Sunday, April 22, 2007

Seven Deadly Sins and Writing: Pride

Writers, like Milton's Satan, thrive on an excess of confidence… of pride. I don’t think you can survive the revision/rejection process without it.

When I finish a piece of writing I look at it and think, “Genius! My God Am I Brilliant!” (yes, all capital -- ask my partner if these aren’t the exact words I utter.) Then, while the feeling is still all shiny and new, I send my brilliance out into the world – to critique group, market, or my editor – and then when the verdict comes back, I say, with the exact same conviction, “Jesus, I suck. Arrgh, I’m an idiot!” I might even sink into a blue funk for a minute or two, then, I revise and the next thing you know I’m a genius again.

Am I bi-polar? Maybe, but I also believe that this strange emotional flip/flop is part of what has kept me in the game for as long as I have been.

Successful writers are wired wrong, like inventors (or was it geniuses?) Anyway, I read somewhere that the difference between an inventor like Thomas Edison and your Crazy Uncle Floyd (you know the one who tried to build a flying bus) is that Edison failed more often and more constantly. Edison just never gave up. Not even after his head bled from banging it against the wall so many times. Not even after normal people would have quit.

People like to talk a lot about how writers need to have a thick skin. I believe that part of gaining that tough hide has to do with self-confidence. I spoke at the Wis-RWA Chippewa Falls chapter meeting on Saturday, and one of the members there asked me how I dealt with people who told me I couldn’t write. My response was immediate: “I didn’t listen to them.” I told her she shouldn’t either. Listening to anyone who tells you that you can’t do something is hazardous to your mental health. Just say, “no.”

I think it’s silly how much time some people invest in discouraging others. Despite what I said about winning in my earlier “deadly sins” post, I do actually believe that there’s room in our field for everyone. Yeah, sure, there are only so many slots for books being published each year, but if trends continue the number of those slots will only continue to grow. Publishers are publishing more books now than ever before.

Yet many writers are, more than any other profession I know of, actively discouraged from pursuing their craft by others in their field. I’ve heard hundreds of horror stories about the (typically) college composition or English professor that denigrated a student for writing something that contained a fantastical or science fictional element in it. I’ve also heard plenty of SF workshop veterans tell about scathing critiques that caused them to seriously consider abandoning writing all together.

That would be a crime.

The problem here, of course, is that the answer can’t be: just don’t listen to anyone but your own inner Muse. Why? Because that *would* be the writerly version of the sin of pride. You have to be willing to listen to critiques of your work, because there are things that readers see that the author simply can’t. A willingness to learn from one’s mistakes is, in my opinion, paramount to developing the craft of writing.

Someone else at the RWA meeting asked me how I dealt with that aspect of critique, and I said that I long ago divorced myself from my words. I’m married to my idea (or characters, theme, whichever, or all), not the text on the page. If a fellow writer can give me insight into how better to express my idea, I embrace it. I write to be understood. Honest critique helps me make my point better.

There are times, of course, when critique is motivated by other things, and is less than honest, so you still need to develop an ear for “what is rot, and what is not.” You need to have enough pride to believe in your vision, listen and learn, and never listen to idiots.


Kelly Swails said...

I go through the "I'm a frickin' genius/I'm complete crap" at least once a week. More like once a day if I'm working on a project. Just a few weeks ago I proofed the galley pages for "Cake and Candy," and after I got done, I was all "Yowza! Year's Best Antho, here I come!" And then a few days later I read it again to get an ego boost and I was all "Look at all these passive sentences! Am I a complete moron?"

Writers are wired wrong, but in a good way.

lydamorehouse said...

Yeah, absolutely!

Kelly McCullough said...

I don't do the cycle so much. I'm just not wired that way. I tend to believe something is going to need work as I draft it and solid when I finish it.

I do have moments or bits of writing where I say "I'm a genius" but they tend to be attached to specific pieces rather than a whole work.

Then, generally, once I've set the piece (final polished version) I continue to think of it as solid despite rejections. Years later I may come back and say "oh, I could have done this or that better" and then I fix those things to my current standards, but I just don't get the I suck or this sucks moments.

But then, I'm a strange monkey.

Anonymous said...

Halellujah. Very nicely said.

Anonymous said...

I was just reading Robert Silverberg's introduction to the anthology "Science Fiction 101" and it clarified for me why I'm always slightly uncomfortable with this idea of 'screw 'em, write the way and what you want.' Which I know is 99 percent great advice, and certainly the main advice writers need until they have a certain level of confidence and have developed their own voice. But...

There's always a flip side to a coin, and the flipside of self- confidence is self-delusion. Reading about Silverberg's brutally honest dissection of his process of becoming a better writer was uncomfortably familiar - because I've always been aware and have had to review lately just how much of the initial confidence that got me to start writing was necessary self-delusion.

Attitudes necessary to partiular situations, at some point, become skins that needs to be shed. I wanted to say "the hard part is figuring out who's an idiot." But I've often been forced to realize - in life, politics, and writing - that the idiots have the most profound critiques to offer, if I can stand to hear out.

Not the envelope of bluster, but the kernel of truth that allows the rest of the b.s. to hit the target, as collateral damage. People often say that for them a piece of writing starts with an irritant, like sand in an oyster. I think that can be true too for developing past blockages and weaknesses in writing (and more generally psychologically), getting past self-delusion.

Buddhism (sorry, a current reading binge staple) has this idea of a 'spiritual friend,' which is someone to whom you feel intense aversion - at some point, even if at first they were what is commonly called a friend - whose 'attacks' or 'injuries' to you kicks you in the head and makes you shed self-delusion and spiritual materialism (confusing the trappings of spiritual 'success' for actual spiritual being-at-one-with or whatever).

But they go on to say that any situation that causes aversion (or positive attachment - pride) can also be this kind of teacher.

When I've managed to get better as a writer, it's been about being open to this idea. How working with other people's b.s. projected onto my work product and person can be as useful, if not more, than recognizing my own projections onto others. Tools for seeing through self-delusion, which always brings new self-confidence that's more based in reality, and less threatened by other people's b.s.

So, yeah, confidence, but I'd add that what kind, where it's coming from, is a key thing to focus on, in developing as a writer and also in critiquing and teaching - helping others develop and hear their own voice. But then, I'm one of those people who suspects writing is either like therapy or requires something akin to therapy, and is also a spiritual pratice... even though I also think that sounds like a total crock.

Sorry - didn't mean to write so much, but verbal shortcuts can be hard to come by sometimes.