The silent inner voice that criticizes me as I write means well. It wants to shield my ego, to prevent me from saying anything embarrassing or offensive that might get me banished from the human race and possibly sent into the wilderness to survive on dirt and berries.
My ego does not understand that the only kind of writing that matters is honest writing. Mastering the art requires me to look at the world, including myself, in all its messy, multifaceted complexity.
Writing honestly, even about embarrassing things, should be easy — or so it seems. After all, it is “just my ego” at stake. But egos are like little toes. My little toes may not claim much space, but when I stub one of them, hard, against a table leg, the pain resonates to the outer reaches of the cosmos.
Below I have listed ways that my ego — or narrow concerns about my self-image — conflict with the greater need to explore freely and write honestly. The exercise is worthwhile because when I recognize what is happening inside my head, I can counter the voice of discouragement that threatens to sink my efforts.
My ego says, “Go Faster!”
I am a slow writer. My ego hates this. It wants me to be a speedy production powerhouse. It wants me to fling out flawless finished products with a single stroke of my pen. While I hate deadlines, my ego thinks, “Maybe you should give them another try. They are so basic. Everyone uses them. What makes you think you are so special?”
Whenever I listen to my ego on this, I slam into a paradox: Trying to rush actually slows me down. Anxiety over deadlines triggers resistance and procrastination. I finish far more quickly when I allow myself to get caught up in the moment instead of fretting over the clock. Deadlines create guilty pressure. They turn writing into a pious duty rather than something I do because I love doing it. When I lose track of time, my writing flows. When I am wondering, learning, experimenting, and discovering, I finish before I know it.
Unfortunately, our society does not especially prize artistic discovery; it does, however, enshrine finished products.
Maybe this is why, as soon as I begin to write anything, my ego immediately demands: “How are you going to finish this? Write an outline at once! Answer every question you will likely encounter. Resolve all potential inconsistencies! Write an ending now! Otherwise, you are just wasting time!”
I have to argue back with it, “Let me experiment! Let me have fun! Let me surprise myself.”
As much as my ego wants me to write quickly, it slows me down by trying to censor anything that might draw criticism, which includes everything worth saying in the world. My ego says, “Never mention death. It will depress people. Stay away from politics; it will divide people! Stay away from religion; you will offend people! Never mention anything that makes you appear vulnerable or flawed or less than fully in control. Be polite in your writing. Only say things that will make people like you! Be a good girl!”
The problem is that safe, self-conscious writing is generally stale writing. What separates merely competent writing from writing that electrifies is honesty. Besides, I am not an airbrushed cardboard cut-out of a person. Why would I even pretend to be? I am complex, hopeful, messy, searching, thoughtful, flawed and human. My writing, if it is worth anything, should reflect that.
My ego says: Collect impressive credentials!
Writing like any art is subjective. My writing is not just subjective from person to person; it is subjective from moment to moment. I can love my writing one minute and hate it the next for seemingly no reason at all.
I say I write what I love, but this is tricky. If I have a headache or if I am in a grumpy mood, I might begin to hate writing I used to love. If I cannot always use myself as a reliable frame of reference to determine if my writing is good, what can I use? As I go back and forth, insecurity and frustration arise. I begin to turn to outside sources of validation to settle the matter of whether my writing is “good” or not.
For this, our society offers many options. I can take it to a critique group or get opinions from friends. I can send my stories to magazines or seek traditional publishing for my novels. The last two seem to offer badges of authenticity that say, “Look at me. I am not some amateur wannabe. I have been vetted.”
While seeking feedback from readers is priceless for discovering my blind spots, there is a danger here. I will never master my art if I am constantly looking to others to tell me whether I am good or not.
Replacing my own judgment with the opinions of “gatekeepers” is not the answer; it will leave me uncertain, floundering, and indecisive. If I have an artistic vision I want to realize, I should be the one in charge of it. If I waver about whether it is good, which I inevitably will, my best bet is to trust my process, which has never let me down.
Or, if, even during my final polish stages, I keep vacillating on whether my writing is good, I can sometimes remedy my uncertainty by putting my work-in-progress away for a few days. When I come back to it, my judgment is usually clearer; if there really is something wrong with my writing, I am more likely to spot what needs to be fixed.
In any case, uncertainty is part of doing any art; seeking to arbitrate the matter by submitting my work to “the authorities” may actually lead to some decent advice, but I have to be careful because it can also diffuse my original vision and undermine my artistic integrity.
It is important to realize, too, that “the authorities” are not always authorities. Almost anyone can start their own publishing company and claim expertise.
I learned this lesson the hard way. A few years ago, I got what I had thought I wanted: an acceptance letter for my novel from a small publisher. My ego danced on the crest of a rainbow and went soaring over the clouds.
Several months later, I realized that my acceptance was not an honor. When the edits came back, they were full of changes I knew to be wrong. Grammatically correct sentences that had made perfect sense before had been changed to mangled sentences that made no sense at all. Every pronoun-verb pair had been combined into contractions.
The note accompanying the content edits ordered me to change things that were not even in my novel, leading me to think my editor had not even read my book, or had only skimmed it at best.
She made wildly inaccurate generalizations, such as claiming that all fantasy novels must begin with an action scene, and that the only exceptions she had ever seen were in novels by Brandon Sanderson, and that I was not Brandon Sanderson. I wondered: had she never read Lord of the Rings? Or The Chronicles of Narnia? Did she not realize that for an action scene to be suspenseful, readers have to care what happens to the characters, which first need to be introduced?
She also accused the beginning of my novel of being “too bleak.” But conflict is the soul of fiction, and no emotion is off-limits. Making my writing more “pleasant” would have only weakened it.
I found myself in a seemingly impossible situation. I wanted the plaudits of traditional publication. But how could I obey an editor who did not seem to grasp the fundamentals of story-telling? How could I make “corrections” I knew to be wrong and still feel good about myself? How would I feel if I knowingly weakened my novel for the sake of bring able to tell people I had been published traditionally? On the other hand, what if the badge of traditional publication could open doors previously closed to me? Should I give that up for any reason?
It was a clear conflict between surface and substance. In the end I cancelled the contract so that I could self-publish my novel the way I wanted to do it, because I knew that what might seem impressive to others would in reality be nothing but show.
I still hated giving up that “traditionally published author” badge. It had seemed to dazzle people when I told them my novel had been accepted. It had proved to them that I was not just some hack, that I was good enough to be taken seriously in the publishing world.
But was it not better to prove I could write well by actually writing well? I thought so. Since my traditional publishing adventure, I have become an avid proponent of self-publishing which allows me the full creative autonomy I seek.
My ego says, “Write everything perfectly the first time!”
When I was a kid, I imagined that all successful novelists had a clean one-step process. I imagined they would sit down at their computer and bang out a single, nearly perfect draft in a white-hot blaze of inspiration; that was what writer characters always did in movies anyway. I never saw them mind-mapping, plotting, or simply thinking.
Writers in movies apparently needed no planning, no trial and error; nary a moment of confusion or indecision ever hindered their steady progress. I still sometimes envy these imaginary writers. And there are real ones who claim to work in much the same way, churning out polished masterpieces in periods of a month or less.
However, the one-step approach to writing novels will not work for me. I have tried it for most of my life and I was always baffled when it never worked. I would start with musical beginnings, but I would always reach an impasse around the second chapter. The mysterious writing mindset I thought I needed would bail on me.
I only began to finish stories consistently when I found a multi-step process that allowed me to separate discovering what I wanted to say from how I wanted to say it. To discover content, I free-associate for ideas using mind-maps. Afterward I pick my best brainstormed ideas for planning my direction. Then I write a horrendously messy rough draft in longhand and type it up, revising as I go along; next, I analyze my work and change the content where needed. When I am happy with the content, I give my story a final polish. This is the process that worked, and still works, for me.
However, sometimes this multi-stage journey frustrates my impatient ego. I recently finished writing my novel Prowl, my sequel to Paw. I wrote three rough drafts, but only the last one excited me enough to finish it. Writing all those drafts was valuable because they allowed me to discover my story. My inner ten-year-old frolicked through my imaginary worlds with happy abandon. My ego, however, was not pleased at all. You wrote three whole drafts, it accused. Three! After all you have written, why are you not faster by now?
I still sometimes dream of the ideal, the glamorous vision of unbridled, effortless creativity unfurling from my fingertips. The problem with this model is it makes me dependent on the unpredictable — something artists like to call “the muse.” When muse-dependent writers get abandoned by their fickle helpers, they get “blocked,” and block can sometimes last for years. I know. I have been there. With a muse I am either on fire or I am “stuck.”
Now that I have a process, I never get blocked anymore. That is because I fired all my muses. Muses may sing beautifully, but they are notorious slackers, whereas a process always gets to work on time and delivers consistently good results that balance creativity with logic.
My Ego says, “Prove yourself!”
Of all the things my ego tells me, “prove yourself” is perhaps the one that tortures me the most. I have a voice in the back of my head that is constantly telling me, “Your writing is not as good as it used to be.” Whenever I have this self-trolling thought, I feel driven to prove it wrong. “I will make every story I write better than the story before,” I tell it, “so you will never be able to say that again!”
This is a lie. No matter how much “good” writing I do or how much praise I get, I never get to rest on my successes. I am continually taunted by all my previous selves into thinking that I wrote better years or even months ago, and that, somehow, I have “lost my way.” I feel constantly goaded into proving I am still “good,” which can lead to a clunky and self-conscious writing experience if I let it.
Writing to prove myself means sweating over my metaphors and trying to figure out every possible way to write a sentence so I can select the absolute best. My drive to compete with my former selves leads me away from creative discovery and into the trap of perfectionism.
Perfectionism is not my friend and it does not benefit my writing. It induces anxiety and despair. It is driven by fear, and not by love.
On my best days I let myself make mistakes so I can learn from them. I forget all about being “good;” I become immersed in my story and just write.
I have to reject the widespread assumption that once you have gained a certain level of competency in writing, the next step is to show everyone how “good” you are. When I attempt to show off, my writing flails. It goes best when I am not trying to prove anything but am instead trying to learn, explore, and understand. If I want to master writing, I can never give up being a student of the art.
When I write to discover, and not to parade my poetic descriptions of cumulus clouds, my ego howls in protest. It does not care about learning or discovering. It wants a finished product, and an impressive one at that. It would like for me to plan everything in painstaking detail before writing the first word, to ensure absolute perfection. But my product is only as good as my process, and if I knew everything I was going to write before I wrote it, writing would not be nearly as exciting. There would be no learning, no wondering, no surprising myself, and no letting my writing change me in some way, such as removing a cherished bias or clarifying a fuzzy belief.
Every time I sit down to write, I try to be as patient with myself as I would be with a child learning to write for the first time. Every time I start something new, I try to forget everything I know about writing and simply move my pen across the page.
Unfortunately, nothing I do is ever going to make my ego pack up its bags and move out of my mind.
But if my ego is going to lounge around in my brain rent-free, it has to follow my rules. It needs to stay out of my writing and leave my metaphors to me. My ego can handle the business end. It can enter my finished stories in contests and go to writing conferences. It can even start its own publishing company if it wants.
Then, while it is busy, I can sneak away to my private space and wander through my passages of words, observing the scenery as I inhale the prize that matters most: creative freedom.