Fear and self-loathing and beer writing

If you’re a writer, or if you’re friends with any writers, there’s a good chance you saw this Atlantic article published last week, “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators” by Megan McArdle. I found it uncomfortably familiar for a number of reasons, this bit being the biggest one.

“This fear of being unmasked as the incompetent you “really” are is so common that it actually has a clinical name: impostor syndrome. A shocking number of successful people (particularly women), believe that they haven’t really earned their spots, and are at risk of being unmasked as frauds at any moment.”

It’s wrapped up in beer writing because I started writing about beer before I  knew much about it. On my first assignment I brought a printed out BeerAdvocate guide for how to taste a beer to the bar. I credit most of my success to that being at the right place at the right time–that an editor gave me an assignment, that there were so many breweries opening up that weren’t being covered yet, that I could have the gig if I asked for it (and I did). But I also know that if I can trust anything, it’s my instincts for a good story and craft beer is full of them.

I’m approaching three years of writing about beer, which is longer than I’ve stuck with most things, but a lot less than many others out there. Writing about beer and beer culture has, at least for me, gotten a lot noisier in those last three years. It’s also much more complicated since I left for this weird adventure I’m on. Leaving a job and a city and having no plans beyond a few weeks or a few months out calls everything into question. If I can go anywhere, what am I doing here? If I can write about anything, should I be writing about beer?

I think I’m mostly drained from the noise of craft beer politics, of Twitter and blogs and forums and lists. I can’t tell if  craft beer culture has become more insular and insufferable or if I’m just getting burnt out. I do know that the best stories never come from sitting on your computer, which, as a full-time freelancer, is  what I’ve been doing between days of phone interviews and e-mails and late nights of writing. I often wish I could delete my Twitter and Facebook, but they too have become intertwined with work and networking. I know I’m not writing as much as I could be, and I’m not writing nearly enough of the stories that I want to write–even if no one will publish or pay for them.

“What a jackass,” you’re thinking. “This lady is complaining about writing about beer.” I know writers are notoriously hard on themselves, but the loathing I feel for anything I write feels unusually unhealthy. I often think of this quote that my friend sends me every time I whine about hating what I write. It’s from an interview with Lawrence Weschler in The New New Journalism

The most important thing is to not allow myself to hate myself. When I first started journalism, I just despised myself during these periods. I’d think, ‘I’m lazy, I’m a fuckup, I’m an evil person. Other people are working and I’m doing nothing.’ It is very important to teach yourself that this malaise is part of the process.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean you won’t panic anyway. And it may well be that the panic turns out to be part of what gets you going again later on. You can’t completely help hating yourself, I’ve found. But if you can’t get over that self-loathing at all, it is best to stop being a writer. Because nothing is worth that kind of self-hatred.”

And as McArdle writes for The Atlantic:

Writers who don’t produce copy—or leave it so long that they couldn’t possibly produce something good—are giving themselves the perfect excuse for not succeeding.

‘Work finally begins,’ says Alain de Botton, ‘when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.’ For people with an extremely fixed mind-set, that tipping point quite often never happens. They fear nothing so much as finding out that they never had what it takes.

In conclusion: hate yourself less and get to work earlier. #writing

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  1. It’s not just you. I think the beer writing community is at a precipice of something awesome, at least for the writers who are willing to work and are paying attention. If you had been in the audience this weekend at the Craft Writing Symposium, you’d have had a veritable revelation.

    The single most important take away: we need to dig deeper into the stories behind beer.

    Writing about beer is writing about the lives of beer drinkers, and brewers, and distributors. There are so, so, so many stories out there just waiting to be written, and the beer writing community is still sadly hung up on the same 20 or so ideas, all looping back on themselves without ever really exploring the concepts that matter.

    Good Beer Hunting’s Hill Farmstead review should be our model. Go big. Go journalistic. Stop settling for surface and find a REAL story. Do the work to write a story that pierces the veil of obvious empiricism, and we can rise beer out of frat-house obscurity.

    It’s time to abandon reviews and generic social drinking commentary, and dig into what makes brewing happen, in the fashion of McPhee, Quammen, and Wolfe. It’s time to make beer writing serious writing, that can hold its own with the most complex political and social commentary.

    1. Totally agree with you, Oliver. Wish I could have been at the conference–sounded like an amazing experience, especially that Garrett Oliver talk.

      I’ve always tried to approach beer writing from the story/personal angle, but I feel like I’ve been stuck in this rut for the last few months where I’ve had trouble digging deeper. The best storytelling starts with great reporting and I know I need to get out there more and just talking to people more.

      Will be an interesting next few years to see beer writing develop or change alongside the booming industry. I’m hosting the Session in April on beer writing/beer media, so make sure to save some thoughts for then, too. ; )

      1. Oh! I’m really looking forward to that. I may even go long form, if such a thing is allowed :)

  2. #Longread

    Fear and Self Loathing: The important stuff
    The biggest fear I have is not hating what I write. Over roughly 10 years working in newspapers and other communication outlets, I think I’ve just now started to get comfortable in my “voice.” However, that always comes with the crippling fear of what my editors offer up to my copy, sometimes rearranging paragraphs, deleting words and asking questions I should’ve thought of in the first place.

    It’s what editors are for, after all, but becoming connected to your work down to each individual word choice means those changes can feel like personal assaults on skill, rather than a natural part of the process. I know it’s the latter … but pride, you know?

    I’ll sometimes really like what I write. If I’m lucky enough, it’ll become more commonplace. But I know that there is potential for complacency with finding ones comfort zone and pushing yourself to get out of it can be tough. It’s something I try to do daily.


    Beer Writing: The other important stuff
    I find the one thing I want to read more about deals with connecting the dots of the industry, which I suppose has shaped the way I approach my personal writing about beer.

    We get news reports and facts and figures and opinions scattered all over, but I want to know how these interconnect more than anything. Why are breweries making decisions in relation to the market? How are consumers shaping the industry? Who is most important for these changes?

    These are all pieces of a broader story, one that focuses on socio-economic and cultural factors as much as what that new IPA tastes like. And that’s just scratching the surface.

    There are many areas I believe we’re able to connect, but it’s done rarely and gets lost among the vast numbers of people who write about beer. (Beer writer bubble?)

    Of course, that’s why the writers I admire have risen to the top of our collective heap.

    1. On general writing – I think your first point is something every real writer struggles with, daily. I think I’ve found at least the mewling baby of what will one-day be my voice, but I’m still at the point where I’m only confident in what I’ve written maybe a third of the time.

      But I think that’s healthy. Some of the best say they were never satisfied with their brilliant, award winning work. If we get complacent and decide we’re “good enough,” it’s game over man. You almost HAVE to sort of hate your own work, approach it with a skeptical untrusting eye, just so you can always get the best piece of you out there. At least that’s what I think.

      Oh, and regarding editors. The best will hear your voice and not try to mess with it. Nitpicking or twisting your voice to be more like theirs is the sign of a not-so-seasoned editor.

      On beer writing – I love what you’re doing with finding bigger trends and ideas in the jumble of stats and numerical nonsense. I see very few others trying to do the same. I see the possibility for that to expand into beer sociology, and what our drinking habits say about us as a country (economically and otherwise), using aggregate data to back it all up. I’d read that all day.

      I just wish we could get out of the glass for a few minutes. I’m entirely sick of reading “this is what this tastes like” and “I went here and drank this” articles. Very few probe into anything deeper, and we’re inundated with so many people taking the easy route. The pool is ever expanding outward, but never getting any deeper.

      I think it’s on us to dive, even if swimming at the surface seems much simpler and like much less work.

      1. I really wish more editors tore my stuff apart, to be honest. It frightens me when it goes straight from my final copy to print. That being said, it’s still hard not to take it personally when they do rip it apart, but I know at least it’s almost always better after putting it back together.

        I am with you on looking for new angles to approach beer stories, or looking for ways to make connections between the same stories, which as Oliver says, I think you’ve done very well. I never thought about it from a sociological angle, but I would love to see more stories from that perspective. I’ve written enough brewery profiles that I’ve considered making a Mad Libs template for it. Now trying to figure out which way to head next.

  3. Thoughtful response to that McArdle piece. And for what it’s worth: Being in a “rut” is about the best place possible for person who writes. Rutdom means your brain is gearing up to push you to a place you’d never thought you’d go, a place you’ve not yet imagined. So hang in there. Eventually your brain WILL tell you why it deposited you in that rut. And what lies beyond will be thrilling.

    1. That is very good to hear, especially coming from you. Life beyond the rut is a beautiful vision.

  4. Some good insights on beer writing and writing in general. I had never considered myself a writer when we started The Roaming Pint, but I had to write something to convey what we were doing in our travels. I wasn’t focusing on the stories we encountered but our personal story. Going forward I would like to write less about our journey but the beer travel in general and the stories that surround it.

    My new mantra to avoid perfectionism: When in doubt, push Publish.

  5. […] Fear and Self-Loathing and Beer Writing […]

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