Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
July 2011

The Critic In Your Head and Other Scary Monsters

There are probably writers out there who never have to deal with the fear of writing. I hate them and I hope they all have boils and smelly breath and never get to taste the flavor of salty caramel ice cream. Honestly, I do not think I have ever met a writer who has not dealt with fear, but it's possible that knowing my likely reaction, they have simply chosen not to inform me of this fact, so as to avoid my condemning glare. The writers I know are paralyzed by fear sometimes, but also have to deal with it as a matter of course.

New York Times best selling authors who are sure that the last book was their best one, that their career is over now. Multi-million dollar movie book deal authors who have given up writing because it is too painful to deal with the criticism that comes along with success. And writers who win multiple awards for their beautifully poetic prose and delicate depictions of character and setting who don't know if it's worth it to go through the painful process of writing another book that will never have commercial success. And of course, beginners who have sent out a manuscript or two, had maybe a few dozen rejections, and want some kind of guarantee that if they keep at it, they will eventually be published and that all their hard work will be worth it.

There are no guarantees in writing. No one knows if any particular manuscript will sell. No one knows what the next big hit will be. If editors knew that, they would only buy best sellers. Well, that's not actually true. Editors buy books they love sometimes even if they aren't going to be best sellers. But the big media conglomerates that own publishing houses, if they knew that editors could figure out which books were going to be best sellers, were certainly put pressure on editors to buy only those books. But after having been in this business for a few years and after having watched people vault to success or sometimes just slowly become successful, I will tell you I don't think anyone has an easy time with the problem of the fear of writing.

I am not someone who believes that writers are "special" people, delicate souls who just experience the world differently than everyone else. I don't think that writers have access to a creativity that the rest of the world doesn't have. I don't for a minute believe that writers are more valuable human beings than people who work at a fast food restaurant, at the local car wash, or who pick vegetables in the hot sun. Or CEOs of major corporations, for that matter. Lots of other people have to deal with fear. Policemen and soldiers and firemen live with fear of death. Wall Street businessmen deal with fear of bankruptcy and ruin. I suppose politicians deal with the fear of ruining health care, possibly causing nuclear war, or just having all their mistakes thrown out on the front page. Still, I do think that writers have to deal with a special kind of fear.

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When you become a writer, you are signing up for a job that is more painful than other jobs to your psyche. Even though everyone says that you have to separate yourself from your book and not take rejections personally, the truth is that everyone takes rejections personally, at least a little and at least when they first hit. Your book isn't you, but it sure feels a lot like you. You spill your most intimate thoughts on the page and then you sell those thoughts. There is a kind of arrogance in the idea that people will pay to read your fantasies, but the flip side to that is that when people tell you that your fantasies are trash, that your writing is crap, that your characters are juvenile and that your plot has giant holes in it - it cuts to the heart. Of course, we try not to dwell on such things, but they are real. And the less personal your writing is, I daresay the less interesting it is.

When I wrote as a kid, I had almost none of this fear. I had all these grand dreams of selling novels. For years in junior high and high school, I wrote a series of New Year's resolutions and top of the list was always getting a book published. Not a specific book, mind you, because I didn't often have a manuscript. Some years ended without me writing a word, thus making it impossible for my dream to come true. Other years I wrote something and sent it out, and got a form rejection or two. The fear of writing is something, I am convinced, that is learned. It grows with each rejection, and the more time you spend at school acting as a critic of literature (which is what my degrees are in), the more conscious you are that every word you write will someday be analyzed and deemed good or bad by whole roomfuls of students and academics who write papers on single sentences in a manuscript.

When I tried to write again after graduate school, it was a struggle. I wanted to write something that was literary and deep. I focused more on the words than I did on the story, which inevitably made both worse. But I didn't know how to fix the problem. I wrote a few words a day, less than a page. It was only when I quit my job as a college professor and stopped reading academic papers about other authors' writing that I was able to put aside my own judgments of my writing and work on getting a story down. Once the story is written, I do pay careful attention to every word. I am meticulous with every draft of a manuscript. I want every word to matter. I am a generally clean writer in terms of conveying my meaning properly. But a lot of the revision of a manuscript ends up being scene changes. And until that is done, the more attention you pay to the beauty of your own words, the more impossible it can be to write something that will actually benefit from that kind of attention.

As a published author, I spent many years reading every criticism, every Amazon review, every hint of a mention of me and my novels that I could find. I figured that if I had the right attitude, if I went into a review understanding that it wasn't about me, that I could learn something from each critic, then I would be fine. I had heard authors tell me that they didn't read reviews and I thought they were silly and juvenile. I thought they were a little mentally unbalanced, frankly. I didn't say this out loud, mind you. I am socially challenged, but I am not that stupid. At least, not usually.

And then, I started to notice that when I was working on a new novel, there were these voices in my head. They were the voices of critics. I didn't intend to memorize the stupid Amazon one-star reviews of my book. I didn't pore over them. I read them once, acted like a mature adult, and put them aside. But the thing is, that kind of a review sears into your memory. You can't forget it even if you try. At least, I can't. Maybe you're better at it than I am. Or maybe you are just fooling yourself.

The problem with hearing a critic's voice in your head while you are writing is that it makes it impossible to write a new book. Most authors learn that whatever they thought they knew about writing from an early book, they feel they have to learn all over again for the next one. The openness to learning all over again is part of what makes each new book a wonderful and different experience. If you ever read a book by an author that feels like a retread of the last book, you may wonder what I do - did the author spend too much time reading reviews of that old book?

The second problem with the voice of critics in your head is that the effort of silencing them can sometimes be so intense that the desire to write disappears. It becomes a chore rather than something to look forward to. I suppose this is inevitable in any hobby-turned-career, that some of the pleasure is gone as skills increase and work is done to specifications, on deadline, and because of money. But in order for the work to remain pleasurable to read, I think there also needs to be some play in it, some sense of creative satisfaction to the author.

So I stopped reading reviews, and the barrier when I woke up in the morning began to decrease. Then I learned some other techniques for silencing the critical voices in my head.

Here are a few things that have worked for me. I don't know if they will work for you:

1. Start with a pre-writing exercise. This is often my blog, which I write first in the day so that I can convince myself that yes, I can write. Writing, after all, is just putting words together to communicate clearly your thoughts to another. But I don't have any anxiety about my blog. If you do, that isn't going to be what you should pre-write with. It can be a journal, a list, even something like an exercise log where you write how you feel for the day. Sometimes I have an open document I call "log" where I start describing the scene I want to work on that day, or write a few sentences about what I love in a novel and what I think needs work.

2. Password block my computer and make sure it is in a part of the house where no one can ever have access to my words. This isn't about privacy or about keeping secrets from my family. Virginia Woolfe writes about how important it is to have a room of your own for writing. For me that is true, but not because I need quiet to write. I need a room of my own so that I can protect my fragile writing from the eyes of those who might see its flaws. Other eyes looking at a project before I am ready to share, even if they say nothing, even if they don't even read it, can still increase my anxiety about a project past the point where it is pleasant to work on it.

3. A writing group or a friend who know that their job in a first draft is not to criticize, but to offer encouragement. My children are sometimes useful this way, although I don't ask them to read things before I am ready for at least a little commentary. Sometimes I will ask someone to read an early draft and I will say up front that I only want positive feedback. This doesn't mean that I want them to lie, but only to say things that I should keep. If they begin to tell me the problems, I will want to simply throw the manuscript away and never work on it again because it is too much. If they tell me what is working, then my assumption is that I can keep those parts, and only throw everything else away.

4. Lying to myself. Even if I am on deadline for a project, I sometimes tell myself a series of little lies. Like, I'm only playing with this idea. If I don't like it, I can show my editor something else instead. If it doesn't work out, then they will have to push the deadline out. I lie to myself and say that it doesn't matter, that I don't have to be a writer, that I can get another job. I can be a secretary, I type 100 words a minute. Or I can teach German at a local college. Or become a personal trainer. Or sell handmade projects at craft fairs. I have loads of skills. Failing at writing won't be the end of the world. Or I lie to myself and say that I'm only going to read through what I wrote the day before, not change anything. Just think about it. And I don't have to write anything else today if I don't feel moved to. Or I will tell myself that if I write one page today, then I can be done.

5. Bribery. It works on my kids, and it works on me. There is no reason that you shouldn't bribe yourself. I have chocolate in my office, and I dole it out to myself. If I write a full chapter, then I get a mini candy bar. I know, chocolate isn't good for you. If you have other treats that work, then by all means use them. I work out pretty hard, so I can spare a few extra calories on treats. Find something that really makes you want to sit down and work. For me, it isn't always food. It can be a movie. I slip one into my computer and watch 10 minutes. Then I tell myself that if I write another page, I get to watch ten more minutes. Once when I was really interested in a movie, I ended up writing twenty pages in one day. I also use the internet as a bribe. If I write a page, I allow myself to go to one web site and read whatever I want there before I have to go back and write another page.

6. Being kind to myself. When I go in and teach my fairy tale writing workshop for kids, I make them a promise that when I see their first drafts, I will not correct all their little mistakes. I think this is an important agreement to make with yourself. I'm not saying you don't correct your grammar. Or typos. Those are little things. But treat yourself kindly. If you make a mistake, don't tell yourself that you are a bad writer. If you see a problem in a novel, don't tell yourself that it's time to throw the novel out. Imagine a kind editor in your head, if you don't actually have one yet. Think what that editor would say to encourage you to keep going, and then say it to yourself. Sometimes it helps to actually say it out loud. Or to write it down and put it someplace where you will see it frequently. I'm not saying that you just keep writing when you know that something is wrong. Go back and fix it. But accept that what you are doing is an incredible, difficult thing. Accept that this is part of your process, and that you will get better at it in time.

Writing is not a physically strenuous job. I know that. I am lucky to be a writer who gets paid. I am lucky to have a husband with a regular job that pays the rent and the health insurance. But there are things that are uniquely difficult about being a writer, and my emotional well-being sometimes takes a hit simply because I care so much about my books and my words, and because I put so much of myself into them. I will admit, I have a couple of projects that are so close to my heart that I simply have not yet been able to deal with criticism on them. They are waiting for the day I will be ready. Maybe that day will never come, but for now, those manuscripts are still protected by the need to keep myself sane.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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