My friend, Olivia, posted this blog today about an experience common to writers: Thinking you suck.
It got me thinking about my own involvement with my work. As you know if you’ve read much of this blog, I’ve been writing almost since I can remember. Making up stories. Some have worked and some haven’t so much. Some I got bored with. Some I couldn’t pull off. Some I completed, but didn’t have the chops at the time to translate the grandiose idea to the page. Some turned out to have themes I honestly didn’t want to explore, but trying to ignore them or gloss over them made the work superficial. Some I wrote a lovely first half, put it aside for a while, and forget what was supposed to happen. But I can’t truly say I’ve ever thought my work sucked. Not really. Sure, I get nervous when I hear people are reading it or it’s out for review. I might wonder, “Oh shit, what if it sucks? What if all the good reviews are flukes and THIS ONE PERSON’S negative opinion is the true one?”
This is bullshit, by the way. Even a reviewer’s opinion is only an opinion. Not every book meets with approval from every reader. I’ve hated enough popular books to know this. Unfortunately, it’s common for everyone pursuing some kind of public art to have these kinds of questions. When I was doing my radio show, I could get ten calls from people who thought it was wonderful, and still the single caller who said, “I hate this music! Why are you even on the air?” was the one I remembered. The one who ruined my night.
The point I mean to make is, though there are things I haven’t finished and things that haven’t worked for various reasons, I have never actually in my heart of hearts believed my work categorically sucks. Yes, it can be frustrating. But I believe in my writing ability. I do not suck. My words do not suck. My use of language does not suck. My characters do not suck. Etcetera, ad infinitum.
I mentioned this to my friend, Jennie, and she said: “That’s because you’re a gift to the world of writers: you actually KNOW and can admit when your stuff is amazing.”
This made me angry. Not at Jennie, or at her words, but at the prevelant attitude that writers are supposed to hate themselves and their work until someone else tells them not to. I have been involved with a great many other arts, and in my experience it’s an attitude that you don’t have to deal with anywhere else. Not in music, not in theater, not in dance, not, in my limited experience, in visual arts. (Well, maybe in some types of dance. If you have really bad teachers.) But writers, who already tend to be vulnerable, introverted, and fearful of sharing their passion, are encouraged to hate themselves in the name of personal growth.
New Flash: Hating yourself does not in any way contribute to personal growth. It might give you an impetus to change. But once you’ve decided to do the work, it just gets in the way.
Right now I see this attitude contributing to the Self vs. Trad publishing wars. Militants in the Self camp are tired of “gatekeepers” deciding what does and does not constitute good writing–especially since a lot of Trad publishing seems to care less about writing quality that it does about trends that will sell and fitting within some arbitrary appropriate word count. Militants in the Trad camp are worried about their hard work being devalued if just anybody can do it, and point to the unfortunately large number of self-published books whose authors have not taken the time or paid the attention necessary to turning out a professional, finished product. (And in case you wonder, although I chose self-publishing, I am not in either camp. I’m very glad that writers have a wide variety of options these days and I think you should pick what works for you. I ALSO think you need to put your work under objective eyes before publishing it and spend as much time cleaning it up as you did writing it in the first place.)
So what causes this attitude? How is it we encourage writers to practice self-hate? Well, I see a couple of things. One is the way we tend to view writers, particularly novelists, as inhuman creatures who kind of pop into being, like Athena springing from the skull of Zeus. Unless a writer has a particularly interesting (and often tragic) life story, we forget them. In school–at least in my school–we studied literature, but we paid very little attention to the process that produces it. I can tell you about Freytag’s Analysis and how it applies to Virginia Woolf. I can’t tell you Virginia’s relationship with her characters, or how she discovered the road from Point A to Point B.
Another thing is, writers might be great poets or story-tellers, but it doesn’t mean they know the first thing about communicating as human beings. One of the most traumatic things that I have experienced in my writing process took place at the Naropa Summer Writing Program, which I attended in 1986. At the time I was writing poetry almost exclusively, partly because that was the focus of the program and partly because college level creative writing at the time meant writing poetry. The End. (Aside: I never, ever, have taken a course that explains in clear, concise detail how to write fiction, much less genre fiction. Analysis, yes. How To Do It, no.) So, I was in a workshop with a famous and rather brilliant poet, and I was asked to share what I was working on. I did, and the famous and brilliant poet reamed me up one side and down the other for presenting such garbage and wasting his time, and why the fuck did I think I could write, and on and on and on. I was in tears. Afterward, almost everyone else in the class came to me privately to say the guy was out of line and my poetry was actually rather lovely. But that incident sticks with me. With the perspective of time, I have come to think a couple of things: This brilliant and famous poet was AN ABUSIVE ASSHOLE who got off on screaming at people with less power than he had. And possibly, just possibly, he had no idea how to talk to another person or how to give effective critique. To say, “You know, this theme is interesting, but you should look at tweaking the phrasing here and using a more powerful word here.”
This is something I’ve learned over the years. I’ve mentioned it before, and I will no doubt do so again: People. Please. Learn to give effective feedback. Any writer worth his or her salt should understand that the world is not black and white. “You suck” and “You’re great!” do not constitute anything I need to listen to.
Because some writers don’t actually communicate well, we get nauseating little sound bites of technique advice. You know what’s coming, don’t you? Yes, my all-time least favorite thing ever: Kill Your Darlings!
When I first heard this, I thought it meant you should kill characters you’re attached to because it will be good drama. (FACT: When I started writing the Caitlin Ross books, I thought, “I’m going to have to kill Timber at some point, aren’t I? Because it would be good drama.” I have since gotten over this. Timber will continue to go through immense shit from time to time, but I’m not going to kill him.)
Later, I learned that “Kill Your Darlings” means you should eliminate any paragraph or phrase you’re attached to.
Okay, I will admit there is something to this. My favorite poetry prof, Ken Mikolowski, said it like this: “If you have a poem with one excellent, shining line, you should probably axe that line because it will stick out like a sore thumb. Instead of it shining, it will bring down the whole rest of the work by comparison.” Irish singer Niamh Parsons spoke of voices blending in a choral situation: “You don’t want one or two people going off into ornamentation, even though they might do it in a solo piece. In a choir, the whole sound is what matters.”
Your novel is a choir, with many voices blending to create a smooth whole. So yeah, a single, shining line, a line you love, that you think is so awesome, might have to go to preserve the whole.
However. I see a lot of writers doing THIS:
“Kill my darlings, kill my darlings, Ima axe everything I think is good because I DON’T KNOW WHAT GOOD REALLY IS AND I SUCK!”
Back up. What was that? Okay, yeah: we all fall victim to hyperbole and the occasional purple prose. Especially those of us writing Epic Fantasy. It goes with the territory. But there’s a huge difference between being able to recognize when you’ve taken a description or a turn of phrase too far and actually sucking. “I suck” is a value judgment. It isn’t helpful, and it only makes you feel bad. “This doesn’t work here” is something else entirely.
When you get right down to it, I am a terrifyingly practical person and I like practical solutions. I am always going to ask what works and what doesn’t. This is a question more writers need to learn to ask in a way that doesn’t make them throw up. Does it work? Why or why not? If it doesn’t, how can I fix it? And you know what? If it works, it’s totally all right to like it. Be proud of it, even. You’ve done something not everyone can do, and that’s a good feeling! You’re allowed to feel good about your passion! Society often sets us–people in general–up to dismiss ourselves. We don’t want to appear stuck up or, gods forbid, “Get the Big Head.” But in the words of Sherlock Holmes,
“My dear Watson, I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers.”
Or in the much shorter phrase attributed to Apollo: “Know thyself.”
It’s good to evaluate and discern. It’s good to be able to apply a critical eye to your work, to find and fix the flaws. But flaws don’t mean you suck. Being critical doesn’t mean you suck. They just mean you’re not done.
Writers: Start practicing liking your work. It’s okay. It’s even beneficial. Once you get rid of that load of baggage weighing you down, think of all the places you might go!