I Wouldn’t Change a Word: writing with self-doubt

Two weeks ago, I put the finishing touches on the manuscript of my book, attached it to an email, and sent it off to my publisher with a profound sense of accomplishment. I smiled – internally and externally – and exuded an “I did it” kind of confidence. I have had this book idea for years and have worked on it off and on for two years. And suddenly it was done. And it felt good.
After writing, the next step in the process is editing. I joked with a couple of friends that I was hoping that the editor would read the manuscript and declare, “I wouldn’t change a word.” I joked, knowing that this wouldn’t be the case. But secretly I hoped.
I am not a writer. I am a preacher. These are different things that require different skills. I have written a few magazine articles over the years and have been edited then. But for the most part, I don’t get edited very much. I blog without an editor. I preach without an editor. I live without an editor. Editing feels to me like a strange and unwelcome intrusion into my life.
On Mother’s Day, in the evening, I got an email from my editor asking me to call him. The kids were getting ready for bed at the time, so I let Vanessa handle them while I nervously found his contact information in my phone. 
He didn’t say, “I wouldn’t change a word.”
Instead, he said things I didn’t want to hear but needed to nonetheless. He said that I write with a lot of logic and not a lot of emotion. He said that I describe situations up to the point of conflict and tension, and then I run away from the tension. He said that I don’t let the reader in to how I feel about the conflict. He said that I tend to substitute sermonizing for emotional content. He said that for us to continue, much of what I’ve written needs to be reworked to be more than data and facts. I have to describe not just what happened but how I feel about what happened.
Gulp.
So here is the task I have before me: I have to rewrite my book, improving the flow of it, better defining the conflicts, and exposing my feelings about those conflicts.
This is my conflict and tension. Would you like to know how I feel about this? Would like me to let you in?
I am scared to death. I often use humor to mask my fear. I joked with my friends about how I expected to hear “I wouldn’t change a word” because I was scared that none of the words I had chosen were right. I’ve joked about how the editing process would be humbling, mostly because I don’t really want to be humbled. I joked with my editor on the phone that when he said I don’t let people in, he sounded like my wife. He didn’t laugh. That was unsettling. And humbling. And scary.
I am scared that I won’t be able to access and express my feelings in a way that will satisfy him. I’m afraid that the process of rewriting will take me far longer than I imagine and that I will disappoint both my editor and the people expecting the book to be published this fall. I’m petrified that if it’s not the book he wants to publish, he’ll pull out, and I’ll be back to square one … and publicly humiliated to boot. 
This fear has sent me spiraling into a pretty bad funk this week. I have felt emotionally exhausted and full of self-doubt. Even though I’ve made some progress on the rewrite, I feel disheartened by the process, no longer confident that I can tell my own story adequately.
Self-doubt has been my demon this week.
But like we all have to do from time to time, I need to talk back to my self-doubt and tell myself the truth. Here is the truth of what I know. I know that my story is valuable. I know that if I tell it well, it will be a source of help, encouragement, and inspiration to many others. I know that my editor is right and I will be a better writer for heeding his counsel. And I know that if I can write with emotion, my story will be better for it.  
So tomorrow I am going back to the drawing board with renewed energy and vigor. I can’t not write this book. It has to emerge from me. I feel like I have no choice. If rewriting with emotional vulnerability is what will make it the best story possible, then that is what I will do.
Gulp.

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  • The only thing I can tell you is “be not afraid.” They’re the only words that have gotten me through the last week, so I’ll pass them on to you.

    Also, I know you can do this. You are amazing and inspiring and I don’t doubt for even a second that you’ll pull this off beautifully.

    *fistbump*