Dead writers sometimes try to intimidate me.
Usually, they (and a lot of living ones) inspire me. On most days, I read great writing to try and draw my own words out. I seek out stories with similar characters or plot arcs to my own, voices that remind me of my narrator, themes that resonate with my own writing and teach me about how I can be better. Most days, the ghosts of great writers give me something to take with me when I sit down at my desk. They reshape my lens so I can see my own story with more clarity.
Except sometimes – just sometimes – they intimidate me instead. I open my laptop and try to glare past that stark glow of a new Word doc, and all I can see is the gap between what I can do and what I want to do, or what someone else has already done. I start to conjure the same fantasies of other writers’ lives that we all have, that notion of a magical breed of author who sits down every day at nine AM to churn out another two chapters by five, stopping only briefly for tea and a chat about her brilliant idea for her next big project. I’ve been to enough Novelist Roundtable discussions and rant sessions over coffee with other writers to know this is a myth, but it’s one that starts to sound truer with every second I stare at my blank page. In those seconds, it crystallizes until I am certain that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf never, ever stared at their own blank pages, but were born with a kind of literary brilliance in their bones. Effortlessly talented in a way that makes them slightly more than human. Perfect. A writerly version of Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element.
So, then, I do the only thing I can do. I picture them all picking their noses. Or scratching their butts. Or having to ride the bus right when the middle school across the street is letting out, leaving my illustrious author crammed between texting twelve-year-olds with a whole school day’s worth of pent-up energy bursting out. In other words, I force my picture of literary brilliance back into human form.
And then I write.
It’s not a magic solution, but it does help, and I highly recommend it the next time you feel the ghost of Hemingway hovering over your shoulder and calling your second draft crap. If you happen to need visual aides for this kind of thing, Jill Pollack stumbled across something yesterday that just might help you: Literary Greats in Their Bathing Suits. Page through these, and the next time you start worrying you’ll never capture the beautiful imagery of The Great Gatsby, you can picture F. Scott turning to Zelda and complaining about how he thinks his shoulders are starting to peel.