Monday, February 22, 2016

Is doubt even a writer's worst enemy?

This post was sparked by Positive Writer's Writers Crushing Doubt contest, which deadlines on June 1, 2016.

One of the first jobs I applied for straight out of college at 19 was an opening for a speechwriter for the chair of a multinational advertising agency in the Philippines. To be considered, I had to draft a speech on women's suffrage. So I did. There were just two problems:

1) I had never written a professional speech in my life.
2) I had never cared for politics and must've been either absent or daydreaming when they discussed in history class the period leading up to women winning the right to vote.

Make that three problems. Google had not yet been invented, and as I didn't know where the nearest library might be in my parents' rural rice-paddy-converted community where I had moved back post-graduation, I clearly did not have the resources (translated: diligence) to research my speech.

Some time later I received a call to retrieve my writing sample. I asked the receptionist what the executive had said about my speech.

"He said, 'It's unacceptable,' " she said blandly.

Ah so. I took it as a sign that I was not put on this earth to be a speechwriter, and went on my way. Over the next two decades I landed jobs writing for a fertilizer corporation, a children's magazine, and after I immigrated to California to join my Mom two years after graduation, a small-town newspaper, a regional newspaper, and finally, the president of the Turlock campus of California State University and the chancellor of the Merced campus of the University of California.

Yup. Somehow despite my inauspicious beginning, I ended up ghostwriting speeches for campus executives for a good 10 years of my career. And not just their speeches, but memos, articles for publication, letters of commendation, condolence and recommendation, social correspondence, donor solicitation, sound bites for the press, tenure evaluations, blah blah blah. If they wanted something said on paper, I was their voice. Or rather, my voice was at their disposal. 

Two weeks on the job writing for the chancellor, who was an electrical engineer, he asked me to write a speech based solely on the PowerPoint slides he had presented two months before he'd hired me to a gathering of fellow engineers. The trade journal needed to print his speech, but he had delivered it off the cuff and now was pressed for time to meet the deadline. (And it didn't help that English is his second language—but that was job security for me.)

The slides were gibberish to this Literature major. There was a reference to a book in one of them, so I started there. I tracked down an online preview of the first few pages and the table of contents of that book, did a little mind-reading about what pithy points he might've extracted from it, and went from there. Where the slides were just too esoteric, I left blanks in the draft for him to fill in, which he gamely did.

Because that speech was one of a mountainous pile of tasks demanding my attention, there wasn't time to get angsty about it. If there had been, it may never have been written.

A deadline. That, it turns out, has been the antidote to any stirrings of doubt that might have poisoned my productivity as a professional writer. The longer I have to complete and turn in a piece of writing, the worse it is for me. Maybe that's why I habitually procrastinate—hmm, that could be another blog post:
"Is procrastination even a writer's worst enemy?"

I've noticed that a commonality among fledgling writers is the question of identity. "Am I a real writer?" Pishposh. Perpetually pondering this is a monumental waste of time. If you write, you are, and if you doubt that, just ask Jeff Goins at You might currently earn your living doing something other than writing, but identities are formed in layers. We shed or acquire those layers by choice or force of circumstances.

Another tripper-upper for writers: the need to Stage. "Before I can write brilliantly, I must have sharp pencils. Or a decluttered desk. Or a rented space in an office building. With white noise on the headphones. Or a sunlit table and mocha frappuccino at Starbucks. Or the beach. Or a laptop that doesn't freeze." So much bull. For the love of Gouda, get on with it already. Fuck the muse. (The last three sentences was a script I ran through my head each time I sat down to write. As mantras go, it wasn't very uplifting, but it got the job done.)

The most important thing we must have as writers is our own voice. With a voice, we have certainty. If we haven't developed a voice (because we are too timid to write furiously and passionately as though rabid dogs were chasing us), we can't convince ourselves, let alone the reader, that we know what the hell we're writing about.

Which brings me to how my story ends: I lost that job writing for the chancellor. And in ceasing to write for someone else, I found my voice. Yay me.