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, but never listen to idiots.

2 comments:

Mel said...

Ah, but you see, if my TA, Bob, hadn't told me the creative writing class at the U was not the place for fantasy, and that I SHOULD TRY THE LOFT, I would never have ended up where I am today with so many great new friends and a solid idea of where I'd like to go with my writing. (BTW, the creative writing courses at the U SUCK from a marketing perspective. In my graduating seminar, we were still going over character, plot, setting, etc. It was horribly disappointing)

-Mel

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