Riding the Roller Coaster

by Robert Gregory Browne

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

26 thoughts on “Riding the Roller Coaster

  1. Alex Sokoloff

    Rob, I keep forgetting that you worked with Brody. You know what’s really weird – just after I signed with Trident, Brody told me that his former writing partner was looking for a book agent and asked if I could put him in touch with my agent. I said sure (because anyone who knows Brody would do anything for him, as you know). Then Brody e mailed me back and said never mind – his friend had signed with – Scott Miller.

    Scott = my agent. Brody’s friend = you.

    Don’t you sometimes feel like we’re caught in some karmic spiral?

    And in that same vein, THANK YOU for this post. You don’t know how much I needed to hear this today.

    Welcome to the ‘Rati!!

    Reply
  2. billie

    I think it’s called cyclothymic disorder… :)(distant cousin to the full-blown bipolar)

    Kay Redfield Jamison wrote a wonderful book called Touched By Fire that deals with the artistic temperament and looks at a number of well-known writers as examples.

    Fascinating.

    But can be maddening when one is caught up in sorting it out wrt one’s own writing and revision.

    Reply
  3. pari

    Rob,Thanks for this post. Like Alex, I needed it today.

    Billie,I’m glad there’s a name for it. Somehow a diagnosis makes it feel a bit better.

    Billie is a working therapist, and I only trained to be one, but I think Rob has hit some of it right on the nose:the desire to always be betterthe fear of being too “egotistical”the terror of mediocrity.

    But we have to have tremendous egos to stick with this business because even if you’re not looking for criticism, it’ll find you.

    I think another part of the rollercoaster for fiction writers is our predisposition to watch, observe and analyze the world around us. This is the stuff of our work. It’s our daily research –whether conducted at a library, a new town, or in the breezeway at an elementary school while walking the kids to class.

    We constantly parse our world to understand it, to find the nuances of human behavior and action, to discover new elements to describe.

    Why wouldn’t we apply that same callous introspection to ourselves?

    Reply
  4. toni mcgee causey

    I have occasional moments where I’m a genuis! Wow! Who knew! Followed almost immediately by the realization that oops! won’t work! I’m an idiot! (I don’t even ask ‘who knew’ for that one.)

    Maybe it’s just the act of constantly writing and looking to improve, but I’m rarely happy with the specifics of the completed work. I can have a general feeling of having succeeded on something, maybe at a certain level, better than I had before, but there’s something in me driven to parse out the places where I see I can improve.

    I think what Brody was targeting against was complacency. A lot of people who like their own work have grown complacent, unwilling to work beyond the first draft to improve what they know could be tweaked because they hit a ‘good enough’ zone and are willing to accept that. (Rob, you’ve just never been like that.) I think that’s a little different from looking at one’s work and feeling a satisfaction of having accomplished a set task, or having reached a certain bar one set for oneself. The bar can (and should) always be raised. People who are complacent quit caring that there’s even a bar.

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    Nice to see you here, Rob.

    I think Pari summed it up beautifully with the phrase “the terror of mediocrity.” Oh yeah.

    And the only thing that’s calming about this terror, is that for all of us on the roller coaster — look down and see how many folks are standing in line, waiting to get on for the same thrill.

    Reply
  6. pari

    Ohhhhhh, Louise,What a great way to keep it all in perspective. I know what when I complain about WHATEVER in the writing life, there’s always someone who frowns at me and says, “Yeah, well, at least you’re published.”

    Reply
  7. Charlene Engeron

    Rob,

    My heart was nearly beating out of my chest as I read your post. The self-doubt, self-editor has put me through the wringer lately. I’ve gone from SUPER high to SUPER low in a matter of days after ONE phone call asking why one of the scenes in my first novel was so sexually graphic. I went from the euphoric “hooray-I-did-it” high to the “why-did-I-ever-delude-myself-into-thinking-I-could-write-a-novel” depression hole. I’m still trying to dig my way out of that hole, but after reading your post I think I can see the sunlight shining overhead.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  8. JT Ellison

    Rob, wonderful essay. I think it’s the self-doubt that keeps us striving to make our work better each time around. Complacency is the writer’s greatest enemy.

    Reply
  9. Naomi

    Great analogy, Rob and Louise.

    I try to stay pretty steady when it comes to assessing my writing. I don’t like to sink to the depths because it means I may have to go to the other extreme to get out of it. And the reverse is true as well.

    I met John Steinbeck’s son recently, who is a writer in his own right and he told me that he keeps all his nametags from various literary speaking engagements. When he feels down, he puts on all of them, head to toe. What a crack up!

    Another writer, Doris Betts, said that we have to write from our strengths. So to know our strengths, we also have to know what our weaknesses are.

    Reply
  10. simon

    I’m the opposite. I keep thinking how am I allowed to keep getting away with being published. When is someone going to call me out?

    Ah, insecurities–it’s what made Woody Allen an Oscar winner.

    Reply
  11. Mark Terry

    Rob,As you know, I’ve nagged on a variation of this over and over: none of us are as good as we think we are. And I mean NONE of us.

    That isn’t to say we suck. I’m always a little surprised to pick up some of my published materials and read it and sort of go, “Hey, this guy’s pretty good.” Sometimes I can imagine doing things differently, presumably better, but to-date the writing seems to hold up.

    That isn’t to suggest that during any book-length project I don’t think it sucks dead bears at least during some part of the work.

    But I keep on. I think it’s called faith.

    Reply
  12. Robert Gregory Browne

    Alex, there does seem to be a strange little dance going on with our careers, doesn’t there? Scott, Ben Sevier, Marc Resnick, SMP. Next thing you know both of our books will be optioned by the same producer at Warners and our screenplays will be rewritten by the same succession of screenwriters…

    Billie, it’s interesting to know they even have a name for this problem. Just goes to show you how powerful we writers can be. 🙂

    Pari, the “terror of mediocrity” pretty much sums it up for me.

    Toni, you ARE a genius. Louise, yeah, it’s great to actually be ON the roller coaster — so who am I to complain?

    And to those of you who got a little ray of sunlight out of the post, all I can say is hang on to it….

    Reply
  13. billie

    I was being a bit tongue in cheek with the diagnosis – but…

    I do wonder if some of the qualities of cyclothymic disorder aren’t simply a personality variation that lends itself to writing fiction.

    If you think about it, the ability to tolerate the “roller coaster” ride is part of what makes writers capable of exploring the same tension and conflict found in most good books. If we can’t/don’t do a bit of that in our own lives, how likely is it we can find it in the lives of characters?

    I tend to think it comes with the territory – and as Rob points out so beautifully, it adds to the “mystery” of this creative process we all seem addicted to… 🙂

    Reply
  14. Laura Benedict

    Beautifully said, Rob.

    It’s too bad that, at our house, a roller coaster stuck in a valley often leads last-minute peanut butter and jelly dinners and a grouchy Mommy still in her bathrobe.

    Ego is such a willful, persistent, powerful child. There are those times when we have to kill the things we like best in our work–mostly because they are servicing our egos instead of the story. I hate how that makes me feel.

    I think I’ll try that Steinbeck nametag trick that Naomi wrote about. Uh, when I get some, that is.

    Reply
  15. J.D. Rhoades

    I think it’s Karen Olson, or maybe it’s Lori G. Armstrong, over at First Offenders, who refers to the syndrome as Itotallysuckitis. It’s as good a name as any. and oh lord, am I going through it right now.

    Reply
  16. Jennier

    Rob, Great post, very honest and inspiring. Coming to terms to with what we think about our work or ourselves is too easy to avoid sometimes. You ask the tuff questions.

    Reply
  17. Daniel Hatadi

    We’re chasing things that don’t exist, aren’t quantifiable, and have no rules. Desire is the cause of unhappiness and when the object of the desire is so intangible, it’s bound to cause trouble.

    That’s enough Buddhism from me, today. Back to you, Rob.

    Congrats on becoming part of The ‘Rati, and for hitting it straight out of the field with your very first post.

    Reply
  18. Rob Walker

    AS Rob said and I quote: “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.”

    Entirely true save what your friend said about if’n a writer thinks his work is great, then he’s likely entirely wrong and a blowhard, etc. I agree on the one hand if it’s a first book or maybe a third but when you have honed your craft to ten books, twenty, thirty, forty you begin to know in your heart that you have learned a lot of what works, what doesn’t, and you have a right to claim your work at a level on that rollercoaster turned Ferris Wheel, that you are at the “top of your game.” This feeling is, I suspect, the same as Achillis felt about his prowess in fighting and killing his enemies. Self doubt is like a demon always at the back of any artist’s mind, always lurking to destroy one’s faith in a job well done; it’s the destroyer critic in us all which is our toughest critic, ourselves. But if you hang in long enough and you create as many worlds and characters as a Koontz or a King, or a ____________fill in the blank, you do turn a corner and you know at this point that while all else in the publishing world can’t be controlled, your craft can and is controlled as you know in your heart that you’ve created something special, real special. That’s the big reward, self-awareness that you’ve arrived at your personal best.

    Thanks for the post Rob, and I loved the insider information on the kiddie show.

    Rob WalkerCity for Ransom, Shadows in the White City, PSI Blue

    Of course, there’s no telling how I’ll feel about all of this tomorrow….

    Reply
  19. Nancy Martin

    Oh, Rob, I am wallowing at the lowest point of the roller coaster right now, and your words have bucked me up enough to at least open the file this morning. Before I do, though, I’d better hide all the knives and poisons in the house.

    Reply

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