By Alec Clayton
We all have self-doubt, creative people probably more so than anyone.
I’ve considered myself an artist of one sort or another since before I was old enough to go to school and my mother set up an easel for me next to hers and I made my first oil painting. I majored in art in college and grad school, and I continued painting and exhibiting, and even selling a few paintings, up until about 2009. (My last show, a retrospective at Tacoma Community College, was in 2016, but it was all older work; at the time I had not painted in over seven years.)
Throughout most of my adult life I worked for newspapers as columnist, reporter and editor. I published my first novel in 2000. I have published nine novels. They have all been self-published, and I have never sold a short story to a paying market. And therefore I have never enjoyed the kind of commercial success as a writer of fiction that legitimizes a writer as professional in the eyes of the public.
I never studied writing; I learned what I know about writing by reading, by trial and error, by talking to other writers, so when I’m most down on myself I think I’m not a real writer.
Back when I was painting I would often walk into my studio and look at the painting I had been working on the day before and think, That’s a piece of crap. What the hell was I thinking? Who am I to call myself a real artist? But other times I would look at a painting I had done and think, Wow! That’s amazing. I can’t believe I did that. I can’t understand why major museums are not clamoring for this work.
I experience the same kinds of see-saw reactions to my own literary work. Many times I have re-read older stories and been embarrassed and wished I could take them back and destroy them. But I have also read selections from some of my stories and been exceedingly proud of myself. I remember when I did my final read-through of Tupelo. When I got to the final scene I was surprised to find myself reacting emotionally as if it were somebody else’s story and I was reading it for the first time. I thought, Man, people need to read this.
Seldom in my writing life have I felt so much self-doubt as when working on my latest novel, This Is Me, Debbi, David, because this novel is different in many ways than any of my other novels. Before publishing it, I asked friends to read the manuscript and let me know what they thought. One of the readers said she was disappointed in the female protagonist, Debbi, because she did not stand up for herself when she should have, and she thought the ending was too predictable and too sappy. I agreed with her and made changes based on her suggestions. Two of the people who volunteered to read and critique the manuscript never responded after I sent it to them. But one of the volunteer readers who had read all my previous works and praised them said it was the best thing I had ever written. God bless that guy.
Somehow, I managed to let a few embarrassing errors slip by me before I published—mostly homophones and typos that Word’s grammar and spellcheck missed. Discovering that didn’t help with my doubt about the worthiness of the book.
After I published it, a friend who had highly praised my previous novel was noticeably nervous about mentioning her reaction. I got the feeling she was disappointed in it and didn’t know how to respond. She did, however, tell me she really liked a couple of the short stories that follow the end of This Is Me, Debbi, David. Another friend who had read my other books hesitantly told me he thought it was good, but something of a letdown after Tupelo and the Freedom Trilogy. I understand that. Those were, by far, my most popular books.
Reaction since publication has been mixed. About 20 people showed up at Browsers Book Shop for my first public reading. There was a spirited debate after the reading, and I sold 17 books—all in all, I thought that was a successful event. But then only two people showed up for my next reading (each bought a copy), and only about five or six showed up for the one after that (two books bought). But then we had a good crowd and sold a bunch at the next event. Most disappointing is that only three people have posted customer reviews on amazon.
The takeaway from all this is that although I know I shouldn’t depend on the reactions of others to “legitimize” my writing, I can’t help doing just that, and I am so far not exactly overwhelmed with the reception of This Is Me.
Be that as it may, I shall not be deterred. I’m working on a new novel that I’m sure will be my best ever.