My Promise to Write for Myself is Tested

I have often said I write for myself. What exactly do I mean by this? Is it realistic for me to write for myself, yet still hope others will enjoy it?

When I say I write for myself, I mean I write for enjoyment, catharsis, expression, and discovery, not just to deliver a product that is pleasing to others. Moreover, the spirit, the content, the emotions, and the style have to come from me even if critics oppose my work.

At times my policy of writing for myself is tested and I have to ask myself it I am serious. Whether the challenge comes from editors, trolls, or parents, my promise to myself is to remain uncompromising when I believe strongly in something I have written.

I do sometimes seek criticism for my writing in case I have blind spots due to being to close to my work, but seeking feedback is about seeing what may be unclear; it is not about relieving my insecurities by having others tell me what to fix. If I try to please everyone, I will ultimately please no one. What unifies my stories is me.

However, last week I learned that some people, without even having read your story or knowing its content, believe that if your mom disapproves of something you have written, you should change it. I had blogged that my mom had disapproved of a scene in my new novel Paw and to some readers that was reason enough to un-publish my book and take it before a critique group for trouble-shooting.

Changing writing I am happy with just because one or more person disapproves of it goes against my writing philosophy, which is that I only write prose that excites me and that I would want to read.

My write-what-you-love approach emerged from a personal experience. I have told this story again and again, and I never get tired of telling it because is was one of the few life-changing epiphanies I have ever had. If I ever have another one I will write about it again and again, too, but right now this is all I have.

I have to remind myself of it frequently, because I feel a constant tug in the opposite direction in a world that says to value the opinions of others before your own, to obey the writing authorities, to follow the rules, and to be careful not to offend your mom.

My experience happened years ago, a case of block that began right after a severe manic episode. A depression followed. My thoughts and feelings seemed to happen in slow motion. I slept twelve hours a day. I barely recognized my own mind

Numbed by bipolar medication, I thought I would never enjoy writing again, but writing was too important to me to surrender without a fight, so I tried writing anyway.

I would force myself to sit at a computer each day for a set number of hours, horrified by my seeming inability to conjure an original thought. As I wrote I imagined snarky critics looking over my shoulder They had annoyingly big vocabularies. “Mawkish, self-indulgent, and shoddily constructed,” they said. “Cloyingly sentimental. The literary equivalent of skim milk.”

These comments emerging from my own mind overwhelmed me. Drowning in them, I tried to remember the last time I had enjoyed writing.

I remembered how, when I used to write, my mind would sometimes scintillate with ideas. There would be a feeling of writing the masterpiece of all masterpieces, and even after I left my story, for the rest of the day, in the shower, on the elliptical cycle, or cleaning the house, I would write in my head, imagining all the exciting possibilities, every idea bursting with epic potential and raw passion.

Now there was no such reward. My medication had apparently drained me of all creative thoughts. Nothing seemed to exist except what was right in front of me. Look. A chair. Oh, I know. I’ll write, “she sat down in a chair.” Drat. Why isn’t this working?

The act of writing felt like placing my hand on a hot burner and seeing how long I could hold it there, knowing the smoky residue of despair would continue even long after I removed it.

Paralyzed by fears of ridicule I would sometimes wonder wistfully what I might be able to accomplish if my fear of failure and criticism fell away.

On one writing day, I could take no more. I stopped writing. I shut my laptop. I closed my eyes. At that moment it seemed ridiculous that I was subjecting myself to mental torture every day with so few results. For all my efforts, I was getting nowhere. For all the time I was using to torture myself, I could have been doing something I enjoyed like playing Banjo-Kazooie on my Nintendo 64.

In my mind, I gave up. At first came relief, a yielding, a bitter-sweet sigh of resignation. Maybe it is like that when you are dying and you have accepted that you are about to take your final breath, and you console yourself with reassurances: No more suffering, no more worrying.

But the equivalent of my final breath never came. It was arrested by a forgotten voice, an echo from my childhood. With it came a kind of puerile temper tantrum, a stubborn refusal to listen to any more authorities, a scorn of regimentation, and a disdain for critics. I sensed that because of them I had lost something priceless.

As a bullied kid, writing had been my refuge, the place I could go to be myself without risking ridicule, the one place where I had full control. Somehow that feeling of power and freedom had eroded over the years as I had learned that writing was a chore I did for teachers, and that if I were lucky, writing might someday become something I did for editors.

I remembered it now, my boundless childhood curiosity, my exuberant horror stories, my point-of-view studies of animals, the festive feeling of beginning a new tale,  the fun of dreaming on the page, the wild experimentation, and the magnificent power –  the ability to create a world and have full control over it.

Where had all of that gone?  Years of school had instilled the common belief that writing was about pleasing others, that it was a game with rules which had already been written and which I was obligated to obey. Creativity had withered after I had been taught that I owed deference to teachers, publishers, editors, and critics, and that I must be careful never to offend or disturb them.

Back in the present, my feeling was, hell no, this ends now. I wanted to go back to writing the way I had as a child before fears of ridicule and offending had paralyzed me. I was not in school anymore. I was not writing for a boss. I had absolutely nothing to lose by writing however and whatever I chose, whether it was trite, silly, sentimental, or self-indulgent.

I promised myself that from then on I would write what I liked. I would write for myself. I wrote on a sheet of paper “the freedom to write without fear of criticism, the freedom to make mistakes, the freedom to explore the way I did when I was twelve.” I put the sheet of paper in a box and adorned it in colorful wrapping paper, my gift to myself. I did not know if I would ever make money writing, or if I would ever write anything others would enjoy.

But at the time none of that mattered. I gave the stifled ten-year-old in me the permission to have fun writing whatever she wanted, no matter how silly, self-indulgent, offensive, or trite. Even “flat” writing was allowed;  I would no longer beat myself up over it.

Little by little I began to enjoy writing again. My imaginary critics stood back and gave me space. Creating felt magical.

I went from being completely blocked to being fairly prolific. Since then I have written a 600 page novel, three story anthologies, a book on creative recovery, and hundreds of blog posts.

After beginning my blog, I began to receive a lot of praise for my writing; as a general rule, when I wrote what I loved, there were others who loved it too. Most recently I published my novel Paw, which contained the scene my mom had disliked.

Usually writing what I love moves readers too, but not always. When applause fails to come, when shaming blindsides me, am I still serious when I say I write for myself? Would I continue to write for myself if no one approved, ever?

The answer I always come back to is, yes. I would miss praise if I had to let it go, but for me writing is an end in itself. Feeling hopelessly blocked was the worst experience of my life.

To dig myself out of it I had to sacrifice the approach that passes for common sense, one that mandates writing to please others. This “common sense” makes no sense, however. Because writing is subjective, changing my writing to please one person may ruin it for another.

As an artist, I cannot afford to become a slave to anyone with a strong opinion; otherwise, there is no artist, no self at the center of my work; the product ends up being design by committee.

I did not go back to search for something wrong with my novel Paw as one commenter had suggested. I made no changes. I had already revised and edited it painstakingly. I had only published it when I was happy with it.

Instead, I wrote something new to remind myself of why I write, something fun; I lost myself in creative exploration, got caught up the rhythms of words., remembering the advice of Ray Bradbury: “Write what you love and love what you write.”

A week after my decision to keep my offending scene, my brother called and said he had finished my book.

I tensed. My brother has been critical of my writing in the past, and even though I write for myself, criticism still feels like an electric shock sometimes. I hesitated to1 ask what he thought.

But he volunteered. “I loved it,” he said.

I released the breath I had been holding. But I had to ask about the scene my mom had disliked.  “It didn’t ruin the book for you?” I asked

“Not at all,” he said. “I was amazed at how well-written it was. I was completely immersed and I had trouble putting it down. I got a little mad at you though. I was seeing all the action through the eyes of your character, identifying with her so much, and suddenly she was doing something I would never do, yet I felt just as sad as if I was doing it myself, and the reason is that your writing was so good, I was totally caught up in it. I was really, really impressed.”

Beaning despite myself, I asked, “How do you think it compared to my first novel?”

“It’s been so long. I remember really liking and enjoying that one. But I don’t remember if I loved it. This one I kind of did.”

While I am committed to writing for myself regardless of the response, the compliment made my mood soar. Apparently I have not entirely freed myself from the dread of criticism or the honeyed shackles of praise, and perhaps I never will.

But for as long as I live, I will never stop striving to write what I love, whether anyone approves of it or not.

If you enjoyed this post you might like my other writing. Take a moment and sign up for my free starter library. Click here. Also my story collection “Remembering the Future” is available for purchase on Amazon.

18 thoughts on “My Promise to Write for Myself is Tested

  1. It has always been obvious to me how much you sincerely love writing for its own sake. 🙂

    I’m SO glad you didn’t change your style or content to please others, my friend!
    And how wonderful that your brother loved “Paw” – I find that incredible!!!! (In part because I cut off my relationship with my brother, and I wish I could have shared my book with him….) Anyway, I can tell he wouldn’t say those positive things unless he meant them.

    I can’t imagine you changing your approach to writing – you’ve hit your stride! Maybe, just maybe, at some point down the road you could start your own indie publishing company. The CEO could be your cat. You’d be the kind of editor all writers would love to have as a guide, not a control freak!

    • Haha, I love the cat-led indie publishing company idea! You’re a genius, Dyane, i’ll do it! But I’ll have to pay my cat in tuna treats; all she does with dollar bills is try to shred them. Maybe you could be the tuna treats budget director!

      I really appreciate your encouraging comments! You have no idea how good they made me feel. Thanks for being such an aweaome and supportive friend!!! 🙂

  2. I love this post! I relate to every word of it. I’ve had a similar experience on my path towards writing what I love, and it really is the most liberating feeling.

    I agree the worst thing you could do would be go against your own artistic instincts in order to please your mum, or anyone else (I saw the comments you were referring to). I know it can feel uncomfortable to be authentic sometimes. When I’m writing about sex, for example, I sometimes get the feeling my mum is peering over my shoulder and tutting in disapproval! But I try to ignore it and listen to my own voice, which tells me this love scene needs to be described in detail because of what it says about the characters.

    I know we all need feedback on our writing, but I do think writers can be too quick to change their work in response to criticism, particularly if it comes from a perceived authority figure like an agent. Personally, I only make changes if I can see for myself why they make the story better. Sometimes I’ll experiment in a new document to see if the suggestions work, or whether they just feel wrong. That’s one of the joys of self-publishing, that I can listen to advice, but the final choice is mine. 🙂

    I thought you should know that I bought Paw on the basis of your writing about it and will look forward to reading it.

  3. I’m so glad you enjoyed my post Catherine! Thanks for the wonderfully kind comments!
    it’s interesting that you had a similar experience. I’d love to hear about it if you ever get the time. 🙂

    I agree that many writers are too quick to make changes when others tell them to. I started to go off on a tangent about that in my blog. I’ve seen it happen too frequently in critique groups. Sometimes writers are badgered into sacrificing the very qualities that make their work unique and alive. Comments like “tone down the humor” sometimes deplete stories of the ironic voice of writers whose humor is their strength and hallmark, yet I rarely saw any writer openly disagree with their critics. That’s a big reason why I stopped going to critique groups. I’m glad you learned when to be critical of criticism.

    Thanks so much for commenting and purchasing “Paw”! I hope you enjoy reading it. 🙂

    • Thanks, and yes I’ve seen the same thing happened in critique groups. My fictional characters tend to be introverts with anxiety, and I got told by critiquers and agents that they were too weak or passive and I should make them stronger. I found this frustrating, because I wanted to write about people’s struggles with their mental health, introversion and sensitivity. It was also pretty hurtful as I’d used a lot of personal experiences in the stories.

      However, then I found a reader who loved the characters and connected deeply to them. She helped me to give myself permission to write as my authentic self, instead of changing my work to fit some perceived idea of what a protagonist should be like.

      • Congratulations for sticking with your own vision Catherine. 🙂 I would absolutely enjoy reading about introverts with anxiety, being an introvert myself. Extroverted characters shouldn’t get to hog the printed page! Glad you found someone who could appreciate your work. I recently found a great quote by Anne Rice:

        “Advice to a new writer: There are no rules in this profession. Do what is good for you. Read books and watch films that stimulate your writing. In your writing, go where the pain is; go where the pleasure is; go where the excitement is. Believe in your own original approach, voice, characters, story. Ignore critics. Have nerve. Be stubborn.”

        I copied it to the notepad on my phone to refer to if I ever get discouraged by criticism. 🙂

    • Ouch. I’m sorry you had to go through a similar experience! I know it hurts, but maybe family disapproval is a rite of passage that ultimately makes us better writers if we can resist yielding to unfair criticism or learning the wrong lessons from it. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and found it helpful. Good luck! 🙂

        • Wow Jean! When I read the part about your pastor dad dropping his support for your writing when you began making observations he disliked, I could really identify. I know how much that must have hurt and I admire you for continuing to write anyway without abandoning your honesty.

          I come from a religious family too. My dad was not a pastor but he did go to the seminary. Though my parents have always supported my writing overall, there are definitely pieces they prefer over others. I became an agnostic when I was 15. Much of what I had been taught contradicted my experience, and much of what I read in the Bible confused me. A couple of years ago my aunt and uncle shamed me for writing a piece called “The Final Word” that revealed my nonreligious perspective, and my dad “defended” me by telling them I suffered from mental illness. He meant well, I think, but still…ouch.

          I love what you wrote afterward about writers you admire: “No criticism stops them. Every trial is transformed into a newly discovered strength.” That is such a beautiful ideal to aspire to. Thanks for sharing your experience! 🙂

  4. Jeezus. I almost want to go back and reread what I said just to make sure I wasn’t in the ‘non-supportive’ category. Although, I’m fairly certain, I was saying it was tough to write a likeable character, etc, and NOT to redo it, republish it…

    You know, when I decided I wanted to write, I mean, really put myself out there into the blogging world, too, I told myself that I would have to accept criticisms and being misunderstood and the whole banana sundae with shit on top, and did I still want to do it?


    • No worries Lani! I appreciate your honesty and I adore you as always!!! 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts! I can always rely on you to say something interesting and perceptive, even if I don’t always agree. (I still think “Breaking Bad” was a great show, but I agree that it often defies plausibility. I get why not everyone would be a fan.) XOXO

      • Trust me. More folks agree with you than me. A guy at work has the Breaking Bad screenshot wallpaper ? Im reminded of the show often. Cheers for the reassuance.

        • Haha, I would definitely stop short of wallpapering my house with screenshots of “Breaking Bad”! Walter White is not a face I would want to wake up to in the mornings. Would much prefer kitties or happy butterflies. 😉

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