The Writer's Writing Guide: Attitude

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If writing were a spectator sport, as the comic group Monty Python once imagined when they placed a scribbling Thomas Hardy before cheering fans in a stadium, it would appear to the observer that nothing more is involved than the writer making marks on a paper or a computer screen as she transcribes a story from her mind to the page. But writing is much more than the recording of words. Writing is a slow learning, through content, style, process, and daily evidence of your tenacity, of who you are, what you value, and what you want from life. Fight too hard as you write — be too resistant, prideful, frightened, defensive — and you are far more likely to quit. But give yourself over to writing — surrender your resistance, pride, fear, self-protectiveness — and you stand a chance of continuing. Plus, you will have drenched yourself in self-awareness, and that is a benefit few other disciplines can bestow as thoroughly as writing.

This may all sound very interesting, but if you are having trouble doing your actual writing, you may well think that your problems are unique. But in all my years of writing and teaching, I have found that the process of writing is bedeviled by the same impediments for all of us; they just manifest themselves in different ways for each person. As a result, these impediments can be resolved by applying the same approaches. Again, the approaches will manifest themselves in different ways for each person, but essentially they all come down to attitude, and to the three things you can do to make your attitude work with you, instead of against.

1. Eliminate your ego.

When we begin to write, we feel very connected to the work. Even if the story is not about our lives, we feel coupled to it — that it reflects on us. So if your friend reads a story you've written, and hands it back to you saying, "Well, it's all right," you might think, "My God! She thinks it stinks! She thinks I'm stupid! She doesn't like me!" Sometimes the simplest comments from readers can lead to hysteria on our part. Or else we might respond to comments with fury and defensiveness. Once an acquaintance asked me to critique a story of hers. I dutifully marked it up with my red pen and gave it back her, at which point this woman became incensed, her rage taking on Ghaddafi-esque proportions. She called my phone machine at home, shrieking, "But it really happened that way! My mother liked it so why didn't you? You only care about the market, not art! You only care about art, not the mar—" at which point the tape ran out. She never spoke to me again.

Why do people respond to comments about their work with either self-anger or anger at others? Ego. At the bottom of these destructive responses is the foolish belief that we must be perfect for people to like us. We imagine that we must make absolutely no mistakes, and if we do, we're unlikable. Instead of realizing that making mistakes is a necessary part of every learning process, we either attack ourselves ("I'm a failure! I'll never be a writer! I have no reason to live!"), or we kill the messenger ("He just doesn't know what it's like to work for days on a story! He has no respect for my self-esteem! He's just a narrow-minded, ignorant snob!"). It's as if we imagine that readers are reading our personalities rather than our stories. But of what value is it if an incident in our stories "really happened," or our mother liked it. If the writing doesn't work, it doesn't work. Think about it: when you're reading a book and something seems off, you don't think, "Well, I'll excuse the author's sloppiness because I guess it really happened that way." You simply stop reading the book. Our work is not us anymore than the meal we cooked last night is us. Our work is something we've created, and can nurture. But it is not us.

If you stop for a second and think about this craving to be perfect, you'll see it's very silly. One of the first sayings you learn as a child is, "Nobody's perfect." One of the first sayings you learn in school is, "To err is human." No one expects that the first time he picks up a violin, he'll be able to compose a perfect symphony. He may want this, but he knows he has to work his way up to it. Yet somehow, if that aspiring violinist picks up a pen instead of a bow, he believes he should be perfect. When I talk to people about this, they say, "Well, that's not a good analogy. I've been using words all my life, so it's not like I have to learn how a whole new vocabulary." But in fact, it is a reasonable analogy. You may have been using words, but unless you've been using them on paper — and you have been using them to tell stories — you are, essentially, speaking a whole different language. Great photographers don't immediately, when handed a camcorder, metamorphose into great movie directors; great barbecue cooks don't immediately metamorphose into great chefs. Years of apprenticeships are involved, during which one must be willing to make mistakes. You cannot learn to walk until you can accept, and embrace, the necessity of falling.

This means there is great value to developing the ability to be egoless. I don't mean you should consider yourself unimportant, or unworthy. Ego is not self-esteem, though we often use the words synonymously. Self-esteem is a good opinion of oneself, a view of oneself as worthy, a consistent flow of self-respect. Ego (in the non-Freudian way I am using it here) is more focused on self-importance, perhaps to the point of vanity. When our self-esteem is healthy, it is not punctured by others' comments about our work, but those same comments may make our ego hop about in rage. Self-esteem is necessary in writing and in life, because it enables us to dream and to try. Ego — that self-conscious sense that we are distinct from and possibly even better than others — tends to get only in our way, because it focuses on us and the laurels our work will give us, not on the process, nor on the creation itself.

Our first several years of writing are a period we can think of as our apprenticeship (and that's the period I'll be referring to throughout this book when I say "apprentice writers"). During this time, many of us often place a high value on ego. I can do it, no problem. I am special, so I don't need to work as hard as others. I wrote it; therefore, it's good. We get so caught up in how the writing reflects our personalities that we can't let our work be perceived as flawed. If it is flawed, we are flawed. Which often means, in practice, that we work no more on the piece. This is especially true when we have completed what we hope is a final draft, but which we are then told, or come to suspect, requires additional and perhaps substantial work. Thus, the craft that all art requires never gets applied to our piece, which eventually means we might end up with a drawer of unpolished work, and perhaps a strong disinclination to continue writing.

However, if we realize that ego is merely an internal impediment, one that we can learn to step around or even eliminate, we will be less likely to punctuate our apprenticeship with periods of cessation and despair. The main way I do this is by remembering how I feel when I read published work: I simply want the story or article to captivate me from beginning to end, and if it fails to do so, I'm disappointed. By keeping this in mind, I'm far more able to focus on the piece itself and do what needs to be done to it, without thinking about my own needs and feelings. It is a matter of learning to separate myself from the work, view it as a reader, and then act more as caretaker. Some published writers refer to this separation process as learning to be professional. But you need not apply that term. All you need do is recognize that there is a transitional period in the life of every creative piece where the writer, having birthed the work, needs to accept that the work is a distinct entity, and that henceforth the writer needs to be more like a parent, ensuring in all ways possible that it is well-prepared before it goes into the world.

The next item is an additional tool you can use to assist you with this transition.

2. Acquire patience.

Or, develop a tolerance for time. Aside from egolessness, patience is a writer's best ally, because it gives the freedom to revise. As much as you might wish to see your name in print, you'll feel much better if your name is attached to a tightly-written, well-constructed story than to a muddy first draft. Plus, few teachers, and virtually no editors, want to work with writers who resist revision. Writers need to learn when their resistance to suggestion is mere ego, and when it's based on carefully worked out aesthetic decisions. I cannot stress this enough: Give yourself time, both to develop each individual piece, and to develop as a writer. The latter might well take years. As I sometimes remind students, Tolstoy didn't sit down during his first day, or even first several years of writing, and produce War and Peace. Nor do people who work in shorter forms, despite how easy they might make it look.

Many writers in their early years believe that effort equals product — that six days of work (or two months, or whatever arbitrary time frame they've selected) equals a final story. When the reality of long gestation fails to meet the fantasy of immediate completion, they sometimes get frustrated to the point of resentment and laziness. The more experience a writer has, though, the more readily she accepts that, while six days of work may generate a completed manuscript, it's more likely that six days of work will equal a draft — maybe a great draft, but still a draft. She knows that she must consciously impose an attitude of patience upon herself; when she feels that familiar surge of Finish it now!, or I'm already nineteen (or forty-six, or sixty-six) so I shouldn't still be at this phase of your development!, she can tell herself, out loud and repeatedly, if necessary, What's the hurry? Relax. Take the time the work needs.

Evolution is not instantaneous. To be a writer is to be constantly evolving. If anything "should" happen fast, it is not getting the writing done, but accepting that writing takes time.

The final item here, when combined with egolessness and patience, can give you faith that you can produce truly original work.

3. Listen to your inner voice.

Your inner voice is your internal aesthetic guide which can direct you toward work that is both great and unique. When we first begin to write, and sometimes even later in our writing careers, we might wonder how to tell when a piece is done, or even how to get a sense of whether anything in it is good. We might realize we would be wise to develop what Hemingway called the "built-in, shock-proof shit detector," but we aren't sure how. Insecurity might even ricochet inside us; it seems impossible to imagine how we will ever just know. This is because we have not yet learned that every writer has an inner voice which does our shit detecting and delivers our declarations of completion — as well as leads each of us away from sounding like anyone else, and ferries us to our unique vision. So how can you learn to hear your inner voice?

I didn't develop the concept of the inner voice until I was crawling through the revision of my first novel. Although I had been writing for twenty years, I still couldn't ascertain when I hit or missed. But during that revision, I decided to read the piece out loud to an audience that consisted only of me. This would, I guessed, force me to figure out, on my own, what was not quite making the mark, and how I could develop it.

So, in private, I read the novel aloud over and over and over, concentrating during each pass on how every word, sentence, paragraph, and section felt to me. After days and then weeks of this, I realized that an inner voice was speaking back to me. Actually, it wasn't a voice as much as a little squeak — Eeek, it would sound when I reread a certain paragraph, that doesn't feel right. Or, Ick, too much description. At first, the squeak was subtle; I'd tell myself I wasn't hearing anything, and barrel on ahead. But by the tenth time I reread the piece, the squeak would be a shout; by the hundredth, a military command. Finally I'd get so sick of hearing it that I'd address whatever had prompted these little pangs of concern within me.

In time, I saw that I was cultivating my inner voice. The more I listened to it — the gulps that I hadn't pulled off that metaphor, the tsks that the humor wasn't truly funny, the No, that's not rights when I tried certain narrative developments — and the more rapidly I acted on all those gulps, tsks, and No, that's not rights, layer after revising layer, the clearer the voice grew inside me. Eventually this led not only to me knowing when the piece was done, but to finding and burrowing into a new vision, something unlike anything I'd read (or certainly written) before.

I am forever watching people train themselves to gag their inner voices. They prepare a story for their writing class, or group, or a friend. Before turning it over to others, I ask, "How do you feel about it?" They say, "Well, I'm not sure about the ending. I'm going to show it to the class/my friend/etc. and see what they think." Which, in practice, means that if others find the ending good enough, the writer trains himself to disregard his inner voice. So he never pushes the piece to a new height, never finds a vision beyond the one that others already see. The same problem can arise if others think the ending needs work and offer a specific solution; instead of working harder on her unique approach, the writer reorients the piece as others want, mulching the very traits she could otherwise let blossom into a singular vision.

The writer Rick Moody talks about his development as a writer along similar lines. Apparently the very stylistic tendencies that others criticized him for in his early years as a writer were the ones that came to make him distinct. It is worth noting, though, that this did not happen until he developed his craft enough to make these stylistic oddities work so well that they overcame others' reservations, and seemed not distracting or even annoying, but absorbing and successful — as well as unique.

Moody's example shows how important it is to be careful not to mistake ego for the inner voice. It is not enough to tell ourselves that an awkward passage is exactly what our inner voice dictated simply because we don't feel like putting in more work, or think our readers ill-informed fools, or are uneasy about the possibility that we might not be first draft geniuses. We do need to listen when others say they don't understand a character's motivations, or have gotten lost in a sentence, or are finding that our style obscures our content. Writing is a form of communication, after all, and if we have not communicated effectively, we need to work more — but, as Moody's example makes clear, in a way further develops our distinct vision, which, in turn, will help us get a better sense of what that vision really is.

Additionally, just because a reader likes a line in our stories does not mean we must feel compelled to keep it. I often find as a teacher that students who become enamored of specific lines will go to great lengths to retain those very lines, even at the expense of making them better, or, worse yet, of developing any larger concerns of the piece, especially if their alteration might necessitate the elimination of the beloved expression.

Push to go beyond. Inner voices speak up every step of the way in writing, but they tend to speak all the more clearly when a work has undergone thorough rewriting, with the writer considering all the ways to make the piece even more successful, as well as more distinct.

This is why, if you are in a writing group or class and feel moved to give a writer specific suggestions for revision, it is important to give two or three suggestions rather than one, so you, and the writer you're critiquing, never forget that solutions are infinite, limited only by the adventurousness of the writer's inner voice.

All that said, the inner voice has two disadvantages which come out at different stages of the writing process. The first disadvantage is that, during a first draft, a writer may mistakenly interpret fear as his inner voice, and the second is that, in later drafts, the inner voice is, at least initially, rather shy, and so if we're not careful we might tend to ignore it.

Let's go through these one at a time.

The Inner Voice and the First Draft — During the first draft, you may think you hear your inner voice insisting that you are screwing up. Indeed, it may seem as if your inner voice is shouting at the very moment that the words are emerging from your hands. It may seem to snap that the metaphor comparing the orchid to female sexuality is hackneyed, or that only a pathetic imitation of a writer would refer to the captain of the ship as "grizzled." Or perhaps it might bellow something less technical, more along the lines of, "This is trash. Hang it up now."

If that happens, remember two points. The first is that in your first draft, you don't need to fret about the details. Stop only when you have hit a major snag. Otherwise, keep going until you have completed the draft. It is more important to get out an imperfect first draft than to stall halfway through a brilliant one. Imperfection can always be addressed in later drafts, but a brilliant half-draft is no draft at all.

The second point to remember is that fear is not the same as the inner voice. You may find yourself duped into fusing the two, but after many first drafts of many stories, you'll begin to see the difference: fears scream, while the inner voice whispers. Fears throw manipulative, self-flagellating, thunderous temper tantrums, while the inner voice prods gently. Fears want to shackle our hands, rip us out of the process, make us prove to ourselves that we are no good at writing. The inner voice says to go on, but throws in qualifiers. Later on you need to remember that the orchid metaphor is off, it murmurs. Don't forget you've rushed the description of the ship captain; you'll want to address that in the next draft. The inner voice, in other words, knows that all will work out with patience. It knows it will keep nagging until you act — and so it waits until you pay attention.

So, during a first draft, just keep pressing ahead. When fears try to thwart you, simply keep going. When your inner voice tries to correct you, jot down what it says in your margins, or in another location, and keep going. Then return to the draft (if at all possible, before you start showing it to others), and rework it as your inner voice is suggesting.

I urge you to end every writing session with a stint in your journal so that you can give your inner voice a place in which to express its concerns. That way it's all recorded, and you'll be able to knock off for the day with the knowledge that you've given your inner voice the respectful airing it deserves — and with the assurance that you will have those thoughts in ready-to-use form the next time you sit down to write. This leads us to:

The Inner Voice and Later Drafts — But when you move into your revision drafts, you need to recognize the other characteristic of the inner voice: shyness. Actually, this isn't shyness as much as a learned response; your inner voice is so accustomed to being ignored by you earlier in your writing career (and perhaps in other activities in your education or even personal life) that it has trained itself to speak faintly, or maybe even downscaled itself from an articulate voice to mumbled misgivings.

One of my students, who I'll call David, struggled with this trouble. He handed me a story, grinning with pride, saying, "I've revised it, and it's done." I read it and saw that it would still benefit greatly from being tightened in the beginning, paced more slowly in the middle, made less preachy at the ending. When we met and I went through all this, I thought he might be surprised at my comments, but instead he responded, "Gee, I'd thought the same thing, but I didn't make the changes." "Why not?" I asked. He paused, then shrugged. "I didn't trust that my perceptions were right. They just hadn't seemed that important." Thus I was able to ascertain that his inner voice had been speaking to him — a major step for any writer. But unfortunately, it wasn't yet speaking loudly and assertively enough for him to respect what it was saying. Sometimes he even convinced himself that it was not speaking at all.

How can you persuade your inner voice to speak up and be heard?

I mentioned it earlier and now I'll reiterate: Read your later drafts out loud, over and over and over. If you change one word, read the whole piece out loud again.

When you read out loud, you are reading your writing voice, while your inner voice remains inside your mind. Thus, you allow room for a dialogue between the two. That is, you read a sentence aloud. The inner voice squeaks that it's not quite right, so — if you're paying attention — you stop and work on the sentence. Then you read the sentence aloud again, and see how the inner voice likes it this time. Do this repeatedly — a hundred or more times if necessary. The inner voice needs to be persuaded to speak up from its whisper, and just one or two or five read-throughs might not achieve that goal.

The more you read aloud, the more explicitly your inner voice will have the opportunity to speak to you. Then you'll know the difference between the inner voice and fear, and the inner voice and silence, and you'll be that much closer to feeling confident and self-reliant with your work — and, by extension, with yourself.

For more detail on these topics, please read the chapter on Revision, and, in the Appendix, "General Principles for Workshops" and the "Ten Commandments for Giving and Receiving Criticism."

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