Before I was lured away by the publishing industry, I spent two years of my so-called screenwriting career writing Saturday morning cartoons. I proudly take my share of the blame for what many fans of Spider-Man consider the worst version of the webslinger ever committed to celluloid. A show called Spider-Man Unlimited.
God knows, my writing partner, Larry Brody, and I never intended to write crap. We did the best we could with the hand we were dealt. Unfortunately, long before we became involved with the show, someone had decided it would be a good idea to take Peter Parker out of New York and put him in an alternate universe where talking animals tooled around on flying Vespas.
Although we never quite succeeded in turning lemons into lemonade, we did have our moments. And I don’t cringe too badly when I see the show pop up on television once in awhile.
On a personal level, it was a great time in my life. The work was steady – or at least as steady as it can get in Hollywood – and the pay was great. Brody and I spent a lot of days grabbing lunch at Lupe’s in Thousand Oaks, then driving to his ranch as we discussed story and, more often, life.
During one of those drives, Brody and I were talking about writers and writing, and something he said has stuck with me ever since:
“Nine times out of ten," he told me, "you find a guy who loves his own writing, the work will be mediocre at best.”
Now, at that moment in time, even though we were writing a crappy little cartoon show, I was putting my best effort into the project and thought I was pretty darn good at it. I had always had a fairly healthy respect – if not outright love – for my own work. Always thought I could get the job done and do it well.
But what Brody said gave me pause. Was I one of those guys? Was I stuck in the animation ghetto because my work was merely mediocre and not as good as I’d always thought it was?
What followed, of course, was the usual downward spiral into self-doubt that writers everywhere can relate to. I was immediately reminded of the co-worker who, many years before, had handed me the manuscript of his first mystery novel, proclaiming it to be a work of genius.
It was, in fact, incomprehensible.
Yet this poor gentleman was convinced that he was the next Raymond Chandler. Not a doubt in his mind. And after I gave him a bit of constructive criticism, his reaction had me wondering if I’d escape his apartment with all of my limbs attached.
So, when Brody made his proclamation as we drove through the hills, I had to wonder if I was as deluded as my former co-worker had been.
That’s all it took to send me crashing. A simple statement – that may or may not have been true – by a friend I respected. A simple statement that had me doubting my worth as a writer and a human being.
It never ceases to amaze me how easily we writers can fall into this kind of funk. Our entire existence is based on our ability to create something that others will read and enjoy, and it takes very little to get us wondering if we’ve failed. One minute we think we’re geniuses and the next we’re convinced our work truly, truly sucks.
The writing life is a roller coaster. A roller coaster I thought I was riding alone until I started hanging out with other writers and quickly discovered that this particular amusement park ride is quite well-populated. Probably over-populated. And even the most successful of us aren’t immune to motion sickness.
Just the other day I was reading the Afterword to one of Dean Koontz’s books and he had this to say:
"When I am writing a novel, I experience bleak spells of deep self-doubt about my work, moments of surging confidence, despair followed by joy — although there are usually more dark moments than bright."
That about sums it up. And it’s heartening to know that even a writer with the kind of fan base most of us would kill for and riches we can only dream of, has the very same doubts the rest of us do.
The question is, why? Why are writers plagued by this disease? Why, despite our successes, do we allow these dark demons to possess us on a fairly regular basis? Why do we analyze the simplest of statements, carefully examining them for proof that we don’t deserve to put pen to paper?
I suppose you could argue that if we didn’t have such doubts, our work would never grow and improve. That we’re in a business that requires us to always be at the top of our game and self-satisfaction is the surest sign that we’re losing it.
That could be true. Or maybe, as someone recently suggested to me, we live in a world where people with big egos are frowned upon, so we regularly have to punish ourselves for allowing our heads to grow too large.
It’s all a mystery to me. One that will take greater minds than mine to solve.
Yet, despite my whining, despite the tone of this post, I’m not quite as miserable as I may sound. The truth is, I’m not really like Koontz. When I’m writing, I have many more bright moments than dark. And I actually enjoy reading my own work when it’s fresh and new, or even when I go back years later and read the stuff I barely remember writing.
Loving our own work does not mean it’s mediocre. There’s nothing wrong in having a healthy respect for the words and worlds we create. We should give our bruised egos a break and celebrate our ability to do what we do. Regularly and often.
Of course, there’s no telling how I’ll feel about all of this tomorrow….
Rob Gregory Browne