Should I Burn This Book?

So far I’m only three chapters into Bruce Holsinger’s newly released novel, A Burnable Book, but already I can see that it has one major, tragic flaw:  I didn’t write it.

It’s fantastic.

I should have known better than to start in on this book just a day after giving a second draft of my novel to my wise and wonderful beta reader, Teresa. I should have known that I would compare my writing to Holsinger’s, that I would wish I were as adept at conjuring the past. It made me feel like burning A Burnable Book. (Not really, of course–more like putting my bookmark in chapter three and relegating it to the bottom of my Sisyphean “to-be-read” pile.)

The mature and commonsensical part of me knows that I should reading MORE writers of historical fiction, that I should consider it an apprenticeship, honing my craft by adopting successful techniques and learning to avoid the genre’s pitfalls.

But despite that knowledge, the insecure little scribbler inside of me quakes when I read authors whose work I hope to emulate. Geraldine Brooks. David Liss. Matthew Pearl. (Dear God, Iain Pears. Just looking at Instance of the Fingerpost can give me a panic attack.)

I’m trying, though, to keep this panicky sense of inferiority tamped down. The little voice that whispers to me of my shortcomings, the voiceover to my Imposter Syndrome narrative, would like me to give up in the face of such daunting talent.

But I won’t.

I like what Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection, and The Power of Vulnerability (and She of the Much Downloaded TED Talk) has to say about comparison, shame, vulnerability, and creativity in this talk given at a 99U conference (for what it’s worth, Brown gave this talk a much more evocative title than that listed here–she called it “Sweaty Creatives”):

So I’ll return to some of my favorite advice from the lovely Neil Gaiman:

“Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.”

Once more unto the breach.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Should I Burn This Book?

  1. I have to laugh. When I read your Shakespeare quote I shook my head. Oh, to by that clever! I study Shakespeare, but still, it would not occur to me to use that line.
    And so it goes, we all find other people who write better or say wittier things. You have to keep in mind at least you are writing! The fact that I am a life long reader, stops me from picking up my pen. Oh that you have the will and self assurance to write! Enjoy the book. I have it as a sample on my iPad. Know that somewhere out there, there are others who are enjoying your writing.
    It is so much better than sitting on the ground, telling sad stories about the death of kings.

    • What a kind thing to say, Sari! And I very much enjoy your blog, so the feeling’s mutual. 🙂 Do let me know what you think of A Burnable Book–it seems very promising so far.

  2. This is a great (and entertaining) reminder that I’m the *only* one with my life, my experiences, my perspectives, and my way of sharing a story.

  3. Jennifer, since I finished my first draft, I’ve started getting those nasty panic attacks too! Whenever it happens, I look for solace in the idea that only one person writes like me, to hell with everyone else. I can never remember where I first got the idea. Now, thanks to your post, I remember – it’s Neil Gaiman!

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