The Biggest Writing Challenge I’ve Ever Faced

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

A lot about writing is hard. Starting a piece is hard. Ending a piece is hard. Doing research can be tough. Figuring out a structure for a story is nearly impossible. The one thing I’ve always found easy is finding the confidence that the story was worthwhile and that it was important to write it.

That confidence is fundamental. In fact, I couldn’t do what I do without it. I write a lot of stories that, at first glance, seem non-essential: Profiles of orchid poachers, dog actors, decades-old library fires, chicken farming, ten-year-old suburban kids, girls who like to surf. These stories are not burning up the newswire; great matters of state will not be affected by them. To me, though, they’re meaningful stories. They document the human experience, and peer into other lives, and reveal truths about who we are, and illustrate the richness of humanity, and are sometimes just fun to read, and are sometimes going to make you cry, and always, I hope, deepen the readers’ knowledge of lives outside their own.

When I start working on a story or book, I am absolutely enflamed with certainty about it — I am convinced that it absolutely has to be written. More precisely, I am convinced that I have to write it, right away. I don’t know where I find that confidence, but I know I’m lucky to have it, and I honestly don’t think I could write these things if I weren’t entirely sure of them. I’m sure that when I approach editors and I pitch the story with that kind of certainty, it overrides whatever doubts they might have about the subject. Did The New Yorker need a story about taxidermy? No, but when I first heard about the World Taxidermy Championship, I knew I had to write about it, and I approached my editor with fierce determination, and I think I simply bowled him over with my resolve and optimism about it.

Sometimes the toughest part of reporting one of these “ordinary life” stories is convincing the subjects that their stories matter. Countless times I’ve called someone who isn’t used to being the subject of media interest, only to have him or her insist that there was nothing special about them, that no one would be interested in who they are. It’s almost always the task of my first conversation with the people I write about — persuading them that readers will find them interesting and their stories compelling.

Now I’m writing a memoir, and for the first time in my career, I am my subject. The tables have been turned. After so many years of championing the cause of writing about ordinary lives, I find myself playing the role of the reluctant subject. Why would any reader care about what my childhood was like? Who cares what books inspired me to become a writer, or what I first published, or how I come up with stories? Every day I sit down to work on the memoir, I have to assure myself that my story is worth telling; that a reader will find the material engaging; that my life, which of course to me feels quite ordinary, has something in it that will sparkle on the page. It’s not easy. For the first time, I’m experiencing a wobbling self-confidence about my subject. I don’t think I’ve ever before had to wrestle so much self-doubt about my topic. It’s the strangest sensation. I’ve spent decades writing stories that floated entirely on my airy assuredness that they were worthwhile, so I’m unfamiliar with the experience of doubting my subject and wondering if it really deserves to be written about.

This is especially confounding since the subject is me. I’ve begun to talk to myself the way I talk to my subjects, giving my usual sales pitch, tweaked for my own consumption: Everyone likes to read about other people’s lives, no matter who they are! My life might seem unexceptional to me, but it’s really been quite unusual, and readers will want to peer into it! Don’t doubt the value of your story! It might seem crazy, but I actually have these conversations with myself in my head each time my hands waver over the keyboard and I wonder why, exactly, I’m writing about myself.

As I’m wrestling with this, my greatest discovery has been that the one indispensable element to creativity is confidence. Everything else is secondary. As a writer, you have to believe absolutely that what you’re communicating has value. I now have to learn how to take something I’ve felt about other people’s stories and apply it, this time, to my own.

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)

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