So, the other night, I posted this Tumblr meme to my Facebook page:
I both like and dislike it. I like it because it uses superheroes many, if not most, people are familiar with as examples of struggle and perseverance. This is something Geek-minded folks, who may not find more common inspirational memes accessible, can relate to. I dislike it because I dislike inspirational memes in general. At their best, they reduce significant struggles to simplistic terms. At their worst, they become “inspiration porn,” a nasty internet phenomenon that hurts all people with disabilities, whether physical or mental. Bearing this in mind, when I shared the meme, I said I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or whether it made me want to shove my fist through a wall. Soon after posting, I went to bed.
When I checked Facebook the next day, a couple of my friends (with one exception all women with a variety of chronic illnesses) had commented. Nothing major, but the general consensus was “Fist through wall.” Several mentioned that the characters were fictional (IMO, not a stumbling block to taking inspiration from them), or that at least two are fabulously wealthy–a reality which, if it doesn’t solve problems, does, in fact, make them infinitely easier to bear. One friend noted that the list doesn’t include any woman superheroes, which made her think that it was geared toward “TEH MENZ.”
Oh, my. Haven’t we learned by now the danger of pointing our sexism and misogyny in Geek culture? Apparently not. Not long after my friend posted this last comment, this happened:
A male friend came onto the scene. I think it’s relevant to point out that he isn’t a close friend; he’s someone I picked up from one game or another and kept after I stopped playing because I genuinely like him. But I don’t know him beyond Facebook, and he doesn’t know me. On the other hand, I’ve been extremely close to the women involved for years.
So this male friend starts off with how he thinks people on the Internet just take things “way too seriously” sometimes, and the meme was meant to be a positive message against suicide, and that’s all. And then he goes on about every character mentioned, and how the creator probably picked ones that resonated with him, and how comic book characters have always been sources of inspiration and on and on AND ON FOR ALMOST 1000 WORDS.
One of the original woman commenters, who wrote her B.A. thesis on censorship in comic books, replied with a refutation of some of the things the man said and pointed out that the meme addresses movie versions of the characters rather than the comic book versions, which made his examples inapplicable. He replied by saying she was still “missing the point” in that we were “nitpicking whether these heroes were good enough to convey the message.” And on for another 1000 words or so, describing various iterations of the characters in Golden and Silver Age comics.
That’s where I stepped in and said enough. I told him IMO he was the one missing the point, which was that no one was trying to nitpick whether the heroes were “good enough” to convey a positive message, but that we dislike inspirational memes in general, that all of us have various chronic illnesses which are more than a matter of “just suck it up and keep fighting,” and that he took the entire conversation out of context. Plus, where the heck did he get that it’s an anti-suicide meme, because I don’t see that anywhere. I actually may not have stated things as clearly as that. Yesterday the whole incident had me so livid I could hardly bear to read the thread; today as I write this and look at it, it all seems way less loaded. In retrospect, I probably should have mentioned that I have an “Always Keep Fighting” sweatshirt which I love to death (Thank you, Jared Padelecki). Another woman friend got into the fray, mentioning that the meme almost offended her because how the Hell was her experience supposed to be comparable with a superhero’s?
Dude comes back with ANOTHER lengthy, point-by-point essay full of this, that, and the other, by the end of which he’d kind of admitted that he flew off the handle because he’s seen a lot of nastiness around this particular meme, and said he considered it anti-suicide because he got it from a suicide prevention page, and even managed to apologize in words. Kudos to him. But he still thought my one friend was missing the point.
Anyway, that really should have been the end of it, but later my feed barfs up a lengthy status update from him. This guy’s status updates are rarely shorter than 1000 words, and I mostly enjoy them, especially when he takes down inaccurate religious memes. He and my dad would have loved each other. Well, this one started with how he doesn’t generally agree with the Right about political correctness ruining everything, but you can be overly critical of innocuous stuff, and THERE’S THIS ANTI-SUICIDE MEME…. etc, and “more than one person who shared it even stated that they didn’t know if they loved it or hated it.” *clutches pearls*
Okay, enough. I restrained myself all night and most of today. Done now.
Dude, first off, do you really not understand the concept of irony, or can you just not apply it to yourself? You come into a thread where people are having a relatively light-hearted discussion about their problems with a meme and proceed to lecture them AT LENGTH about “taking innocuous things too seriously,” to the point where it took me telling you to back the fuck off to get you to disengage, and then you complain about it to the public? Who’s taking things too seriously now?
In the second place, I have no idea if you’ve ever experienced suicidal ideation, but I doubt it, because if you had, you’d know it’s FAR from innocuous. It’s a fucking killer. People lose the fight every single day. I’ve attempted suicide more than once, which is why I have a fucking semicolon tattooed on my wrist–NOT because I love proper punctuation, although I do. So have several of my dear friends, and let me tell you, when you get to that point it takes more than a shitty meme about metahumans to motivate you to keep breathing. Fuck you for dismissing the pain of that. And fuck you twice for taking issue with people who have to find reasons to go on living every day pointing out that your “innocuous” meme is problematic. In case you hadn’t heard, you can like things and STILL critique problematic elements in them.
In your extended status of yesterday evening, you cite a problem in the LGBT+ community of safe spaces designed for that community (the gay male community in particular) being welcoming to others not of that community (straight women in particular), who then complained that the safe space wasn’t designed for them and, in effect, tore it down while while being unwelcoming to those who had sheltered them when they built their own safe spaces. Back to irony, you did the exact same thing on my post: You came into a space that was not yours and insisted it play by your rules. In addition, you took exception to people who have actually attempted suicide not loving your “positive message” against it. I thought you were better than that, honestly. If a marginalized group has issues with a piece of media purporting to address that group, then you need to shut up and listen instead of getting all butthurt when people in the group say “THIS DOESN’T WORK.”
But you know what? I think it boils down to sexism. I think you saw some women discussing something they found problematic, and I think you saw my friend’s reference to TEH MENZ, and you could not help but jump in to mansplain to us that we were the ones taking things too seriously and taking things out of context and whatever-the-hell else you felt we wimminz weren’t “getting” because you couldn’t STAND for us to have opinions that differed from yours. It would have been easy enough not to engage–as I chose not to engage beyond one comment (and okay; I’m lying, it wasn’t easy at all, but hey, KEEP FIGHTING THOSE IMPULSES LIKE BATMAN). It would have been easy enough to let it go, to say, well, these people have a different take, this meme doesn’t work for them. But you didn’t. You had to let us know just HOW WRONG you thought we were, and how much better you know about all things superhero than we do. Because misogyny.
I don’t know what you meant to achieve aside from parading your own knowledge, but I can tell you one thing you did achieve: I trust you less than I did yesterday morning. As I said above, I enjoy your rants. I enjoy your takedowns of idiotic memes. But having been on the receiving side of one, I now have to wonder how many times, when you’ve complained about people just not understanding, you’ve painted an inaccurate picture putting yourself in a more positive, and them in a more negative, light than objectivity dictated. How many times have people on the Right with whom you’ve interacted been far more civil and more articulate than you let on? Because I’ve learned you’re loath to admit wrong, and you love having the last word.
I’m going to post this on Facebook. I’m going to post it to a restricted list you are no longer part of, because I don’t trust you anymore. Not because I can’t take criticism, but because you can’t. And in the event you stumble across this anyway, through a mutual acquaintance or just through the randomness of the Internet, I leave you with this reward:
I follow a page on Facebook, Chronic Illness Cat. It’s essentially an on line support group for people with chronic illnesses, mainly physical ones like Fibromyalgia and other auto-immune disorders, but I find their content relevant to mental health issues as well. People can post questions about medications and talk about their struggles, and there’s always someone who can say, “You’re not alone.” In my opinion, this is one of the main reasons support groups exist: to validate people’s experience.
One of the most popular features of Chronic Illness Cat is member-created memes. These feature the eponymous Siamese cat along with pithy, usually humorous, comments about living with a chronic illness. The humor is generally the dark, frustrated variety you use when you’re reaching to find some light in a miserable situation. It pokes fun at the illness and illustrates the common experience of people who are doing their best on a daily basis to cope with the hand they’ve been dealt. Critique of well-meaning healthy people, the medical establishment, and the illnesses themselves bear witness to the lives of those with chronic illnesses and provide an avenue for bonding and commiseration. It’s the kind of thing you can look at while shaking your head and laughing quietly: “Oh, gods, I know that one. Me, too. Doesn’t life suck sometimes?”
Last week, one of these memes caused an ugly incident on the page, which involved accusations of promoting “ableist” language, insensitivity, “throwing the neurodivergent under the bus,” and the like. In fact, the moderator of the page, who herself copes with chronic illness, received death threats and suggestions that she should kill herself. All because one of the memes she posted contained the word “stupid.”
Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that SENDING DEATH THREATS TO A PERSON IS NEVER AN ACCEPTABLE RESPONSE TO SOMETHING THAT UPSETS YOU, the incident pretty much exemplifies the problems I have with critiques of “ableist” language, and language policing in general, not to mention a tendency I’ve seen all over the Internet to take offense at every little thing and smear trigger warnings on shit that is pretty much part of life, and can you just please get a grip?
Look, I’m a writer. I understand the power of words and terminology. I understand that changing the way we use language is an integral part of changing the way we think. I understand that learning new language actually makes our brain able to access new concepts. I believe in language as a political tool that can be used both to oppress and to overcome oppression. I’ve even touched briefly on my irritation with people’s tendency to co-opt mental health terms to refer to everything from the weather to nail polish, here.
I’m also “disabled,” which is a word I personally hate, but it makes a convenient shortcut into a particular concept (and more about that later). I dislike feeling as if I have to offer credentials for my disability, but for the information of anyone who doesn’t know and who might be reading this blog, I have Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, Social Anxiety and other “mental illnesses,” as well as chronic migraines, all of which are severe enough that I managed to convince the United States Government that they actually do prevent me from running out and getting a job at the Stop and Save on the corner of the highway–no easy feat, let me assure you.
I know a thing or two about language, and I know a thing or two about disability, and I am confident that I can make a judgment in this area. And my judgment is that most people who complain about “ableist” language have no idea what they’re talking about. And when you get reactive without knowing what you’re talking about, you run the risk of undermining your entire point.
I’ve found discussions of “ableist” language irritating for some time now–perhaps ever since I first became aware of it as an issue. But I never could quite articulate why or how they irritated me. Plus, I am a strong proponent of the right of any marginalized group to define itself–i.e., if a disabled person says something is a problem, then we need to accept that it’s a problem, the same way we have to accept it if an Indigenous person says something non-Indigenous people do is a problem, whether we like it or not. However, there is a difference between misuse or oppressive use of language that is a problem to everyone in a marginalized group and that which is a specific trigger to an individual. This is where I see critique of “ableist” language falling down.
I try to keep an open mind and educate myself in all aspects of intersectionality, or at least as many as I am aware of and can keep track of. In the wake of the Chronic Illness Cat fracas, I stumbled across this article about “ableist” language, which I read in an attempt to make some sense of the entire thing. And what I found was, instead of shining a light on the issue, it in many ways exemplified my personal problem with the whole subject. It starts out with some common disability metaphors: “The economy is crippled by debt;” “He’s blind to his privilege:” etc,. and points out that these metaphors are common in our language and culture and that they are “almost always pejorative.” Okay, right here I have a problem. I don’t think the word pejorative was used appropriately, in the first place. The definition of the word I could find that makes the most sense is “disparaging.” Myself, I don’t see either of those uses (or any in the other examples) as disparaging as much as pointing out an actual thing that is happening. For example, a person who is blind, for one reason or another, actually can’t see. Yet “seeing” can take many shapes aside from processing visual stimuli. Sure, there are lots of other ways you might say “blind to his privilege” that don’t use the word “blind.” You might say he “can’t perceive” it, or “can’t see” it, or any number of other things. And this begs the question: How would those be less “ableist?” How is”can’t see” better than “blind?” The answer is, it’s not.A person could just as easily object to one as the other. You could just as easily object to “can’t perceive,” or “is unaware” or anything else on down the line, because words don’t have just one meaning. Even a lot of words that have been used in bad ways. I’m sorry for the state of the language, but it’s simply the truth. Once you start eliminating the words you don’t like because they may have at once time been used to oppress, there is no clear stopping place.
One of the first things the article in question says is, ableist words, “perpetuate negative and disempowering views of disabled people, and these views wind their ways into all of the things that most people feel are more important.” I have to say, “Well, yes and no.” Some do. Simply using the word, though–this is something I have to question. Going back to my first example, does “blind” say something negative about people who can’t see, aside from giving the information that they can’t perceive and/or process visual information? I’d have to say no. The word itself implies no value judgment. If you want to argue that disability is, in itself, seen as negative, that’s something different. I’d have to take the stance that since we talk about DISability, that in itself implies that there’s something negative about it (which is one reason I dislike the term). So maybe let’s look at that, instead. But I’d bear in mind that many, if not all, people with disabilities would probably trade them for good health and able bodies, were it in their power to do so. To me, that says that we, the disabled, ourselves see disability in a negative light. And I believe this is something that needs to be addressed before you go around policing other people’s language.
At another point, the article has this to say:
“Think about it this way: Consider that you’re a woman walking down the street, and someone makes an unwanted commentary on your body. Suppose that the person looks at you in your favorite dress, with your hair all done up, and tells you that you are “as fat as a pig.”
Is your body public property to be commented upon at will? Are others allowed to make use of it — in their language, in your hearing, without your permission?
Or is that a form of objectification and disrespect?
In the same way that a stranger should not appropriate your body for his commentary, you should not appropriate my disabled body — which is, after all, mine and not yours — for your political writing or social commentary.”
Here’s my problem with this example: In the first instance, that of a stranger making an unwanted commentary on a woman’s body, the event is personal.Someone has addressed another person to their face and made a judgment: “You’re as fat as a pig.” But using words like “blind,” “crippled,” “paralyzed,” and what have you in the context of social commentary is not personal. The two incidents are not the same. And if it hits you on a personal level every time you see the word, whether or not it’s directed at you, that’s your problem, not that of society at large. That’s your trigger. You can look at why such and such a thing triggers you, you can make people aware of it; you can ask for accommodation. But it is not always possible to make triggers disappear–and, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be. I get triggered by graphic depictions, in word or film, of emotional abuse. When I come across them, I can skip a few pages, or cover my head with a blanket until the scene is over, or leave the room, or eat chocolate, or any number of other things. I don’t start a movement to abolish depictions of emotional abuse from all forms of media, because not everyone has the same triggers. Some people may even find the things that trigger me to be of immense benefit. And when you try to demand that everyone just stop doing shit that triggers you, you both undermine the whole purpose of trigger warnings and give ample ammunition to a segment of society that believes the whole concept is a sign of weakness and laziness.
As far as the Chronic Illness Cat meme goes, I saw a few comments from people who don’t like the word “stupid,” because that particular word has been used to bully them. And that’s valid. People with learning disabilities, in particular, often are demeaned as “stupid” and “hopeless” (are we going to censor that word, too?), among other things. But, at the risk of repeating myself, personal triggers are not necessarily ableist language. I, myself, am triggered by the word “ugly.” For me, that word is incredibly loaded. I cannot conceive of demanding that we remove the word from common usage because it perpetuates a negative stereotype of those with non-normative appearance. No more can I imagine demanding we cease using the word “fat” because it’s been used to vilify people of size.
There are words that only have one meaning, and that meaning is meant to degrade. “Cunt,” “Nigger,” “Redskin,” “Moron,” “Retard,” “Chink,” “Spic,” and any number of other racist, sexist, homophobic and ableist slurs. By all means let’s challenge them where they appear. Let’s work to excise them from our vocabularies. But let’s make a distinction between language that really is hateful and harmful and stuff we just don’t like. Otherwise we make it harder for others to take us seriously, and we actively sabotage the very battles we’re trying to fight.
I’m fully expecting that some people will not take kindly to my point of view in this area, and I reserve my right to be proactive about my mental health. Comments are closed.
The other day on my Twitter feed, I stumbled into a conversation about writer’s block. I’ve addressed the topic before in other blogs, but never here. And I wouldn’t have decided to address it here, excepting that the conversation shed some light on an issue I’ve been peripherally aware of for a long time: Whether or not writer’s block actually exists. (Spoiler: I believe it does.)
If you want, you can read some articles supporting the idea that writer’s block is a myth here, here, and here. You can even reference this Google search. All of the articles dismissing writer’s block as a real phenomenon say pretty much the same thing: It’s an excuse people make for not doing the work. It’s lazy and you should “just power on through it.” Sometimes people will acknowledge that maybe there is some other thing–life stress, a change in the weather, self-doubt–interfering with a person’s ability to write. But writer’s block as an issue in and of itself…no, that’s not possible.
All right: Nothing exists in a vacuum. Writer’s block as I have experienced it is intimately related to many other factors, and the presence of those other factors may make writer’s block more likely to appear. (In disease theory, this is known as “co-morbidity.”) But dismissing writer’s block because other things may contribute to it is like dismissing someone’s depression because they also suffer from hypothyroidism. Treating the second does not necessarily cure the first. Also, I’m going to come right out and say that any time I hear anyone say “It’s a lazy excuse and you should just muscle through,” or if I read those words, my head explodes. It’s an ignorant and judgmental stance. “Lazy” is a word meant to shame, both when other people use it toward you or you use it on yourself. It comes from a reality where everyone must be engaged in productive industry all the time, where work for its own sake is accounted the highest virtue. After all, you don’t want to go to hell like those naked heathens who pull fruit off the trees and lounge naked on the beach all day! White Westerners have a tendency to believe that any easy path is invalid, and it shows up in attitudes toward making art as well as in everything else. And as for “just muscle through,” that advice may be wonderful for healthy folks in ideal situations. It’s not the reality of most people most of the time.
So what is writer’s block?
I actually think about this a lot, because although I have “been a writer” virtually all my life (okay, since first grade), when I add up all the years, I have spent a great many more of them not writing than I have writing. Sometimes it’s been through choice, and sometimes not. Sometimes I’ve had ideas that fizzled when I tried to put them on the page, sometimes I’ve had ideas too distant or uninteresting in the moment for me to put them in any coherent form, and sometimes I’ve had no ideas at all. All those experiences are subjectively different. So are all of them writer’s block? Some of them? None at all?
I think any discussion of writer’s block needs to begin with defining what it means to be a writer. My handy dictionary tells me “writer” means “1. One who has written something” or “2. One who writes as an occupation, an author. ” This is practically useless, because it encompasses just about every literate person on the planet. If I go to “author,” the results aren’t much better. I find 1. “The original writer of a literary work,” 2. “One who practices writing as a profession,” and 3. “The original creator of anything.” I could go on unpacking by looking up “literary,” or “profession,” or even “creator.” It wouldn’t be helpful.
Looking at my writing friends and my life experience, my personal definition of “writer” is as follows: “A person who is dedicated to the process of making art with words as their medium.” I find this a useful definition, because it encompasses both those who write as a profession and those who don’t (or don’t yet), those who are currently engaged in “writing behavior” and those who, for one reason or another aren’t. “Writing behavior,” to me, describes the Gestalt of the writing experience and can include research, plotting, thinking about what happens next, and even sitting in your recliner staring into space while things gel as well as the act of setting words on the page. Since every person’s process is different, everyone’s writing behavior is also going to look a little different from everyone else’s. AND THAT’S FINE. It’s up to every artist to find their own definition of success, and their own way of achieving it.
Digression: This is the main reason I have an extremely hard time with “writing rules.” Rules–especially rules about art–presuppose everyone has the same process and that there’s some magic code for unlocking success. It ain’t true. I have a particular dislike of the biggest rule of all: Write Every Day. What other profession requires of its practitioners that they go to work every single day, whether they feel like it or not? You don’t hear “Paint Every Day” or “Do Spreadsheets Every Day.” Granted, working in the arts differs substantially from working in an office or as a physician. There are times when you DO engage in your art every day, especially if you’re learning a new technique or absorbed in a new piece. And since art, and one’s relationship to it, is ever-changing, it’s a good idea to keep your hand in. But once you reach a certain level of skill and professionalism, writing simply to write every day can be a waste of energy. [N.B. As far as arts go, music and acting are a bit different because they’re more body-centered. When I don’t play the flute or sing for an extended period of time, I lose skill. I get rusty. I don’t experience the same thing with writing. Even so, taking a weekend or a few days off from scales and tunes actually makes you better when you pick up your instrument again, because you’ve had a chance to absorb the practice. And in this case, the experience of writing is the same.]
Will you PLEASE get to the point?
Okay, fine. Writer’s block. In my experience, there are three kinds. I’m not saying these are the only kinds, mind. But these are the ones I’ve been through personally and feel competent to discuss: Depression-related, Fear-centered, and Wrong Direction. They can occur simultaneously (there’s that co-morbidity factor again) and in any combination of intensity.
Depression-related writer’s block is both the easiest and the hardest to deal with, and it’s the one that’s most interfered with my engaging in writing behavior. When I first started writing in a serious way, around about eighth grade, it was all joy and puppies. Writing was my escape and my haven. I loved the process of letting the story unfold, the time when I entered a different world where nothing hurt me. I loved the feeling of doing something I was good at. I looked forward to opening up my notebook and taking up my special pen and seeing what happened next. It was delightful and it was easy. I didn’t have to struggle the way I did in my non-writing life. Every contest I entered, I won first prize, and that was pretty keen, too.
And then my depression got worse and the words dried up. Just like that. One day I opened up my notebook, more out of habit than for any other reason, and I felt nothing at all. The story didn’t come, the characters didn’t speak, and I didn’t see the landscape. I’d stopped caring.
For at least five years after that, I didn’t write at all. Not a single word. Not even in my journal. I didn’t agonize over it, because I was too sick. I wasn’t even sure I’d live to see the next day–no one was–so whether or not I wrote wasn’t important. When I came out of that first bad episode, I remembered my writing self, and for the next ten years or so I sometimes wrote and sometimes didn’t. I dropped into and out of degree programs in writing and turned out the occasional short story when the spirit moved me. But mostly it didn’t move me. I got down on myself for “being lazy” and “waiting around for inspiration,” both of which I had learned were the wrong way to go about writing. But the truth was, when I didn’t have any inspiration, I didn’t have anything. I lacked the spark, the thing that made me write in the first place. So I figured I wasn’t a writer at all. I did some other things. I got a degree in Dance Therapy and worked as a counselor in a women’s shelter. I facilitated workshops on women’s spirituality. I developed a radio show.
In my better times, the times when I felt most alive, I still wrote. I actually finished a couple first drafts of novels (including the one that would become The Unquiet Grave). More often, I got halfway through a story, lost my impetus, and stopped. Not because I didn’t want to do the work. Because I didn’t care.
In the mid-2000s, my depression got debilitating again. I did virtually nothing for five years but sit on the couch and stare into space, and I ended up hospitalized and over-medicated. Eventually, late in 2009, after trying about every antidepressant medication on the market and many combinations thereof, my doctor prescribed me a new one, and it worked. Before that point, I had never believed the stories of antidepressants changing people’s lives, but that one did. By January of 2010, I had started writing again. It wasn’t hard or unnatural. I didn’t have to think about it. I just opened up the manuscript of The Unquiet Grave and began to work, as if I had never left off. Since then, I’ve taken a few breaks (some lengthy). But I’ve never again lost the ability to write at all.
That’s what it looked like when I couldn’t write because of depression (and I want to make it clear that I mean the debilitating mental illness and not just feeling blue and out of sorts, or even lacking energy because of other life factors). I couldn’t “muscle through” because there was no muscle and no through. It was the hardest thing to conquer because it took thirty years of trying different medications before anyone even invented one that worked on my brain chemistry. It was the easiest because I’d also done thirty years of therapy, so once the meds kicked in everything fell into place. I didn’t have to work or try–not very hard, anyway. The words returned in the same way they had dried up, suddenly and without warning.
If you are clinically depressed or believe you might be, GET HELP. Find someone to talk to. Use your support system. Talk to your doctor or another person you trust. You may want to try the medication route. Keep in mind that psychoactive medication does not work for everyone, and even when it works, it takes time.
Fear-centered writer’s block is the one I believe most people think of when the term comes up. It’s probably the most common, and it may be the most responsive to the advice to “power on through.” The tricky thing about it is that we don’t always know what we’re afraid of, or even that fear is the thing keeping us from writing. Fear is a difficult emotion to process, and our culture doesn’t make it any easier by painting fear in a negative light, as something only weak people experience. So when you have a fear-centered block, it can present a lot of different ways. It might be a lack of interest or an inability to focus. It might be that the ideas you came up with in the coffee shop, or on your daily walk, or lying in bed at night dribble away or vanish when you try to put them on the page. You might make excuses for not writing, like not having time or other things in your life being a priority right now. This is when turning writing into a discipline by setting aside a dedicated time to write regularly and sticking to it whether or not you feel like it can actually be helpful. And for some people, this works.
The problem is, when you “power on through,” you haven’t actually faced the fear that’s causing the block in the first place. And when you don’t confront a fear, it finds ways to come back and bite you in the ass. So while it might work in the short run to work on your discipline, in the long game it’s possible that writing will become harder and harder until you’re banging your head against your desk because you simply can’t make it work. Or you get stuck on writing the same page over and over, “making it better,” because every time you look at it you only see the flaws. And this reinforces all the negative self-talk that likely is the source of your fear.
In this case, what you need to do it take a deep breath and ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Try to be honest. Some fears are common. People fear the empty page. This is one I’ve never had to deal with personally, so I’m afraid I’m not really sure what it’s about–maybe the idea that YOU’RE ABOUT TO CREATE SOMETHING AND IT HAS TO BE SIGNIFICANT takes over. To this I can only say, nothing has to be anything. Loosen up. A description of your cat sleeping or of your lunch is still writing, even if it isn’t the Great American Novel that will win awards and earn millions. Let go of your expectations of yourself. Give yourself a break. Every writer churns out thousands and thousands of words that never see the light of day, much less publication, and that’s fine. Or maybe you have an image labeled “WRITER” somewhere in your brain and the idea that you might not measure up terrifies you. In that case, too, it’s maybe a good idea to go back to the simple dictionary definition: A writer is a person who has written something. There’s no value judgment involved. If you’ve passed notes in school, you’ve written something. Maybe someone–or multiple people–has dismissed your ability, or your dream, or sneered at the idea of you being a writer, and you want to prove them wrong by making a success at it. Maybe there’s a quiet voice in your brain telling you “maybe they were right all along!” This is a lot of baggage you’re bringing along to your work. I’ve found an effective technique for dealing with it is to make a pact with yourself, and with that doubt, that you’re not going to bring that baggage into your writing time. You write for you and not that voice. So what it thinks doesn’t matter.
Another thing I’ve discovered about fear-centered writer’s block is that it often strikes when you’re about to get better at writing. Remember how I described writing being easy and full of joy, way back in the long ago (both of my life and of this blog post)? A lot of that writing, from a critical standpoint, wasn’t very good. It was derivative and it rambled. The characters didn’t have clear motivations, and I had no idea how to plot. Later, I discovered that good writing is actually work, and that it doesn’t happen quickly. My joy level diminished exponentially because I was no longer able to fall right into a different world. I had to think about it. And when my joy level diminished, I began to wonder why I was writing in the first place. Not being able to answer this question kept me from writing at all. I had to make a leap of faith, convince myself that whether I experienced joy in the moment or not didn’t really matter, because the act of writing mattered. When I realised this, I started writing again and the writing was better. I’ve gone through this cycle over and over again, and I’ve learned that some days are great and some aren’t; some days I’m “in the zone” and some days I’m not. And this is okay. I miss the joy and the spark when they aren’t there. I feel frustration on the days when writing is drudgery. But I don’t waste time on longing for it (not much, anyway), or berate myself for not experiencing it.
In the end, you have a lot of power over fear-centered writer’s block, because you’re the only one who can figure out the nature of your fear and what you need to do about it. If sometimes that means stepping away for a while, that’s okay. (Yeah, it becomes more frightening and problematic if you’re operating under a deadline. But even in that case, taking a reasonable break usually does more good than harm.)
I guess Going the Wrong Direction may not be a type of block on its own, but I mentioned it, so I’m going to talk about it (even though this blog is already 3000 words long and shows no sign of ending anytime soon). It has a lot in common with fear-centered block, and is sometimes a result of it. I experience it often, both in regards to pieces of projects and projects as a whole. What happens is this: I start out great guns one a book or a chapter, and the writing gets slower and slower and harder and harder until I give up. Then I sit around on my ass for a while. I complain that I don’t like what I’m doing. I complain that it doesn’t make sense, or it drags–this is a HUGE indication–or it doesn’t feel right in some indefinable way. I can’t think what happens next. I can’t see the scene or hear the characters talking. I’m not THERE. I’m stuck. I piss and moan to my husband for a few days, and eventually something clicks. And inevitably what I realise is that I am going the wrong way. I’m writing the wrong book, or the wrong chapter. I have to back up and start over.
This, incidentally, is why Book Four of the Caitlin Ross series is a prequel instead of a story that continues the internal timeline. After finished A Maid in Bedlam, I tried to go right on into the next book. I wrote 400 pages and stopped because something was off. I cut 200 pages and wrote 200 more, and stopped again. I abandoned the project and didn’t write much for the next year because of life. When I did start writing again, I wrote The Parting Glass because I had NO IDEA how to deal with the next events in the timeline. After finishing The Parting Glass, I went this way and that way–tens of thousands of words that were fine words, but they just didn’t work. Finally I realised I was starting the book in the wrong place. I had jumped too far ahead in the continuity, and I needed to look at an earlier point. By a strange coincidence, this earlier point took me to a story I had thought of before but was afraid to write for various reasons. Out of fear, I made a conscious decision NOT to write the story that needed written. Once I faced the fear and decided to write the story anyway, the block dissolved. This is a good example of how fear-centered writer’s block and going the wrong direction can work in concert.
There’s always a reason not to write, and many of them are valid. Not all of them constitute writer’s block, and most of them have to do with a writer’s particular process. Some people can come home from working a day job eight hours and jump into another five to six hours of writing (I have a suspicion these people are extraverts, and I have no idea when they sleep). Some people don’t have the energy or even the desire to write after working a day job, so if they want to dedicate time to writing they need to find another way. Both these paths are legitimate. There’s no one right way to be a writer; in fact, thinking there is and trying to fit yourself into a box where you don’t belong probably causes more writer’s block than anything else.
In writing, being your authentic self is the best way to be. Depression, fear, and mistrust can interfere with your ability to be that self. Developing awareness can help you chip away at all those things and become better able to convert your writer’s block to dust. And sculpture, of course.
If you work in a creative field, particularly one which involves storytelling–literature or film, for example–you probably know what a trope is. If you don’t work in a creative field, you may not, but you’re about to find out. To put it simply, tropes are shortcuts. A trope uses a familiar collection of concepts, images, and/or traits (among other things), to give the audience a snapshot of a character, theme, or plot, so the artist doesn’t have to explain every single detail of their artwork every single time. It’s like a macro for your story. Some familiar tropes are “The Poor Little Rich Boy,” “The Wise Advisor,” “The Helpful Old Fart,” and “The Underprivileged Person Who Possesses Insight The Rest Of The Characters Don’t.” (If you want to fall into the world of tropes, Look Here.)
Tropes can be as simple as “Superhero” or “Secret Agent,” of they can be as complicated as “Mysterious Orphan Raised By Wolves Who Holds The Key To Saving The World.” Generally speaking, a simple trope gives an artist more leeway for creativity, while a complicated trope gives the audience a better “in” to the character or plot device. A “dystopia” (genre is a kind of trope) might take any number of shapes. A “Post-Nuclear Apocalypse Where Survivors Must Fight The Earth And Each Other” is more limited. Tropes can contain or require other tropes. For example, the post-nuclear apocalypse I mentioned above might need a “Plucky Yet Confused Teenaged Heroine Who Takes No Shit.” As well, some tropes are subsets of other tropes. Your “Wise Advisor” might be a “Helpful Old Fart” or a “Dangerous Yet Likeable Pain In The Ass.”
In a way, all stories are collections of tropes compiled in different numbers and orders. This can be an advantage to both creators and their audience. Once you employ a trope, you have a code for how to proceed with your work, and that makes the work easier. Once the audience recognizes a trope, they can put aside the task of figuring out that piece and turn more attention to less familiar aspects of the artwork.
The obvious problem with tropes is that they can all too easily become clichés. It’s exceedingly hard to put an original spin on something like “The Chosen One” or “The Dark Lord,” both tropes that appear often in Epic Fantasy. This isn’t to say it can’t be done. But as a creator, it’s easy to relax into the trope and follow where it leads, without giving due thought to an original interpretation. You can often tell a creator’s experience level by the number of overused tropes they cram into a single work. A new writer is much more likely to use tropes in this way. So, in an Epic Fantasy, you might get the elf analogue (pointy-eared forest dweller who is nearly immortal), the halfling analogue, the shield maiden, the hidden king, the inaccessible wizard, the humorous sidekick, and the ancient prophecy in addition to the Chosen One and the Dark Lord. If you don’t pay attention to your own process and mix it up or add new elements, the work becomes dull. You’re telling a story that’s been told umpteen times before, probably better.
Another, less obvious, problem with tropes is that the tropes you use in your project reflect your worldview. If you come from a dominant segment of society or a privileged class, your tropes will reflect those societal norms and/or that social privilege. Currently (meaning in the early half of the twenty-first century), especially in the United States, the culture of creation is dominated by people possessing a certain amount of privilege: financially stable, heterosexual, white men in particular, with women of similar advantage running a distant second. Consequently, the tropes in our fiction overwhelmingly represent that worldview and the voices of minorities of all kinds are minimized.
Many socially advantaged creators do make an effort to include more diverse voices, true. And there’s a different problem inherent in this task. It results, once again, from falling back on tropes. Often the minority characters who make it into fiction aren’t realistic to actual members of the minority, and can even be offensive, because creators of privilege don’t take the time to do research or put the effort into learning about unfamiliar thought forms and cultures. So, over and over again, we see the “Magical Negro,” the “Noble Savage,” the “Disturbed Transsexual,” and the “Psychopathic Nympho” (to name a few). It’s a nod to “diversity,” but it only serves to reinforce ideas of minority held by the dominant culture. Hell, I’ve done it myself. I love my book, The Parting Glass, for a lot of reasons. I still cringe every time I think about it. At the time, I was pleased at how easy it was to write. Now when I look at it, I see how much of that ease came from my use of tropes, and how I presented the minority characters as near stereotypes. I have the “sassy black girlfriend,” the “alcoholic Native American” who becomes the “sadder but wiser Native guide.” I even have the “white guy who does Native shit better than the Natives.” FML. It doesn’t matter that I’ve known people like those people and based those characters on real life figures. I should have paid better attention when I was writing, and I didn’t.
A third, related problem is that when you buy into a trope without examining it, either as creator or audience, you run the risk of both normalizing and perpetuating some really problematic stuff. Take the whole Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon (this entire article was inspired by a discussion of FSoG, in case you wanted to know). The success of this series, in my opinion, stems from the author adding a veneer of sexual naughtiness to a bunch of standard Romance tropes. On top of “Beauty and the Beast,” you have the “poor little rich boy,” the “naive virgin inducted into pleasures of the flesh,” the “damaged hero who needs saving,” the “will they/won’t they” and the “he desires her in spite of difficulties” tropes, as well as many others that have honest appeal to many, many (women) people. It’s easy–and yes, I admit to reading the whole series–to identify with Ana, the heroine. I mean, who DOESN’T want a rich, attractive person to desire them just for being themselves, without having to devote any effort to it? I’d have trouble not letting something like that turn my head. But in FSoG, these tropes are employed without thought. In consequence, behaviours that would be obviously abusive and terrifying in real life are easily told off as “He just loves her SO MUCH!” Coercion, stalking, and downright rape are transformed from crimes into romance.
What To Do About It
The best thing a creator can to do avoid poor trope use, clichés, and stereotypes is to PAY ATTENTION. Make yourself aware of the tropes you’re using and if they’re dicey, change them. Don’t kill off that Black security guard in act one; instead, try turning him into the unexpected hero. If you’re trying to add diversity by including minority cultures, talk to actual members of the minority. Enlist them to read your manuscript and point out problems, if you can. If they do point out problems, try not to get defensive and justify your trope use. Look at how you can change things.
There is definitely some risk inherent in this process. I see it in my own experience as an Independent Author writing from a Pagan perspective. When you intentionally subvert tropes, you lose the advantage of the shortcut. Your audience might react by judging your work inaccessible. If you’re looking for an “in” to traditional avenues of distribution (e.g., querying agents), you might discover you are less able to find a “fit” for your manuscript. Coming up with a succinct pitch, like “Puss in Boots retelling complicated by romance between the cat and her master,” will almost certainly prove difficult. On the other hand, you give yourself a unique opportunity to tell stories that haven’t been told and develop characters that haven’t been seen before. And this may help you reach a whole new audience.
When I started writing the Caitlin Ross series, I made a couple of decisions about the tropes I would use. First and foremost, I wanted to present a happily (for the most part) married couple who practiced healthy communication. I did this for a number of reasons: I didn’t want to write a romance, I despise plots that hinge on miscommunication, and, most of all, I wanted to show that the kind of relationship Caitlin and Timber have is possible and desirable. In other words, I wanted to subvert the standard relationship trope where the people involved bring all their baggage into the arena, don’t listen, and don’t really seem to understand each other beyond experiencing sexual chemistry. I wanted to defy myths about marriage being the place where desire goes to die. In Timber, I wanted to show a man who can be communicative, passionate, caring, strong, and vulnerable–the kind of man I’d like more men to learn how to be, and the kind of man I wish more women would demand men be. I believe as a woman writer I have a great opportunity to communicate to the world what a healthy relationship looks like. So that’s what I did. And maybe it lost me some readers who are more familiar with and interested in the tension that comes from misunderstanding. On the other hand, almost every reader who has contacted me has mentioned how much they appreciate Caitlin and Timber’s partnership. I’ve even heard from women who, after reading a couple of my books, began to work on getting more of what they want in their own marriages. I count this a success.
In the end, tropes are a tool in the creator’s toolbox. Like any tool, they can turn in your hand and cut you if you’re not careful or lack experience. But when you learn to use them, you can craft reality to suit your vision. And that’s no mean skill.
Yesterday my husband and I had to run some errands in the town thirty miles away. It was getting to be dinner time while we were there, so we elected to go to our favourite Italian place. We both had the night’s special, a wonderful portabella mushroom ravioli topped with fresh spinach and Alfredo sauce. I ate a little over half of mine, and then I was through with it. But I still didn’t feel quite satisfied. This happens to me often, both at home and when we eat out. My body tells me I’ve had enough of a particular thing, but it would like a little more of something different.
I got my leftovers boxed up to go, and then the waitress asked the typical question: “Did you leave room for dessert?”
I like dessert. I’m not going to lie about that. I’m also particular about desserts. I rarely order one just to have one; something has to appeal to me on a deep level. Well, one of the desserts at the restaurant yesterday was chocolate mousse with strawberries. I love chocolate mousse and I don’t get it often. So we ordered one to share. When it came, it looked like this:
And it was just as good as it looked. My husband and I consumed it with extreme delight. As I rolled the smooth chocolate and slices of strawberry over my tongue, I thought about how much pleasure I was getting out of sitting in a restaurant, sharing a luscious dessert with my husband–far more pleasure than I’ve ever taken in exercise or the feeling of my body when it hasn’t carried an excess 75-odd pounds. I remembered a meme I see a lot from Facebook friends who are into the whole fitness and health-centered way of life: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” and in that moment, I understood it for what it is: Bullshit.
There was no way in hell I was going to feel bad about that chocolate mousse. I wanted it, I ate it, and I enjoyed it. My body stopped feeling like it wanted just a little something more. No harm, no foul.
This morning, I opened up my email to the latest motivational message from the positive lifestyle change group I’m following. The subject, “It’s Okay to Screw Up,” didn’t give me too much pause. It’s an important topic, after all. I lived the first twenty-five years of my life afraid of making mistakes, afraid a single misstep would doom me forever. I remember the first time someone–it was a dance teacher–told me it was fine to make mistakes. It changed my life.
But as I read on, I began to notice something discomfiting about the terminology. Though the message was a fine one, the words used to express it relied way too much on the body-shaming diet industry mode of thinking this group exists to counter. Things like “setting tangible goals…leaves the shadow of failure lurking on the horizon,” and “It’s easy to drop the ball if you screw up,” and, most of all, ” A life of moderation and joy means identifying your failures, your faults, your slip-ups, and letting them go. More than that, in fact. It’s about enjoying them.”
By the time I got to the end of the post, “I would hate to think anyone missed out on the joy of eating a big slice of cake by being too preoccupied with guilt to properly enjoy it,” I wanted to scream because the group leader, despite her good intentions, had, without being aware of it, undermined her entire message. How? By framing certain food and activity choices as FAILURES. If you have pasta when you’ve resolved to cut out carbohydrates, it’s a failure. If you skip the gym one day because you don’t have the energy, you’ve screwed up. And although she encourages people not to dwell on these events and move on, in the end she has reinforced the success/failure dichotomy.
This might be a tricky issue for people who are not as obsessed with language as I am. The thing is, words like “failure,” “denial,” “mistake,” “cheat day,” “screw up,” and even terms like “falling off the wagon,” and “lack of progress toward your goal” carry negative meanings even when we try to use them in positive situations. And in our goal-oriented, success-driven society, they will trigger feelings of inadequacy and deprivation simply by existing. The subtext is, “You should be THIS way, but instead you’re THAT way.” One is good. The other is bad. And the outcome of saying “pay attention to your failures” emphasizes the importance of failure as a possibility. That is going to make people MORE apt to attach to their “failures” rather than less.
Now, I’m not a big believer in failure as a total concept. My focus is more on what works in the moment. If my goal is to walk two miles every day and on Sunday I don’t because it’s freezing outside, or because I’m sick, or for whatever reason, I don’t think of it as a failure. I don’t even consider it a set-back. I think, “Hmm, that didn’t happen today. That didn’t work.” The important thing is to keep the goal in mind. So, I would have framed today’s email in a much different way. I would have said something like, “When you set a tangible, long-term goal, there are going to be times when the work necessary to achieving it isn’t going to be possible. That’s fine. The trick is to remember that your goal is long term. One day of having a doughnut for breakfast is not going to make or break the goal as long as you keep striving.”
See? I expressed the same idea without using the word “failure” at all.
After reading the email this morning, I got curious. I went back over all the emails pertinent to this group, and looked through the group posts themselves, to see how often this kind of thing occurs. The answer is “WAY TOO MUCH.” Here are some examples.
“…give yourself a treat to take the edge off how much you’re denying yourself…”
“Little failures are not the end of the world.”
“…mistakes like take-out food and skipped workouts slip back in…”
All these things were surrounded by positive talk about being mindful and taking care of yourself. And that’s great! But what about the day taking care of yourself means not going for a run because your feet hurt or you have a blinding headache? What about the day you’re operating at such a high stress level that taking care of yourself looks like ordering in Chinese food, or even grabbing a burger? Taking care of yourself doesn’t always mean allowing yourself the time and space to create an all-organic, vegetarian, wheat-free dinner. It doesn’t always mean being active. Sometimes it means allowing yourself to say NO. Even to your goals.
Believe me, eating that chocolate mousse last night was no failure. It was no mistake. It wasn’t cheating or giving in.
The health/fitness/diet industry is an insidious part of Western society, and the way it frames relationships to food and exercise influences even our attempts to be positive. When we talk about “cutting carbs” or “cheat days” or “denying ourselves,” we’re participating in it even if our intention is exactly the opposite. We’re framing some ways of relating to our bodies and the food we eat as good and others as bad. And the more we do this, the harder it becomes to allow ourselves the freedom to make the choices that are best for us as individuals. This is particularly relevant to women, who are trained from an early age not to see our own boundaries and to place other people’s opinions of what we “should” be and how we “should” act above our own body wisdom. I have a particular problem with this as a migraine sufferer. I honestly do not know if my pain is a valid reason to give myself a break, back off from activity, and eat and drink things I have learned over the years will help–like a Coke and a steak–or if I “should” ignore my body’s signals and “muscle on through.” I have to rely on my husband to tell me it’s okay to relax. Fortunately for me, I have a husband who does this.
Language is the way we understand our reality. You can’t create a positive life if you continue to use the language of negativity and failure. If you want to make a real, long-term change, practice reframing your language in a positive way. Instead of “acknowledging your failures,” celebrate your choices. Believe me, it makes all the difference.
Today, someone I follow on Twitter decided I am a judgmental bitch because I don’t like mashed cauliflower. I’ve tried all morning to let go of the incident, but I don’t seem able to do that. So I’ve decided to write about it, as I do.
The other day, this particular person was tweeting about making a pizza with a cauliflower crust. Another friend of mine and I got involved in the conversation because it sounded interesting (at least, it did to me; I can only assume it did to my friend). So the first person was kind enough to engage with us and share the recipe. Which involves mashing cauliflower.
I happen to love cauliflower. It’s a versatile vegetable, tasty both as itself and as a component of other dishes like curries and pies. Mashing it up to put in a pizza crust is an intriguing idea. Right on!
Well, that should have end the end of it, but the topic came up again this morning when another friend of mine, who had been absent from Twitter most of the week, mentioned making mashed cauliflower as an alternative to mashed potatoes. This sounds vile to me for a couple of reasons: First, when I imagine mashed cauliflower, when I taste the texture and flavour on the tongue of my mind, I go “EWWWWW!” And second, I’m not a huge fan of food masquerading as other foods. It’s something you see a lot when you’re involved with diets and food plans and health alternatives, as I have been for most of my life. As far back as I can remember, I’ve seen things promoted as being replacements for other things that make you fat or raise your blood sugar or otherwise aren’t as good for you, or cost more, or simply aren’t available. My parents grew up substituting things for other things during the Depression and during World War II. They used margarine instead of butter and made “Mock Apple Pie” out of Ritz crackers (I’m old enough to remember the recipe that appeared on the back of every box well into the seventies). Later on, health gurus hailed spaghetti squash as an alternative to pasta, carob as an alternative to chocolate, and so on and so on.
In my experience, these things never turn out well. When my mom served spaghetti squash to my constantly-dieting family in place of semolina pasta, the mass of yellow vegetable fibers covered in tomato sauce had neither the texture nor the taste of the real thing. Everyone knew it, but we gamely soldiered on, exclaiming how good it was and what a wonderful substitute it made! When I got a carob bar at the health food store instead of the chocolate bar I wanted, I choked it down and told myself it was so much better, almost like the real thing! Later, when I did Weight Watchers as an adult, I made their modified recipes for Shepherd’s Pie and Moussaka and told myself they were excellent and I’d learn to cook this way always. But I didn’t, any more than I kept eating vegetable fiber with sauce instead of spaghetti. (Aside: Some of the Weight Watchers recipes really were quite tasty, and I still use them even though I no longer subscribe to the program.)
The problem is things trying to be other things. Spaghetti squash as a vegetable is fine (I like it with salt and pepper), but it’s not pasta and never will be. Carob as carob is good–I used to go to a place in Ann Arbor for a cup of hot carob on winter days–but it isn’t chocolate. I personally would rather not have the spaghetti dinner than have a pretend spaghetti dinner. And I would rather not have mashed potatoes at all than eat mashed cauliflower because it’s “close.”
This is my deal; I get it. When I have a substitute thing, I feel more deprived than I do if I just skip having the thing it’s supposed to imitate. I’d rather drink my coffee and tea black, which I do, than use artificial sweetener. If I want an occasional dessert or if I want to eat a mound of mashed potatoes every once in a while, I go ahead and do it. It’s better for my health, both physical and mental, in the long run than mournfully reminiscing about pasta while forking in a mouthful of squash.
I tried to explain this on Twitter, how I don’t like things trying to be other things, like fake meat and cauliflower pretending to be potatoes. My two friends in the conversation understood my point, I think. But the original poster of the cauliflower pizza crust took offense to the tune of a multi-tweet screed, which I will now quote:
Wow, I don’t know where to begin. Let’s start with “fake meat.” I haven’t had meat since I was 13, b/c I genuinely don’t like it. People call vegetarians preachy about their diet, yet it’s okay to criticize vegetarians? No, that’s not how that works. How about letting people eat what they want and accepting that different people like different things. The reason I eat veggie burgers and mashed vegetables is because I like the texture. I don’t miss meat, or want it. I like the texture of a veggie burger and mashed cauliflower. People crave texture over taste. There is plenty of information out there about nutrition, and the facts are greatly disputed, but whatever you believe, if you see a person is trying to better their health, maybe instead of judging it, you can research it, or at least leave them to it.
She certainly put me in my place.
I am angry about this. I tweeted back to the original poster, saying that I think she took me wrong, trying to clarify that I was speaking of personal preference, that I was a vegetarian for many years and I still will choose a veggie burger on occasion over a meat burger because I LIKE THEM, and I was sorry that what I said triggered her. Because to me it was obvious she was triggered, probably because she gets shit for her choices and she’s ready to see getting shit for her choices when someone expresses a different preference. I understand this and I am still angry that this person went off on me because she read something into my words that I didn’t put there. I am still angry, and I still apologised. It was the right thing to do. I haven’t received another reply, or even an acknowledgement. And it burns my fat butt.
The original poster doesn’t know me. She doesn’t know what research I may or may not have done. She doesn’t know my health problems or my history with food. I follow her; she doesn’t follow me. She’s not one of my circle. And yet, she felt competent to accuse me of being judgmental because I used some words she didn’t like.
I am trying to let go of this, and I am finding it extremely difficult. Sure, there are some lessons in here. I probably should have stopped tagging her in the interactions this morning when my second friend joined in–in fact, I considered doing so at the time–because she’s NOT one of my circle. But I never imagined being subjected to this unreasonable tirade. I should remember that Twitter is a difficult place to have a meaningful, nuanced conversation, particularly with someone you don’t know well. I should have remembered that Internet interactions are prone to being misinterpreted because you don’t get the body and tone cues that you get in personal conversation. People who know you can supply them; people who don’t, cant. I didn’t think of most of that stuff, because it was Friday morning and I was drinking my coffee.
I’m beyond bummed that neither of my friends, who DO know me and who were both tagged in every post of that screed, stood up for me, too.
What I’m left with, again, is the slap-in-the-face feeling that comes from someone having an intense reaction to something I found completely reasonable. That feeling that I have to guard my speech, my aspect, my opinions, my voice, to keep from being attacked, because I cannot trust other people to own their own shit. It’s a crappy feeling. It’s one I fight every day in order to be able to have any social interactions at all. And every time something like this happens, I wonder why I even bother. I honestly do want to make friends and be open about who I am. I just seem to get the message so much that who I am is unacceptable.
And yes, I am fully cognizant that this is my shit.
So that’s the story of the Mashed Cauliflower Incident. And I will get over it eventually. But remember, social media can create a false sense of intimacy with people. The Internet is dark and full of terrors. Tread carefully.
I follow a lot of writers on Twitter. Many of them post loads of writing advice–#writetips–some of which is useful and some of which is less so. One thing I see on an almost daily basis is: “You need an editor. You CANNOT edit your book by yourself; you’re too close to it.” This is particularly aimed at Independent or Self-Published authors. I have no special problem with the basic thrust of the statement. It’s an unpleasant truth that, while the rise of easy-to-use publishing platforms like Kindle and CreateSpace have both helped many authors make their work available and aided in de-stigmatizing the choice to self-publish, a high proportion of self-published works could benefit from editing. (If you want to read a fascinating article about this, look here.)
However, I am a self-published author and I have never hired an editor. I have a number of reasons why I haven’t, the primary two being that I’m poor and that I have major trust issues. So when I see these posts about how an outside editor is absolutely necessary and you SIMPLY CANNOT do it yourself, I get nervous. I wonder if I’ve done the good job I think I have, or whether I’m deluding myself out of ego. Maybe my books aren’t really as good as all that, and all the positive reviews I’ve gotten are from people who don’t know any better. Never mind that two of my biggest fans are, themselves, professional editors and I’d think if my work called for criticism in that regard I’d certainly hear it. It’s easy for me to question my experience of reality and to think that what I believe to be the truth may not, in fact, be accurate.
So, last week, when this question came up, I took an informal poll of my readers. “Do I need to hire an outside editor?” I asked. Every single one who responded said NO. No, there’s the occasional typo, but every book has those. No, the editing in your books is professional quality. No, stop second-guessing yourself, you have an amazing sense of what needs to go where.
All of which reassured me, of course, and also made me wonder how it is that I do what I do. Because it is certainly true that many books I have read could have stood editing and many writers I know don’t feel up to doing it themselves. I don’t know how much of my ability to edit is learned skill and how much is inborn talent (or how much of the learned skill part comes from having to survive truly traumatizing events). But I told my friend, Jennie, I was thinking about a blog on the subject, and she told me she thought a lot of people might find it helpful. So, here it is.
In this post, I am going to assume a certain level of technical skill. I’m not going to address spelling and syntax and the difference between a verb and a noun. I get that lots of people are publishing books without seeming to have any grasp of these things. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the people who are doing this are not the ones who are going to be reading this blog with any kind of open mind. If you get consistent feedback that your writing lacks technical prowess, or that you need to revisit spelling and grammar, just go do it. Although I love language, I’m not a great teacher, and I have no interest in writing a blog devoted to remedial English.
Every writer needs to develop some editing skill. That should go without saying. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. I have been to far too many poetry readings where more than one person has graced the audience with lines their Muse granted them mere minutes before, and I’ve known far too many people who think the act of setting words down on a page means those words are golden. (My husband tells a story about a writing workshop where one woman, when the professor asked to see her work in progress, said, “I don’t show my work to anyone until it’s finished.” When the professor then asked to see some of her finished work, she said, “When it’s done, it’s done. No one can improve it.” The professor had some valid questions about why she’d signed up for the workshop in the first place.) So, step one is recognizing the value of the editing process. No matter how good your manuscript is, it can ALWAYS be better. I can pick up a book I published years ago and say, “Shit, I could have said that more clearly” or “Why did I use that word so much?” There’s always room to improve.
This is a delicate concept for most writers for a number of reasons. Many writers are in the habit of under-assessing their skills and privileging their flaws. A lot of this is probably due to the subjective nature of the publishing industry. In traditional forms of publishing, validation in the form of editor or agent attention is in great part a matter of luck: getting the “right” story in front of the “right” person at the “right” time. The writer has some control over this, but less than any of us would like. So we tend to reach for ways of controlling the outcome (because most people would rather believe they’re in control than admit any system is subjective and chaotic). One way we try to control the outcome is to blame the quality of the project, and rewrite over and over again, ad nauseam. Sometimes we get stuck writing the same introductory paragraph over and over, less because we’re trying to get it perfect than because we’re afraid to go on. And this can all too easily lead from “this project sucks” to “I suck.” It puts writers in the invidious position of needing a thing on a soul level (self expression through words) that makes them feel worse and worse about themselves the more they do it. Not unlike many addictions, as a matter of fact. A lot of writers I know dread and/or hate going back over their work because they can’t look at it without thinking how terrible it is, and how much they love this thing that they have no talent for, and “Why did I ever think I could write?” etcetera. Or they’re afraid that’s how they’re going to react, which amounts to the same thing. Incidentally, feeling insecure about the work and needing outside validation is one of the things that makes writers fall prey to shady business practices, bad contracts, and fraudulent publishing companies. I think that’s another blog.
So, after you give validity to the editing process, the second step is: “Let go of I Suck.” Whatever it takes to get those thoughts out of your head, do it. Call it thinking and return to the breath, if you happen to subscribe to some form of mindfulness meditation. Go outside and scream and jump up and down and call yourself names. Step back and do something else. Whatever you have to do, keep those thoughts out of your workspace, because if you let them in, they’ll contaminate everything. The more you think you suck, the more mistakes you’ll make and the more it will reinforce I Suck. So just don’t go there. If you don’t have a particular writing space, make a rule that when you pick up your laptop or notebook, “I Suck” doesn’t get to play. If you find yourself dwelling on it, put your laptop or notebook down and GO SOMEWHERE ELSE.
Once you’ve given “I Suck” the time of day, you’re ready to get down to the work. Different people have lots of different processes for editing a manuscript. Some say “never edit as you go along; just get the first draft down.” That doesn’t work as well for me, so I do it differently. You’ll find your own way. However you decide to do it–if you keep everything to yourself until the whole MS is complete or if you like to share chapters with a critique partner as you go along–this is a place where getting outside feedback is vital. Lots of other people have written about how to find a critique partner, so I’m not going to go into it here except to say it’s vital you enlist someone you can trust, and preferably someone who understands the genre you write in. Otherwise you run the risk of hearing that the monarchy in your Epic Fantasy can’t function the way it does because of the Medici AND I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. Getting critique from someone who doesn’t have a clue does more harm than good.
On the other hand, a good critique partner who knows your genre can be invaluable, especially if he or she has some pertinent esoteric knowledge about particular story items and props (e.g., handguns, sword fighting, herbalism, livestock). If your CP does have this kind of information, USE THE FUCK OUT OF IT. This is where the “Kill Your Darlings” thing I hate so much comes in. You cannot afford to be so attached to some cool scene that you ignore someone knowledgeable who tells you it can’t work that way. If a longbow hunter tells you your heroine would bleed out from an arrow to the lung long before she could drag herself to the trailhead, believe him. Use the information you have been given to bring the scene in line with reality. If you absolutely need your heroine to suffer lung damage, find another way to do it.
The person who reads your MS first is your ALPHA READER. I have a specific list of questions I want my Alpha Reader to keep in mind (I want my Betas to keep them in mind, too. In fact, I want everyone to keep them in mind). Here’s a handy little mnemonic for you. Think of the four “Cs”: Concept, Character, Clarity, Continuity. These are the questions I ask:
Does the CONCEPT make sense?
Can you tell the CHARACTERS apart and are they consistent?
Are you CLEAR on what is happening?
Is the sequence of events CONTINUOUS and logical?
All of these questions fall under the heading of “Content Editing,” and answering them should be your first step. Because a writer is the god of his or her book, Concept can be pretty fluid: if you say something happened, it happened unless it defies the laws of physics, and even those can bend in fantastic realities. The most important thing to bear in mind is You MUST Support Your Concept. If your story hinges on a reality where objects fall up, you need to explain the places where this doesn’t happen. If everything else falls up, you can’t take for granted that your characters are excused from this law because they need to walk around on a planet’s surface. Explain it. Likewise, Characters need to be real and consistent. If your villain does something not villainous, give him a reason. If you have a large cast, try to give each character an individual voice and something that makes him or her stand out from the pack. Clarity becomes particularly important in action scenes and magical realms; your amazing system won’t serve your story if no one can understand it, and your heroine’s battle skills can become cumbersome if you don’t know how to get them across. And Continuity keeps your plot focused and allows the reader to suspend his or her disbelief enough to get lost in your world. For me, continuity errors are the thing most likely to throw me out of the experience. If you have stated your heroine is a virgin and she turns up pregnant without either having had sex or you providing a damn good reason how that could happen, your continuity is flawed. Likewise, a character you killed in chapter three should not appear in chapter twenty-three unless you explain how that happened.
I count fixing all of the four Cs as part of my first draft. In fact, I have the kind of mind that can’t make progress in later portions of the book unless all the earlier parts make sense, so there are times when I may write three or four versions of chapter four until I get one that works, and then bring the succeeding chapters in line before going on. Not everyone works this way. Some people have to keep going from beginning to end, and some people have to skip around. The important part is answering the questions.
After you have a complete first draft, it’s time to look at your actual language use. Doing this requires a certain level of self-awareness and often a thesaurus. Go over your work, check for specific words you overuse, and highlight them. Common offenders are “was” and “that.” I also mark “just,” “could,” “back,” and the suffix “-ly.” Sometimes I mark other things as well. My protagonist likes to use a lot of qualifiers: “That was really gross” or “John is pretty awesome.” More often then not, you can drop the qualifier. If you overuse the verb “to be” (i.e., was, were), your manuscript gets a static feeling, so it’s good to examine how you might rewrite to include action-oriented verbs.
The reason I say this part takes a certain level of self-awareness is that you need to be able to distance yourself from the fact that you’re looking at SOMETHING YOU WROTE OMG enough to recognize repetitive word use. If you put yourself aside, you’ll be more able to see where you might improve, and this, in turn, will enable you to learn what to look for next time. But it’s always important to remember that repeating words or using static verbs says nothing about you and nothing about your skill. In other words, you STILL DO NOT SUCK. Everyone repeats words in early drafts. Everyone uses static verbs. Everyone uses qualifiers. We do it because that’s how we talk, and it pops into our heads, and IT’S EASY. Nothing wrong with that. The error would be in not learning, in not improving what can be improved. There is a vast difference between conversation between friends hanging out and literature. Learn what it is. (This can actually help you improve your use of voice, too.)
Once I reach this stage, I start sending chapters out to Beta readers, and the whole process repeats itself. If possible, I like to recruit several Betas of different backgrounds and areas of expertise, because each one of them will have different concerns. A paragraph that is clear to one person may not be to another. Of course, you can’t please everyone. Do your best to weigh the advice you get, take what you find valuable, and let the rest go.
And then, put your MS away. Go have a life. Okay, if you have another story beating at the gates of your brain, you can start something new. I like to get away from writing altogether for a while. Some people will let a MS rest for six months; I generally make it one or two. But letting your MS rest is an important part of the editing process, because it helps you get perspective. And you need the perspective because the last part of the editing process is forgetting you’re a writer and re-visiting the story as a reader.
I think most of us write what we’d like to read. And I think most of us have opinions on what we read: what works and what doesn’t, how a sentence should have gone, what words we would have used instead of the ones the author chose. Whether that 200-page underworld sequence was absolutely necessary, or whether she REALLY would have married him after all that. If you can learn to view your work through a reader’s eyes, editing becomes much, much easier. This is the part that proponents of the “It’s impossible to edit your own work” school of thought believe a writer can’t do, and I’m not going to kid you: It’s not a simple shift to make. You have to give up any ego investment in the story. Stop thinking it’s going to make you anything or get you anything. Whatever it is you think will change in your life because you’re a published writer–fame, money, escape, recognition, freedom–forget about it. This is the place where the story is an independent entity that works or doesn’t, that has to stand or fall on its own. It isn’t yours anymore. The fact that you wrote it no longer matters. It sweeps you up, or it doesn’t. Either way, it’s a moment in your life. If you like it, if you don’t, it doesn’t mean anything about you.
The secret to self-editing is being able to move at will between being a creator and a voyeur and having no attachment to either role. If you can develop that mindset, I guarantee you your work will improve. And keep improving. It will make your work better, it will make your process more pleasant, and it will make things like querying and marketing easier. Which is a good thing, because a writer’s life is hard enough. Anything that can relieve the stress and help you remember why you started writing in the first place is a thing to be cherished.
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!
There’s this maxim prominent in writer circles. If you’re a writer, or if you have much to do with writers, you’ve seen it or heard it. You may even have said it or posted it. It’s one of those catchy, four-word phrases meant to give pause, to get you thinking. To condense a whole world of meaning into an easy sound bite.
I gave it away in the post title, but in case you aren’t following me it’s this one: Your First Draft Sucks. Alternately, Your First Draft ALWAYS sucks.
This is my reaction when I hear or see those words:
Look, I understand the intent. We all know people who are so enamored of the idea of themselves as writers and the process of putting words on a page as sacred that they refuse to apply any critical thinking to their work. It may be we’ve all been that person at one time or another. Maybe we churned out fifty to a hundred thousand words and were so proud of the achievement that we wanted to share it with the world. Maybe we were too close to the work to see the flaws. Maybe we didn’t have the education and experience to judge. Maybe we lived a life where we didn’t have access to a good critique partner or community of supportive writers. Or maybe we were scared of self-examination. Whatever; I can see how people might feel the need to remind folks that critical thinking and self-editing are part of the writing process. The problem is, saying “Your First Draft Sucks” does nothing to address the issues, and it can be downright harmful.
Writers are a vulnerable bunch. Whether by intent or predisposition, we, like most others who pursue an art form, feel things deeply. It takes a gigantic amount of courage to translate deeply felt realities into words and put them onto a page, and that’s not even considering the amount of courage it takes to share your work with others. I know there are those who–at least ostensibly–seem t0 take up writing because of the idea that it’s a glamorous life that will result in immediate fame and fortune, with little work involved. But 1. that’s a myth, and 2. for every writer I know who subscribes to the myth, I can count half a dozen who sweat blood over their work and are afraid to show it to anyone. Because, deep inside, there is always the question: Is this any good? Have I expressed my deeply held reality in a way that will convey it to other people? Or am I pretending to have skill at something I’m no good at? Is this thing I want out of my grasp? Unrealistic? Should I give up on my dream?
Yeah, telling these folks that they suck isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s kind of like this:
When I see or hear “Your First Draft Sucks,” it tells me way more about the person saying it than it does about anyone to whom they’re talking. I ask, “Why do you need to repeat this? What’s so threatening to you about other people’s first drafts? Why do you need to perpetuate this idea that all writers–especially beginning writers–think of themselves as ‘special snowflakes’ (ODIOUS TERM) with the golden semen of angels pouring from their pens?”
I also think, “Here is a person who does not know how to give constructive criticism, or who can’t be bothered to.”
The first rule of constructive criticism is: Be Specific. Please explain to me, what is specific about telling a writer her first draft sucks? I read a lot of manuscripts, and though quite a few of them have problems (sometimes numerous problems), I can say with certainty that none of them categorically sucked, first draft or not. Even in manuscripts that I’ve found amateurish and cliche-ridden, there have been gems. Characters that leap off the page, scenes that make me laugh, or cry. Beautiful words and original ideas. Why in the world would I want to risk having a new writer scrap all that by telling her, “Your first draft sucks?”
Hey, you know, if you don’t want to deal with all that, fine. Don’t be an Alpha reader or a Critique Partner. Say, “I’m sorry, I don’t read manuscripts.” Don’t put your issue on the writer. Especially don’t use your status as an established writer to intimidate someone new to the craft, or spout bullshit aphorisms out of some weird intent to make yourself look knowledgeable. Because what it looks like is this:
One last thing: When you say something like “Your First Draft Sucks” as if it’s a universal truth, you are assuming that everyone’s process is alike and everyone’s first draft looks the same. They aren’t. Not everyone sits down and writes straight through a story to the end (oh yeah–that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. Another useless standard.). My writing process looks a lot like this: Write first chapter. Think about it for a couple weeks. Write a few more chapters. Decide that I don’t like what’s going on in Chapter Three and I didn’t touch on something important in Chapter Five. Go back and fix those. Continue through the first act. Think about it some more. Realize I need to do something in second act that I didn’t lead up to, so go back through act one and stick in foreshadowing. Write some more chapters. Discover a character vital to the outcome of the story doesn’t exist. Create character and if necessary go back and insert him into previous chapters so his appearance doesn’t come out of nowhere.
The thing is, by the time I have a First Draft folder containing an entire book from beginning to end, I’ve already done the work to make it hold together, with a consistent, comprehensible plot containing a clear beginning, middle, and end. Sure, there’s work yet to do. But my first draft does not suck. Some of this is because of the way I work, and some of this is because I’ve been writing forty years, and some is because I have a highly organized mind that doesn’t veer off on strange tangents. Whatever the reason, your sound bite doesn’t apply to me. And it doesn’t apply to most others.
So let’s stop perpetuating this one, okay? Writers have enough grief to cope with. We don’t need it from each other.
A couple weeks ago I ran across this blog post: “Do Writers Really Have to Learn All that Yucky Grammar?” Now, I am what is commonly known as a Grammar Nazi, but I count myself a Grammar Lover. I dig language. I dig how it works and how it’s put together. More than that, I find it easy. It resonates for me. I don’t always have an explanation for the way things work on the tip of my tongue, but I have a natural gift and I almost always get it right.
I understand that not everyone has the same advantage, not even everyone who writes. When I Beta other writers’ manuscripts, I find a lot of mistakes, and that’s fine. That’s part of why you get feedback–so someone else can point out things you might have missed from being too close to your work. So you correct them and move on, or if you don’t understand the issue you might ask about the problem or look it up and learn to avoid it next time. It goes with the territory.
But I don’t get people who claim a writer’s identity, who object to learning the basics of the trade. So when I read the above-mentioned article my gut reaction–the same gut reaction I have when I read any article along the same lines–was: Why is this even necessary? Why does this have to be said over and over again?
I have a long history with the arts and humanities. I’ve done visual arts. I’ve studied music since I can remember, play a variety of instruments, and have been in several bands. In college, I majored in Dance (and Psychology), and I’ve held starring roles in numerous theatrical productions. But my first love has always been writing. I’ve seen it as my calling since second grade, when Mrs. Stahl told Julie Johnson that she should be an author and I piped up, “No, I’M going to be an author!” And I have never seen any of the arts treated with the same bizarre combination of reverence and disrespect that people bandy around when the subject of writing comes up.
In the disrespect corner are the people who say things like, “My family always tell me I write such great letters, I think I should write a book.” The acquaintances who greet the news that you’re a writer with, “Hey, if you need any help editing let me know!” There’s the lady in town who writes poetry in the bathtub, reads it that night at the local coffee house, and receives any suggestion that her work might be made cleaner as an affront. The relative who tells you, “I’ve got a great idea for you to write about in your spare time…” I’d also include those individuals who refuse to learn proper spelling and grammar, as well as those people who submit unpolished manuscripts and query agents without following their guidelines. These things are so common that there are a couple memes circulating about them. And at first, you greet them with sighs and eye-rolling, but as time goes on and you hear them over and over again, they make you want to bash your head repeatedly into the nearest wall.
On the reverence side of things, you get a weird conglomeration of stuff. The hushed awe some people show you upon learning you’re a writer, as if you’ve announced you just dropped in from Alpha Centauri, or perhaps discovered a cure for cancer. The massive advances that some A-list writers get. Book fandom turns popular writers into rock stars. Readers obsess over the fates of their favorite characters and line up for signings and treat the winners of the Hugo or the Edgar the way other people treat Oscar winners. Prominent authors become spokespersons for political causes and their names become household words. All of it contributes to this feeling that writers are a race apart, with talents that set them far above the average Joe. And I don’t know how other writers react to the intersection of reverence and disrespect, but in me it causes a kind of cognitive dissonance, a feeling that my ability to use words to convey a coherent story is a kind of superpower, but it doesn’t really count because anyone could do the same if she felt like it. Anyone at all could sit down at a computer, or with paper and pen, and write a hundred thousand words, and transform herself into the next Stephen King by breakfast next Sunday. Because writing is, after all, an easy way to make a quick buck.
I’m not sure where this idea comes from, and I think about it a lot. Maybe it’s because in the First World we’re all (allegedly) taught to write in school. Most people experience words on a daily basis in one way or another. We write emails and Facebook status updates. We see words on cereal boxes and street signs. They’re not mysterious, like the ability to dance or act or play an instrument. Society’s focus on literacy for everyone has made them accessible, and don’t mistake me, I think that’s a good thing. I think words are great, and do good things, and people should have access to them. But being able to send a witty letter to Mom or tweet your emotional state in one hundred and forty characters does not equate to being able to write a novel, or even a short story.
The thing is, while most people learn some form of literacy, a great many of those people don’t absorb the annoying details. Grammar, unless you’re me or share my fascination for language, is neither easy nor fun. Neither is spelling. No more so is the logic of structuring a coherent plot, or many of the things that turn a string of semi-related words into a novel that someone might actually want to read. And so people don’t learn them, or if they learn them, they often forget them as soon as the test is over.
There’s also this idea in some circles that the picayune details don’t matter as long as a person expresses herself honestly. I remember back when I was in high school hearing about some Urban District where an English teacher was having great success getting kids to write by telling them not to worry about spelling or grammar or any of the rules; just get the words down. Needless to say, this approach sent my English-teacher mother through the ceiling, but I do see the value in it. My own husband, who is also an English teacher, sometimes has to resort to it just to get his students to do the work. And I’ve seen it used to good purpose in groups like Writing Down the Bones, where the point is to overcome the fear of writing and the debilitating tendency to self-censor. Just write. Worry later. I say it to myself when I’m working on a first draft. Just write.
The problem comes when people get so enamoured of the idea of self as writer that they forget that Just Write is the starting place. The process of writing gets entangled with the ego to the point where any criticism, any suggestion that you might perhaps want to subject your work to a little critical analysis or perhaps learn how to construct a sentence in a more effective way is seen as a personal attack. And I get it, really I do. The act of writing, or creating with words, is intensely personal. Taking what’s in your heart and putting it on the page for everyone to see is scary. But isn’t that a good reason to make it as tight and coherent as possible? “Well yeah,” you might say. “But what about the idea that my words have intrinsic value? That I, as a person, have intrinsic value? If you’re telling me I can do better doesn’t that mean you think what I’ve done so far is shitty? Who are you to judge? My books are my children!”
To this I really must ask: “Do you really refuse to bathe or toilet train your children because they weren’t born with those skills?”
I’ve seen this conversation a lot in the self-publishing community, which is fairly well divided between those who believe in working at their craft and making it the best it can be and those who think that uploading whatever words come off the tops of their heads to Amazon and calling it a book is just fine. (You can probably guess where I stand on this debate.) It’s the kind of thing that leads people to write articles demanding that those who self-publish shouldn’t call themselves authors. And it certainly isn’t helped by the fact that it’s demonstrably true that going the traditional route (or subjecting your work to gatekeepers, depending on your slant) does not always result in a superior product.
But, you know, as it says in the article that prompted me to write this: you wouldn’t want to take your car to a mechanic who didn’t have a full range of tools at his disposal. Deciding you’re a novelist because you write good letters is like deciding you’re a brain surgeon because you were good at Operation in your youth. The two aren’t the same. And there’s another side to studied ignorance of your craft that directly contributes to some of the stuff that annoys writers most: When you don’t respect what you do enough to do it well, other people won’t respect it either. So they’ll continue to misunderstand what being a writer means, and continue to make those comments we find so hard to hear. Like these things:
Everyone might have a story to tell, but not everyone needs to write a novel (which is my problem with events like NaNoWriMo, but that’s probably a different blog). It’s not an easy way to the big bucks. It’s hard work with less return, on a monetary level, than most people would like to think. If you manage to finish your first draft, there are edits, and sending your work out to critique partners; shit, there’s the whole business of finding a good critique partner before you even share your work at all. And then, more edits and, if you decide to go the traditional route, there are queries and synopses to write, which is an art all of its own. And more edits. And all that is no guarantee that a publisher will pick up your book, or that the public will buy it.
There are lots of ways to be creative with words. My husband (the English teacher, remember) creates beautiful and lavish worlds. I envy his ability to do so; he has one of the most original and creative minds I have ever encountered. Sometimes I tell him he really ought to do something with those worlds he creates. His response, inevitably, is “Oh, I don’t want to do all that work.” And that’s fine. Not writing a novel doesn’t make him any less original or creative.
I’m lucky. I have to edit far less than most other writers and I never fall prey to the tendency writers often display of looking back on early drafts and thinking they’re shit. Most of the time I can go over my work and know that, even if the words I’ve written aren’t the right words, they’re good words all the same. A novelist friend of mine recently told me, “The words you pull out of your ass are better than the ones I’ve gone over a dozen times.” But the reason for this is that I have spent forty years loving language, studying my craft, and learning to organize my thoughts so I can churn out 2000 words on short notice and have them make sense. (As some proof of this, I offer the fact that this post appears as it came out of my head, with only one edit to add the sentence about books as compared to children, because I thought of that when I woke up this morning.)
If, after all this, you still feel that novel pushing against your breastbone, write it. But please do yourself a favor and get the tools to make your book the best book it can possibly be. Study grammar. Learn how to spell. Read the work of other writers and ask yourself what does and doesn’t work, and how you’d do it differently.
Teaching other people to respect the process of writing starts with respecting it ourselves.