Saturday, March 29, 2008

Writers Shame

This is the full length version of the short article posted on 'Say it on Saturday'.

I have finally got around to reading Stephen King's On Writing:a memoir of the craft. Not far into it I discovered a rather honest and confronting example of ‘writer’s shame’, something that I had to finally work through last year.

King writes:
“I have spent a good many years … too many, I think – being ashamed about what I write. I kept hearing Miss Hisler asking why I wanted to waste my talent, why I wanted to waste my time, why I wanted to write junk …. I think I was forty before I realised that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.”

By 1987, when King was forty, he had written 17 novels under his own name, another five under the assumed name of Richard Bachman, 3 collections of short fiction and had collaborated on a number of film adaptations of his novels. King is the most financially successful horror writer in history. It would be incomprehensible to believe that such an author would ever have doubted or been ashamed of his talent, if we hadn’t experienced the exact same type of shame and doubt ourselves.

We all have them, a monster or perhaps a whole crew of them, who hang out in the recesses of our memories, on the periphery of our creativity. They load us up with shame about our writing, dishing out their own versions of ‘how could you?’ that block us.

My Miss Hisler was a Writer in Residence at uni, whose name I’ve chosen to forget. I was really excited. It felt that being part of what this Writer in Residence was creating, was my next step on my path to being a published writer. I took a short story along entitled ‘And Juliet Met Romeo in Hell’ that I felt really good about. It was the first short story that I had written since leaving high school and writing for the pure pleasure of writing. The story was more mature in construction and content (I thought!) than anything I’d written at high school, and it had a definite dark edge.

He quickly read over my work, and then point blank told me, in front of others that were waiting, that I needed to go out and get a life, I had no idea of what living in the real world was like. And that was it. No comment on style or structure, no suggestions on imagery or dialogue. I was mortified and shattered. I remember taking my story and leaving the room, unable to look anyone else in the eye. And I never went back.

I don’t deny that I was naïve – I’d spent almost all of my education in a Catholic high school and I hadn’t been adventurous as a teenager. This was probably why I so willing to took his words as gospel on my fledgling talent. I didn’t know in those days how to deconstruct criticism – especially bad criticism that does nothing to help a writer learn and grow. He hadn’t actually given any feedback on my writing.

His criticism I took both personally and creatively. It was like being told I was an imbecile, and that I had had the audacity to write. What’s more, his words were instant creative castration for my vulnerable muse. From that moment onwards, my passion for writing waxed and waned. I created projects that could never be completed. In my garage I have a box of first chapters and other snippets of work that I half heartedly worked on. In eight years I completed one piece of work, a short story called ‘A Few Stolen Moments’ which was almost lost all together on a corrupted floppy disc.

I felt a fraud – I was waiting tables and working crap jobs because the only career I had ever wanted was writing, but I couldn’t turn up to the page. Everyone knew that I wanted to be a writer. Friends often asked if they could read something of mine, but I was resolute in never showing anyone my work. I had learnt my lesson.

In the end, I focused so long and hard on ‘going out and living in the real world’ that I never made time for writing. What little I did write I was terrified to show anyone. Sadly I never thought to get a second opinion or even better, a mentor. I didn’t go and seek out a writer’s group. I just stayed frustrated and creatively impotent.

It was almost ten year later, in 2000, that I finally took myself off to do a TAFE writing course. The two courses I did there were beginning of a very long hard fight to put myself back on the path and to believe in myself as a writer. I am glad that I did.

When I ousted this monster last year, after working through the section on shame and monsters in The Artists Way, I didn’t feel the need to pay homage to his legacy any more. And good riddance I say. I’ve let go of the notions that I’m not smart enough, nor worldly enough to write. I have the audacity to write badly sometimes, and feel OK about it. I have the confidence to try new things and experiment with my boundaries. And I’ve reclaimed the thrill; the pure, unadulterated love of being encapsulated in the fiction I create.

We all have our Miss Hislers. Naming them and sharing the damage that they have caused us, goes a long way to healing the festering wounds left in our self confidence and creativity.

Who are your shame monsters – today is your opportunity to oust them.

What was the shaming charge/s levelled at you? How has it fashioned the way in which you perceive yourself as a writer and your ability create?


Paul said...

Well, my first bit of shame is that I've not yet read On Writing.

All through high school things I wrote for my English class were almost universally well received (that's what comes of being the precocious "smart" kid in the class). However, I couldn't publicly say I wanted to be a writer. I was a boy in the West of Scotland. The arts were for girls or gays. And even amongst the more tolerant, the arts certainly weren't a respectable career.

So writing became my secondary interest behind law. And after a frustrating decade of banging my head against the wall of life, I've come back to writing as my primary focus. I discovered the Creative Writing section on Gumtree, I started talking about writing on my own websites, and things progressed from there.

My first Miss Hisler is myself. I don't feel I'm good enough, and I may never. This isn't self-deprecation; whatever people see in my writing I'm incapable of seeing myself. All I can aim for is the best that I can do, and to hope that I've recaptured whatever it is people like.

Due to lack of exposure, and my high school experience of being able to tick all the boxes required to get a good grade, it wasn't until I went public" that I encountered Miss Hislers for real.

The short pieces I wrote based on the seven deadly sins were conceived as an exercise in creativity. As well as posting them on my site, I posted them on Gumtree. And got good feedback. Great feedback.

Then came Lust... Here is an example of the only piece of good criticism I received on the piece. The commenter didn't really like the writing, but explained what it was that wasn't capturing him, what he felt the weaknesses were and crucially what I could do to improve the piece! That's what feedback should be. Two other people took a different approach.

One claimed to be a writer, one an editor. The "writer" asked me "is there a reason why you've chosen to avoid anything original or interesting in your short collection of derivative clichés" before reminding me that my work reminds him of how much talent he has himself.

The "editor" was more galling. For someone who claimed to be in publishing, to offer nothing constructive was appalling. His sole criticism was "Your writing is too stiff and worthy. I'm not saying it's totally embarrassing. But it's quite mediocre, boring and clumsy. You're trying too hard. Not one sentence is believable."

If I ever get published, I"m having that printed in the dedication...

I challenged both of them on their opinions, and only the "editor" responded to me. He revised his opinion to "You're not the worst writer in the world" (high praise!) but again offered nothing to indicate how I could improve.

How did it change how I perceived my abilities as a writer? I got angry. It has made me less able to take constructive criticism (which is really bad!). But because it all came from the same piece, my first attempt at romance and sex, it severely knocked my confidence in writing about them. I had gone from praise to ridicule, and the only thing that had changed, as far as I could see, was the subject matter. So I avoided writing about them, and have only after a year attempted to write about them again. I don't think a writer should ever feel that there isn't a subject matter that they shouldn't attempt, but this made me really feel that no story of mine could ever feature sex or romance, since I obviously couldn't do it properly.

This has been an epic comment, but thanks for a great post Jodi!

Eamon said...

Do you think men understand / appreciate this subject enough? Do you think men could treat women differently over this (work, home, social)? Or not?