Why some writers seem to get worse with every novel – Karin Gillespie

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By Karin Gillespie

You encounter an author, and it’s love at first page. You declare your devotion over Facebook and write giddy reviews on Goodreads. When the author publishes new work, you fall on it like a jackal. But then, the inevitable happens: You read their book — maybe it’s their second; maybe it’s their seventh — and you’re deeply disappointed.

You visit Amazon and find out you’ve got plenty of company. Most everyone, except for the author’s diehard fans, feels letdown. Yet, when the author comes out with another book, you still rush to the store, hoping the magic will return. Sometimes it does; many times it does not.

Why Some Writers Seem To Get Worse Rather Than Better

There are many reasons writers go from magnificent to mundane: pressures from publishers to pen a book a year, failure to deepen their knowledge of craft and, of course, author burnout. But it’s also possible that these seasoned writers may have lost something crucial to their writing success: beginner’s mind.

A person with beginner’s mind is curious and playful and daring. Beginners plunge into a task, blissfully ignorant of all the blunders they might possibly make.

Beginners have yet to develop that inner voice that wields a whip and snarls, “Adverbs are evil,” or “Don’t you dare open your novel with a dream.” Their minds are free of the anxiety of failure. After all, who cares if you screw up, when you’re an amateur?

I experienced my own version of beginner’s mind when I wrote my first novel. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was a voracious reader and somehow, not only did I finish writing a novel, I ended up getting a three-book deal with a Big Five publisher.

Later I found myself seizing up when I sat down to work. Why? Because suddenly writing wasn’t a low-stakes exercise any more. People were counting on me, and I dragged all those expectations and concerns into my writing room.

Now I have a sign over my desk that says, “Be a Beginner Again,” and I try to remember the following three steps:

Step One: Surrender to the Innate Intelligence of What You’re Writing

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted Talk she tells the story of a poet who sees poems rolling toward her across the prairie, and she tries to catch them. Stephen King describes the experience of digging up a story. Occasionally it does feel as if a constant stream of stories, poems and articles are floating in the air or growing in the ground, and our job as writers is to seize them and put them on the page.

Sometimes, though, too much knowledge gets in the way of the transmission. A story will beg to be written in the second person, and the writer’s inner critic will jump in and say, “Second person is gimmicky.”

What should we do when our inner critic starts acting up? Don’t ignore it; likely that will make it even more obnoxious. (What we resist tends to persist.) Instead gently acknowledge it, but refuse to get caught up its crazy making.

Step Two: Be Wary of the Pitfalls of Success

There are few things as thrilling as experiencing a writing win, whether it be your first published article or making the New York Times bestseller list. Unfortunately, success can undermine beginner’s mind. Suddenly you think everything you produce is golden. But as soon as you sit down to write, you can’t type a word.

Hence the so-called sophomore slump. It happened to author Janet Fitch. After the runaway success of White Oleander, she thought her follow-up novel had to be sweeping and ambitious and spent three years writing it. Ultimately every word was scrapped. In a Los Angeles Times article, Fitch says, “When you have success, people think you know what you’re doing, and you start to agree with them… But you go from grandiosity to panic.”

After a big success, it’s even more important to come back to the keyboard with a playful spirit. Maybe your work will win a Pulitzer, or maybe it will never leave your PC. Don’t drag any into expectations in your writing sessions. Just be in the moment, and savor the task of creating something from nothing.

Step Three: Practice Humility

You can avoid much of the downsides of success if you replace hubris with humility. When your writing is continually praised, it’s easy to get a big head. But the bigger the head, the more hot air it contains, and the worse the writing becomes.

I’ve never made the New York Times bestselling list or sat on Oprah’s couch, but I’ve had my share of modest successes and when they happen, I try to remember that, in so many instances, when I’ve written something fresh and distinctive, I have no idea how I pulled it off.

It’s like that poet catching poems; great writing washes over me like a summer squall. I continually prepare myself for those occasional flashes of brilliance by sitting at my desk for hours and by continually perfecting my craft. But, on some level, I know that my best writing doesn’t come from me, but through me.

When you think of yourself as a conduit instead of a creator, it’s much easier to detach yourself from the success (or failure) of your last piece of work.
Best of all, you begin to believe that there’s an unlimited amount of ideas buzzing about, and you rarely worry that the well will run dry.

Karin Gillespie is the national-bestselling author of five novels. She has also written for the New York Times, Washington Post and Writer Magazine. She has an MFA from Converse College and lives in Augusta, Georgia. She writes a book column for the Augusta Chronicle, and a humor column for the Augusta Magazine. She is also a part-time instructor at GRU. Her latest novel, Love Literary Style, is out now.



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