Do you ever have times when you don't want to write because you feel like there are too many words in the world already? I've enjoyed reading your advice on writing because I respect your ability to tell great stories. Yet for a while now I've struggled with an overwhelming sense of pointlessness in writing-- that everything I want to say is being said and being said better, and no one really needs my voice added to the milieu. It's frustrating. (Thanks for all your advice posts before, btw!)
I’ve got entirely too many reasons for not wanting to write — all career writers get those over time, believe me – but the concern about whether or not there are too many words in the world already would not be one of them. Partly this is because after thirty years of doing this for money, I’m fortunate enough to have evidence that people want more of mine. This does make life simpler.
But there’s a more logical reason for this not to be a problem. Neil Gaiman has stated this succinctly — and I’m paraphrasing here: “No one can write what you would write.” And this is true. But Neil isn’t just being kind and encouraging and inclusive here. A lot of people don’t realize that he’s restating natural law.
I’ll come back to that in a moment. First of all: the pointlessness thing — everyone gets that occasionally. It’s a phase: it passes. (Cf. the Law of Undulations for one possible cause.) Often it’s a start-of-career problem, and initially it can be particularly difficult to deal with when you’re surrounded by talented people. Back in the day, I would find myself thinking, “Oh God, with people writing right now like C.J. Cherryh and Jeff Carver and Nancy Springer and Somtow Sucharitkul and Pat Cadigan and Barry Longyear and Joy Chant and Tanith Lee and (fill in here about fifty more names from the early 1980s), who in the world is going to have any reason to pay attention to me?” And it can get worse when one of the people you’re comparing yourself to is a writer who’s doing things thematically similar to what you are, or what you think you are.
Routinely, though, in the early days, one tends not to think this problem through fully enough to resolve it. But sometimes experience holds up a signpost. If you put ten writers in a room (or on a panel at a convention: I’ve seen it done) and give them the same prompt for a short story— even when instructing them to make it as trope-adherent as possible — you’ll inevitably get ten different takes on it; often wildly different takes.
If after seeing something like that you sit down and ask yourself, how can they all start out with the same material and come up with such different results?, you’re going to fetch up first against the obvious. They’re all different people. But more than that, they come from different places, different upbringings; they have wildly different life experiences, different emotional lives, different physical challenges, different points of view. All these factors, along with obvious-looking things like the fact that they occupy different physical locations in space-time, combine to shape how a given group of writers do their work and what they see when they are presented with a given subject or theme. Everything that went into making them a human being and a writer up until this moment in time is going to influence their take on a theme or subject: the language they use to approach it, the style they use to write about it, and so forth. And in ten minutes, or an hour or a day, they’ll have a slightly different set of experiences influencing them, and that will shift the way they handle what they’re writing. Each writer is therefore utterly unique in the way they write, and at the end of the day inimitable no matter how hard anyone might try — because no one else on the planet shares their particular configuration of life experience, thought trends, and literary and linguistic gifts.
When you realize this, you then quickly realize – once you think it through— that what applies to them also applies to you. You, as a writer, are unique as well. No one else breathing on the surface of the Earth has exactly your set of skills. And coming to grips with this realization and accepting it isn’t about you or me puffing ourselves up and saying that we’re special snowflakes in any way. By definition, by the mere nature of physical reality, all the snowflakes are special. Your uniqueness is the result of a set of pre-existing conditions: to wit, physics and the nature of space-time. As both a physical body and as a creative person, by definition you occupy a position that cannot be occupied by any other writer no matter how gifted. No one else has or can have your experiences, the unique viewpoint that you occupy and from which you operate. Universal law has decreed that no one else can have it. (Please note here that I am not using “uniqueness” in the pitifully watered-down, modernized usage of the word, where it’s come to mean merely “special” or “unusual.” This is “uniqueness” used to indicate something that is the only one of its kind; the only possible one of its kind.)
Acceptance of this realization, therefore — if you continue thinking this through — will eventually relieve you of any fear that your writing is pointless, because no one else in existence is equipped or positioned to do exactly what you do. And this stipulation also fortuitously serves to prove the inherent fallacy of the idea that nobody else needs your voice added to the milieu. This is because the fear that the best one’s writing can do is to restate something that’s “being said and being said better” by others is founded in a single point of view that may or may not be terribly informed on the subject — that being yours. You may be unique, but that doesn’t necessarily make you right.
And there are six billion other points of view to take into account. The inherent limitations of local time and space and the finitude of your mind mean that you cannot possibly know or guess at the conditions of your readers’ minds, which may without warning and beyond expectation turn what seems to you like some obvious, overworn trope or theme into something profoundly relevant, important, and affecting. Until you write it and get it out there, it’s impossible to know whether some single plot or theme or subject or line of dialogue of yours may or may not move someone to their depths, reduce them to laughter or tears, might even make the difference between life and death to them, where nothing from Neil or I or any other writer you care to name might have done the trick.
And there is no way to find out except to write it and put it out there and see what happens.
So push through the frustration, because we need your words. Otherwise, how will we ever find out what they’ll do?