The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Sometime in the years after college, I began telling other writers that I wasn’t especially good at short story writing. I’m still not sure if I came up with that idea because I hadn’t written that many short stories compared to some of my writer friends, or because I’d been too single-mindedly focused on my novel manuscripts to try and publish any shorter works. All I know is that I believed myself to be terrible at short story writing, which meant that most of the very few short stories I did finish were treated as throwaways. Practice attempts that nobody else would ever see.

Then I stumbled across a tweet from another writer a couple of weeks ago, talking about how important it is to push yourself in your writing career by taking risks that you don’t feel qualified to take. Aim to collect rejections, she said, and you might surprise yourself with a few more acceptances than you think.

I’ve heard variations on this same theme before, but this writer’s advice really hit home for me this time. Most creative types are their own worst critics and I’m no exception, but it hadn’t occurred to me just how much I’ve been holding myself back when it comes to submitting my work until I saw this tweet. After all, it isn’t my job to determine whether my writing is publication ready. It’s an agent’s, or editor’s, or online magazine’s, and I can’t possibly predict how any member of any of those groups will respond to my work. The only thing I can be 100% sure of is that there’s no chance of anyone falling in love with my stories if I never put them out into the universe.

This whole experience got me thinking about the stories we tell ourselves as people, instead of the stories we tell other people as writers. All of us believe different things about who we are and what we want and what we like, and it’s easy to convince ourselves that those beliefs are immutable and unchanging. The more foundational a particular belief is to your identity, the easier it is to tell yourself stories that reinforce your belief. If you consider yourself to be a good person, you’re a lot more likely to act in ways that you associate with your own particular brand of goodness. But you might also struggle with believing that you’re capable of doing bad things or making bad choices, simply because badness doesn’t factor into the story of who you are in the same way goodness does.

Believing myself to be a mediocre short story writer isn’t the kind of thing that I’ve based my whole identity around, and it’s not the kind of story that has changed my life all that much in the telling. But it has kept me from writing more short stories and getting better at them through practice, and it has definitely kept me from taking the short stories I’ve finished seriously enough to revise or submit them.

Once I realized that, I went back to the short stories I’ve finished in the past couple of years and read through them, red pen in hand so that I could jot down any changes I wanted to make. And though neither of them were especially mind-blowing, I was still pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing–hell, the quality of the storytelling–in those pieces I’d staunchly believed were garbage. Aside from paring down the prose and seeding a little additional foreshadowing into one, there was very little I needed to do to make them submission ready.

I wish I could wrap up this post with some nice, tidy tale about how both of these stories have already been picked up for publication, but that isn’t the case. I’m sending them out on submission and crossing my fingers for an acceptance, and I know that will be a long process. In the meantime, I’ll continue to work on my novel length manuscripts and leave space in my life for any additional short story ideas that are interesting enough to pursue. Even though I’m not a naturally gifted short story writer, I’m determined enough and driven enough to keep writing, keep practicing, and keep improving.

And the story of my own stubbornness, my willingness to do the work, is one I’m happy to keep telling.

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