Robert De Niro Oscars

While presenting at the 86th annual Academy Awards, actor Robert DeNiro had a spot-on observation about writers. He was joking — but not — when he said:

“The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing—isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy.”

While I suppose this analysis could be applied to almost anyone, it has a ring of truth to it that, as a writer, I can not deny. While I’m not “caffeine-addled,” I admit to having struggled with many of the traits on his list.

I believe that one of the reasons good writers struggle with feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy is because most of the time you must be your toughest critic in order to achieve excellence.

A good writer is constantly asking “How can this be better? How can I bring this character to life? How can I make this scene touch someone at the deepest of levels? Am I doing my characters justice?”

What exacerbates the problem for many good writers is that they often use financial success as a barometer of their self-worth. Some of them toil away on blogs or on books that might never see the light of day or make much money. It also takes hours — in isolation — to finish, which means the writer often finds himself alone when his mind wanders to unhelpful places.

If you’re a writer, I’d love to hear your thoughts on DeNiro’s awards presentation. Personally, I’m okay with having a “terrifying” mind. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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About the Author Douglas Ernst

I'm a former Army guy who believes success comes through hard work, honesty, optimism, and perseverance. I believe seeing yourself as a victim creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe in God. I'm a USC Trojan with an MA in Political Science from American University.

30 comments

  1. I know too well that feeling. I recently wrote my first real book a few days before Valentine’s and have been too scared to go back and read it lest I tear it apart with my own critiques. The others who I let read it liked it but I’m scared that they’re just being nice. I vow to make the next one even better but that one for now will have to stay unchecked for a while. It takes forever for me to write because as I’m writing I’m destroying my characters in my head. They aren’t realistic. This scene doesn’t really convey the feeling I want. Is this the way the story should go? Then procrastination and laziness hits. I get scared to ruin a story I haven’t even started. What if I can uses those characters for an even better tale? Oh the pain of being a writer.

    1. Will you be attempting to get it published through more traditional means or will you be publishing to something like Amazon ebooks? I’d be interested in checking it out when it’s ready to go. 🙂

      It’s definitely hard not to second guess yourself sometimes. The worst is when you’ve written something and then you go back later and it’s obvious it has to go — but you worked so long on it!

      At some point I think an artist just needs to push his or her little bird out of the nest and then let it become whatever it’s going to become. That was George Lucas’ problem with the original Star Wars trilogy that he kept messing with long after the films were released. They actually got worse as he kept adding weird things (e.g., digital Jabba) that didn’t make it into the first theatrical release for a reason.

      Anyway, I’m glad you finished your first book. Congrats!

    2. It’s taken me a while to finish my book for various reasons, from procrastination to work to being unable to find time to write (i.e., alone time where I don’t have to worry about people distracting me while I’m doing so), etc. But I’m confident that I can get it done, if I focus my attention on it and cut out all distractions. I think you can do it, too, Tempress.

  2. For the first time in my life, I have considered writing a book. All because I have been writing the contents of that book already… on my blog… and a respected author of a respected book has been reading my blog posts and suggested that I write a book of my own some day. She went through a similar experience as mine {the loss of a fatally-diagnosed-in-the-womb infant after carrying full-term} and wrote the go-to book on the subject several years ago after she went through it. She not only wrote a personal account of her story in a book, but she also wrote another that is a resource and help-book for other parents who are facing what she did. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to her after our loss, but even before that, she learned about my story because I linked to her book when I wrote on my blog about my experience of reading it. In turn, she posted the link to my post on her facebook page and from that point began reading my blog.

    All that to say, having her recently tell me that I should write my own book which will tell my story was something that sort of knocked my socks off. {In her words, “I hope you will…”} I felt very honored, because she is pretty much one of the first to write her personal account, and one of the only to write a help book. And her books are ones that hospitals hand out to parents who are facing what we did… so they are well-respected. I had to believe that if it was coming from her, she must really believe I have something worth saying… in book form… and even if not, she told me she is moved and affected by my blog writing and believes in it helping others. That both excited and terrified me. Even just writing on my blog terrifies me. I do it, because I know it will reach someone at some point who it could help… or at least that is my hope. Ironically, I have been drafting a post that is called “Why I Grieve Out Loud” that speaks to why I am willing to be open about our loss online in a public way.

    Never before would I have considered myself a writer… until I went through this loss. The isolation I feel is not due to writing itself. But I do know isolation… just because of what we went through. It is part of the nature of it… most people don’t know how to approach the subject of infant death, so you lose a lot of communication from friends, and even family, in the months to follow… another reason I need to write… I need to tell someone, even if not the ones I thought I would be telling. But I do know the “procrastination… panic… soul-crushing inadequacy” he {and you} speak{s} of when it comes to writing. It’s tough work, whether for profession or pastime. If I ever do write that book about the life and death of our little girl, financial success won’t be the barometer. But I know I will be quick to compare numbers {sold copies}… “did I sell as many as other similar books?”… especially since there are so many other books out there like the one I’ve been encouraged to write by this author I met.

    Whether I do or not, I’m just excited at the prospect of it.

    That said, I remember you mentioning you are working on a book. That thrilled me, because I think you are a very gifted writer. I’ll be one who contributes to making your financial success barometer go up… if that is one of the tools you use to measure your success… because I will buy it. But hopefully you won’t use that as your guide, because your writing is very good no matter what. I wouldn’t read here if I didn’t think so. I hope you only become more known and successful with time, because you have things to say that I believe are worth saying.

    Okay… raise your had if you think there should be a rule here… No comments that are longer than the post itself!… right? =)

    Sorry.

    1. I had to believe that if it was coming from her, she must really believe I have something worth saying… in book form… and even if not, she told me she is moved and affected by my blog writing and believes in it helping others. That both excited and terrified me. Even just writing on my blog terrifies me. I do it, because I know it will reach someone at some point who it could help… or at least that is my hope.

      Make that two people who really believe that you have something worth saying. 🙂 I respect writers, actors, musicians, etc. because one of the hardest things to do is to walk out on that stage and offer yourself up for anyone who wants to cheer or throw tomatoes… Years ago I was tasked for work with finding someone our organization could do a profile on and when I was going over choices my boss said something to the effect of, “Do you think that person has an interesting story?” and I said, “I think everyone has an interesting story. It’s just whether or not they’re able to articulate it…” Knowing about your loss and knowing how you articulate yourself, I’m very confident that you should harness that excitement and direct it into your book. I know it may sound odd coming from me (I don’t have any children at this time), but it would be something I’d like to read. I mean it. You’ll have to keep me updated.

      That said, I remember you mentioning you are working on a book. That thrilled me, because I think you are a very gifted writer. I’ll be one who contributes to making your financial success barometer go up… if that is one of the tools you use to measure your success… because I will buy it. But hopefully you won’t use that as your guide, because your writing is very good no matter what.

      Thanks! I have wanted to write a book for adults for years, but then I started this blog and it sort of took on a life of its own. I tried a year ago to start my book, but then the blog sucked me back in… 🙂 Recently, I started helping out a friend with his book and I thought, “Okay, I’m doing this. I”m going to set aside time and make this happen. My blog has taken a hit to some extent because I don’t have time to juggle everything, but I think in the end it will be worth it.

      I’m not sure if I disclosed any of this in a previous post, but I guess if I had to pick three words to describe it right now I’d go with: 1. Family 2. Faith. 3. Redemption.

      In terms of how I measure “success,” I’d say that money is not a factor and never has been. It’s nice I guess, but it’s never been a motivator. I guess success would be having someone I respect patting me on the back and saying “Good job.” To me, success is doing what I know in my heart is right and being able to honestly tell others I gave it my all. If I finish this book and I know without a doubt that I poured my heart and soul into it, then I’ll be happy. If it sells well, that’s a bonus. However, in the end I really just care about being able to say I was true to myself and have no regrets.

      Okay… raise your had if you think there should be a rule here… No comments that are longer than the post itself!… right?

      Comments can be as long as you would like! This post was short because, as I said, I’m running short on time. I probably should have spent an extra hour on this post, but I guess that will just be the trade off until I finish with my project. Regardless, I’m just glad you took me up on the offer to let me know what you think about the writing process.

    2. 🙂
      i will keep you updated. thank you for showing interest. and thank you for following my blog. that’s an honor too. best of “luck”… scratch that… best of hard work with your book!

  3. This post also describes me to a certain extent. Procrastination has always been a bad habit of mine, although I like to think I’m doing a good job at kicking it, especially recently. Given that I’ve had a bit of a bad week, writing has been rather cathartic for me. Always has been during bad times.

    1. I think sometimes when we run up against some particularly tough scenes to write through, that’s when procrastination can set in because sometimes “working” actually involves just sort of staring at the screen trying to figure out what the character is going to say or where the scene will go. You might work on something for two hours and end up with one paragraph. That’s when it’s tough, although if you nailed the scene it’s worth it! I guess it makes you appreciate those times where the words just sort of come naturally.

      Sorry to hear about your week, Carl. If you need an ear (on or off the grid) just let me know.

    2. When I reach tough scenes, scenes that would probably require that I do more research than what I’m used to or even transitioning from one scene to the next, I often feel like I’m running into a mental brick wall at fist. It takes me a while to come up with something when that happens. And you’re right: it DOES make you appreciate the times where the words come naturally. 🙂

      As for the bad week, well…. it’s more or less the usual stuff (hint: an immature younger sister and her pothead boyfriend). My parents kicked them both out this past week (they moved back in last weekend and lasted three days) after they trashed the house, refused to abide by the rules, acted like outright dirtbags (wouldn’t clean up after themselves, wouldn’t clean up after their cats, refused to do any household chores, wouldn’t go look for jobs, etc.) and acted like immature punks. And of course, it’s never her fault. There’s always someone else for her to blame, in this case, my dad. As usual, she acted all nice and managed to convince my parents to let them move in with her… only to turn around and revert to her usual nasty, immature, self-centered self. She called my dad all sorts of nasty names and even said, “I don’t have to listen to a f****ing Republican scumbag like you.”

      That’s a sort of abridged version of events, but suffice to say, it’s gotten so bad that my dad and I had to change the locks to our house and the other day he called AT&T to cancel her cell phone, which I’m pretty sure she pawned off so she could buy more pot. It sounds like my parents have finally gotten fed up with her nonsense, and I’m glad they’ve finally caught on. It took them long enough. I had her figured out years ago. It may sound terrible, but I hope I never see her again. She’s caused nothing but embarrassment and heartache for the family.

      They moved in with her boyfriend’s dad, who is the same age as my mom (50) and has a girlfriend who is 22 years old and was high school classmates with my cousin and they have a baby together… who was recently taken away by Social Services. Ugh. Being a total loser seems to be a common trait in that family.

      So yeah… that’s the gist of it. The one positive of this whole thing is that I’m more motivated to finish my book than ever, since I don’t want to turn out to be a mentally unstable loser like my sister. We also kept one of their cats, but this one is nice and has sort of adopted me as its new owner.

    3. It’s weird that my parents kicking my sister and her boyfriend have come around the same time as this story about a typical self-entitled brat is making the news rounds:

      http://colossus.mu.nu/archives/347639.php

      I hope my sister hasn’t heard about this story. I don’t want her getting ideas. Sad thing is, she has a way of subtly brainwashing people around her and making my folks and I out to be evil.

    4. Try and keep your head up Carl, sometimes people have to learn the hard way that they are making bad choices. Hopefully she’ll grow out of it, and if she doesn’t…….it sounds like you and your family has done all you can do. Even when people act nasty, they still observe those around them, and it’ll be a fine example to her when you write your book. Just reading your comments and blog posts, it’s obvious “Carl” and “mentally unstable loser” do not belong in the same sentence. The silver lining to a bad week is that we can put it in the rear view mirror, so stay strong.

    5. Thanks, Patrick. I appreciate the advice. I think we have done all we can do and really, there isn’t much we can do. It’s been a lousy week and even though it’s in the rear-view mirror for now, it’s going to sting for a while. I’m at the point where I feel inclined to say, “i have no sister” when asked if I have any siblings. It’s sad, but that’s how I feel.

      And perhaps because of all the trouble my sister has caused us (and me as well), the main character of my book is an only child.

    6. Thing is, like I said, I had her figured out years ago. When were were little kids, she was always pretty nasty to me (and others) whenever adults weren’t around and then act all sweet around adults and make me out to be the bad kid. More than once it resulted in me being punished for things I never did but I could never prove that I didn’t do it because adults always believed her over me. However, it wasn’t until she reached fifth or sixth grade, when she started hanging out with a group of really nasty girls and did stupid things like creating a fake Myspace profile for a girl they disliked, that she started on the path toward where she currently is. She became nastier and nastier as the years when on (especially to my dad), and it wasn’t until this past week that my parents finally saw for what she really was.

      At least I hope they’ve finally figured her out, because they have a tendency to reach an epiphany about her and then backtrack on it whenever she cries crocodile tears and pretends to be sorry.

  4. Being a numbers guy, I can’t comment much about writing; however I wish you all the best on your book projects!

    1. Thanks, Patrick. I definitely appreciate a numbers guy. The other day at work I had to do some basic Algebra and it took me a second to recall the rules. The Reuters writer who wrote the story I was reading worked around the math so they didn’t have to do the equation! Perhaps someone wasn’t paying attention in class, I guess.

  5. I can relate to this article. I have numerous published items and yet I still always feel as if I am not good enough when it comes to writing a published work. Granted my work is on books most people would not care to read (I write for college textbooks). I always find my writing style to be dry and I always try to avoid using books that I have worked on in my classes. I have had a good level of success writing for textbooks yet I still just cannot picture myself as a writer.
    I am also very thankful for editors since they always clean up my mess.

    1. Economist Thomas Sowell has a funny story about a student who once came up to him after class and asked him to explain something in the class textbook. When Sowell gave the answer the kid wasn’t happy and kept saying, “that isn’t right.” Sowell kind of laughed and said he was sure that he was right. The student asked how he knew he was right and Sowell replied, “Because I wrote the textbook.” 🙂

      Like I told Patrick, I appreciate numbers guys just as much as anyone else. Everyone has their role to play…

  6. “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing—isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy.”

    There are writers, and then there are writers. As I don’t have the temperament, time, or patience to do long form fiction (although I have tried) and my mind leads me in different directions, I can still relate to the isolation and self searching that involves what I do — songwriting and poetry.

    There’s almost no market for collections of unknown poets, and little more for alternative folk/country music so I have no dreams of publishing or making any profit — I do it in spare time and as a result of a compulsion — a hunger to write. An unconquerable urge to express.

    I spend very little time editing or managing what flows out of the keyboard — it is what it is and although I’ll go back through and change a word or phrase or two, most of what I do is unexpurgated and unabridged. There are plenty of times when I’ve published something, and then thought better of it and took it off my blog, but it remains in my archives to be looked back at in some point in time.

    Neurotic? Yes — it keeps me from going insane.

    Panic? Not usually as I’m not pushed by trying to please or guessing what the reader would like in what I write. They either do (for which I’m grateful) , or they don’t in which case I don’t care.

    If my efforts cause the reader or listener to react, either positively or negatively, then I feel I’ve accomplished something for the effort and the art.

    http://vermontverse.wordpress.com

    1. If my efforts cause the reader or listener to react, either positively or negatively, then I feel I’ve accomplished something for the effort and the art.

      I’m going to have to quibble with you here. (Yes, I said ‘quibble.’) I think the metric you’re using to measure success is so broad that anything you do constitutes “art.” Whatever you write will cause someone to react positively or negatively. There really isn’t a “neutral” reaction because someone who reads your poetry and says “eh” is, essentially, giving you a negative reaction.

      Say you walked into an art gallery and someone had a picture of the president, and on it the “artist” squatted down and sprayed it with diarrhea. Is that “art”? I would say the gallery really just hired an angry guy to poo on a picture of the president. In my opinion, not “art,” even though I reacted negatively. It’s an expression…but not art.

      I guess that’s the age old debate, really. What is art?

  7. You’ve read my stuff — is it art to you ? You make the call, as do all who read and comment.

    If not, then is it fecal matter to you ?

    Or have you no opinion on the subject?

    In the end, whether something is art or not depends entirely on the opinion of the observer.

    1. In the end, whether something is art or not depends entirely on the opinion of the observer.

      And this is where we part ways because, like I said, if any expression becomes worthy of being called art, then the word is meaningless. It’s the whole, “if we’re all special, no one is” debate. That’s why I used the diarrhea example — not because I think what you write is “fecal matter.”

      In terms of critiquing or defining what you do, I’ll take a pass on doing so here. I’d fee like Dan Slott, who takes jabs at what I write on this blog when the audience can’t compare his interpretation of my work with what I actually said. Perhaps one day I’ll take you up on that offer in the comments section of http://vermontverse.wordpress.com.

    1. I’d argue I’m good at preventing the comments section of this blog post from turning into the debate on the merit’s of Jim Zee’s writing. Like I said: if any expression becomes worthy of being called art, then the word is meaningless. That’s the debate I’m willing to have. I’ve provided a link to your blog for those who want to go down that other route.

  8. Now that my mom’s been laid off from her job (she still has four months until she’s officially laid off) , there’s going to more pressure on me (from her) to finish my book. I can almost guarantee that. I have a feeling that it’ll be done when it’s done won’t be a good enough answer for her anymore, not that it ever was…

    Man, this year especially has been one bad event after another for me…. with my sister up to her usual antics, my grandma being in hospice care (she’s still alive, but in bad shape) and now this. I think it’s stupid because my mom’s a hard worker and from what she said, there are plenty of her co-workers who slack off and do nothing, yet they get to keep their jobs. Reward the lazy, punish the hard workers… that’s the motto of today’s society.

    1. I’ve decided that I’m going to use this as motivation to get my book done, once and for all. I let myself be overcome by self-doubt, procrastination and other things.

    2. Procrastination is definitely a killer, that’s for sure! We all suffer from that one. Just know that any time you need an encouraging word you can stop in here. They’re free of charge at this blog (for guys like you).

    3. Thanks. I think eventually that I’m going to start a new blog, too, kind of like what established authors like Larry Correia have. He uses it as one of his main marketing tools. I don’t think it’ll be on Blogspot this time. I may consider using WordPress.

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