read it fresh. But for my purposes here, just know that it takes a very talented writer to pull off what Junod does. Even Jones agrees.

“I still read stuff like that all the time, where I feel totally useless as a writer, because I wouldn’t be able to write that piece,” Jones said in the Q&A.

I can’t imagine Jones feeling “totally useless as a writer.” How can that be? This guy is a two-time National Magazine Award-winning writer, most recently for this story. His work has been anthologized in not one, but three Best American collections: Magazine Writing, Sports Writing and Political Writing.

Yet, he feels there are things he can’t pull off as a writer. And I know exactly what he means.

As I’ve analyzed this – and believe me, I spend way too much time analyzing my writing – I’ve come to two conclusions. One, all writers suffer from a lack of confidence to some extent. There is always someone they wish they could write like.

The other is something that might actually be useful. Writers don’t need to be better than other writers. We only need to be as good as we can be. That takes work. It takes a desire to not be satisfied until you know you’ve done the best you can with the material. It shouldn’t matter what somebody else thinks.

It’s all subjective anyway. You might read a Jones story and think he’s overrated. You might read that Junod piece and think he’s a hack (though if you think that, I’d have to question your ability to read at all).

So I find comfort in knowing I did my best with “Summer Fun.” I like the story. I think it could use some more work, but nothing major. I know that others have liked it, too. I’m also sure not everyone likes it.

I just hope those people aren’t at the Book Cellar on Friday. I also hope I don’t throw up on the microphone.


  1. I feel the same way with everything I've ever written. I feel that way almost every day at work as I have to write three to four stories per day. They're not even all that difficult. Writing is sheer terror sometimes because what makes it great (the endless possibilities) also makes it this most fearful (picking the "wrong" one). As far as different reactions to stories, Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated said his father once fell asleep reading one of his stories.

  2. Good luck on Friday! I hope you're able to just have fun with it :)

  3. Thanks! I'm sure it will be fine and I'll look back and wonder why I was ever worried. Then again, it may be a disaster and I'll look back and wonder what the hell I was thinking!

    @Alan: One of my favorite quotes is from Gene Fowler, "Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead."

    Plus, that Gary Smith anecdote is perfect. I loved it.