How I learned I don’t suck

This guest post was written by author and journalist Dave Owen. His debut novel, PANTHER, releases later this year. If you’re a fiction writer, aspiring or otherwise, and you’d like to contribute to Misery Guts with an entry about writing, the writing process, agents, publishers or whatever else, drop me a line.

The hardest thing about being a writer is feeling like a fraud at every turn. Whether you’re hammering out your finest words in the suspiciously damp corner of your bedroom or reading from your published novel to a room full of people, it’s rarely possible to silence that nagging whisper insisting that you, in fact, suck.

Although I had been carelessly stringing words together for many years, my writing career began in earnest when I started a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing at The University of Winchester. This largely entailed sharing my writing with twenty other people day-in-day-out, sometimes work that was improvised on the spot, incredibly rough, or woefully ill-advised.

That’s when the whisper started. You suck, it said with the malicious glee of a Disney villain. Everyone can tell.

It taunted me as I progressed into the second and third years of the degree, even as my grades got steadily better, as tutors singled me out for praise, as I began to wonder if I could make a real go of this writing thing. The whisper was always there. You suck.

I decided to stay on at Winchester to take a Master’s in Writing for Children, despite having to work 50 hours a week in a pet shop to finance it. In the two years it took me to complete the MA I saw my writing objectively improve. I attracted kind words – though nothing more – from some agents. Still I wondered daily if pursuing writing had been a spectacularly poor decision.

I kept working. I kept reading. I kept writing. You suck, said the whisper. But I refused to let it stop me.

Toward the end of the MA I was asked to help out with teaching first year students on the same BA I myself had taken. At first this was as assistant to the main tutor, but eventually I was given a few classes of my own.

There is little more effective way to make you feel a fraud than standing in front of a room full of teenagers and presuming to tell them how to write.

I saw nothing but disdain in their eyes as I delivered my supposed wisdom. I imagined them meeting in huddles outside of class, cursing my name, bemoaning my lack of talent and knowledge, wondering how in heck they had been saddled with such a hack for a tutor.

In front of 30 students, the whisper found my ear. You suck.

Let’s skip ahead for the sake of brevity. I stopped teaching, but I kept writing. I got an agent. My writing was sent out, rejected (you suck), torn apart, edited, rejected again (you suck), started afresh, until eventually I found myself with a book deal. My debut novel, Panther, will be published on May 7th.

Last week I returned to The University of Winchester to give a talk to the current MA crop, and some members of the public, about getting my book published. I was ecstatic to see a bunch of familiar faces, students I had taught in their first year who had decided to take their studies further. I hadn’t sucked badly enough to put them off writing forever.

I talked about my book. I read a chapter aloud to people for the first time. Nobody fell asleep or hurled faeces. There was even a smattering of appreciative nodding.

I sat in the same place where I had been an undergraduate, a postgraduate, and a teacher, convinced of my own fraudulence at every step, and read from my published novel. This time there was no whisper.

After the reading a young lady approached me. ‘Your writing made me feel sick,’ she said. ‘In a good way.’

And for the first time I felt like a real writer.

David Owen’s debut novel PANTHER is released May 7th from Corsair books. You can find out more about it on his website, add it on Goodreads, or pre-order it from Amazon now.

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