Have you ever started writing a story or a blog post and felt like it wasn’t turning out the way you had envisioned it in your head?
The words aren’t flowing quite the way you would like. Yet, you spent so much time working on it, that you decide to hit publish.
And your audience loves it.
In fact, they love it even more than anything else you have written. They demand more of the same.
What are you to do? Is your writing really as bad as you think?
Something similar happened to Arthur Conan Doyle.
Sherlock Holmes’s Greatest Enemy Wasn’t Moriarty
“I was glad to withdraw Holmes before the public were too weary of him,” Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to a journalist in 1927, several years before Doyle’s death.
It was not, of course, the public that was weary of Holmes, but Doyle himself.
He had already tried to kill off the famous consulting detective in 1893.
In 1891 he had written to his mother, “I think of slaying Holmes… and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.”
His mother’s reply: “You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!”
But in 1893 Doyle followed through with his plan. In “The Final Problem,” Holmes falls to his death while fighting his archenemy, Professor Moriarty, over the Reichenbach Falls.
However, public outcry was so great that Doyle was forced to resurrect the detective.
This article in The Wall Street Journal observes that Doyle “saw his detective fiction as hackwork and strongly preferred to write historical novels. ‘If I had never touched Holmes, who has tended to obscure my higher work, my position in literature would at the present moment be a more commanding one,’ he once complained.”
So who was right? Doyle or the public?
Was Sherlock Holmes really hackwork? Could anyone have written Holmes?
Or was Doyle trivializing his abilities?
The Curious Incident of the Dunning-Kruger Effect
If you’ve ever been in an art class, you’ve probably encountered one or both of these students.
One student draws a picture that isn’t very bad, but isn’t very good either. However, he believes he is quite talented. Another student clearly does have talent, but as soon as his sketch is finished, he crumples it up in a ball and tosses it to the floor, even though everyone else says how much they love it.
This is often described as the Dunning-Kruger effect.
According to Wikipedia:
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. The bias was first experimentally observed by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University in 1999.
Their research also suggests corollaries: highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence, they may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.
In other words, mediocre people tend to be more confident and overrate their abilities.
However, when you’re skilled, you become a harsher critic of yourself. You underestimate your ability compared to others. You don’t realize how good your work is.
This often happens with us fiction writers. We begin writing a story and then grow bored with it or think it is absolutely horrible. However, our friends read it and love it and tell us we must continue writing the story. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to overcome perfectionism.
In Doyle’s case, he thought Sherlock Holmes was a waste of his talents, and that he should be devoting himself to other things. It seems that he didn’t realize how brilliant the stories were.
Are You Undervaluing Your Skills?
I am glad that Doyle decided to bring back Sherlock Holmes.
It is unfortunate that he grew to dislike the stories so much and was not able to see how they would bring enjoyment to millions of readers through the centuries.
Perhaps if he were living today, he would realize that the detective fiction he wrote was not “hackwork” and that he could have been proud of his achievements.
For even though Doyle believed he was capable of writing more serious works, perhaps he should have recognized that his Sherlock stories were equally important.
When we spend time reading Sherlock’s adventures and puzzling through his mysteries, we are transported away from our everyday cares and become spectators and inhabitants of another world. A world where vice seeks to destroy virtue, but where we see justice eventually win.
And that is the true purpose of literature: to uplift and encourage its readers. If our writing impacts just a single person in that way, it has fulfilled its purpose.
Doyle’s life reveals that sometimes we are not the best judges of our work or of what our readers need. And when we crumple up that paper and toss it on the floor, we may not only be sabotaging our creative success but also the joy of others.
The next time we are tempted to do that, we should consider what Doyle’s decision to let Holmes live meant to generations of future readers.
How do you ensure that you are not judging your creative work too harshly? If you enjoyed this post, leave a comment below and share with someone you would like to inspire.