The problem was, I could never say no, not to anyone. I even struggled with saying no to my cat.
My life reflected my assertiveness deficiency. At age 26 I was deep in debt from lending money to desperate friends. My schedule was cluttered with activities I dreaded. As a result, I was having trouble sleeping at night and seeing a therapist I could not afford. My life was going to hell.
However, one night something changed me. Tired of tossing in a pool of sweaty tangled sheets, I extricated myself, got up, gathered my plush pink bathrobe from my closet, and crept into the living room where the fireplace was crackling. I had found that watching a fire could make me sleepy.
Sometimes when I do something embarrassing I have a powerful impulse to withdraw into the shadows and disappear. Sometimes I withdraw to a place of imagined safety until I remember that safety can be a death trap far more dangerous than exposure, criticism or ridicule.
Specifically I remember “Field Day” in the sixth grade. Some context: The sixth grade was the year I was bullied. The girl who led to bullying was wildly popular and conscripted her friends in her school-wide campaign of abuse.
During that year it seemed I could do nothing right. Everything I did was ridiculed; the way I talked and walked, the clothes I wore, and my shyness; when I did speak anything I said became fodder for group mockery. My bully and her cohorts would ask me questions just so that they could make fun of my answers, even if my only answer was only “hi.” I literally became afraid to exist.
Nothing ever goes exactly as I plan.
For example, I had planned to release my novel The Ghosts of Chimera this summer. However, when I looked over the content edits from my editor, I saw that they diverged sharply from my vision of the story.
Consequently, I am no longer working with my original publisher, but I will still be publishing The Ghosts of Chimera soon – only in the fall of 2016 instead of this summer.
There is no right or wrong way to feel when writing.
I sometimes have to remind myself to remove the pressure to feel happy while writing. Writing is hard enough without the pressure to feel euphoric. Writing is something I do because I choose to do it, regardless of my mood, over which I have limited control – particularly since I have bipolar disorder.
However, I do prefer enjoying writing to not enjoying it, and there are ways of thinking that, for me, make enjoying writing more likely.
Write What You Want to Write
There is a Miss Manners school of thought when it comes to writing instruction that appears in many books, articles, and advice interviews from editors or agents
The attitude leaks out from the language they use. They will advise you to always show and not tell, then follow their injunction with the words, “Telling instead of showing is the hallmark of a lazy writer.” As if there were no other reason, besides poor character and bad manners, that a writer might tell rather than show, such as “exposition was needed to convey background information quickly” or “the humor depends on the ironic undertones of the narrative voice.”
Other advice-givers on writing believe it is self-indulgent to ever use the word “I.” They claim it is rude to the reader. (Sorry memoirists! Maybe you could write biographies instead? Or books about cats. Everyone loves books about cats! Ahem. Just do not mention your cat.)
In the writing process, experimenting and failing does not mean anything is wrong. In fact, failing means I am doing something right. I am learning what does not work. Nothing I write, no matter how “awful” it appears,is a waste of time.
How I wish I had always known this.
I used to always get stuck in the rough draft stage. My scatter-brained, and sometimes sterile, rough drafts would discourage me into quitting. I could not see my scrawling for what it really was: a necessary step of the process that would move me forward if I only gave it a chance.
I once read advice from a novel editor who said, “There has to be a likable character other than the protagonist within the first couple of chapters or the reader will put the book down. The reader just won’t bother.”
This assertion awakened my B.S. sensors. What about books about characters stranded on deserted islands like Robinson Crusoe? What about anti-hero stories where even the main character is unlikable? What about man-versus-nature survival stories with only one character pitting his wits and physical endurance against snow, hunger, sleet, or frostbite? Are those kinds of books always failures?
I also wonder: Who is this “The Reader” that the editor seemed to know so well? It was my understanding that there is no “the reader” unless you are writing for only one person, say, as in a letter or email. Otherwise there are many readers – at least potentially. I am a reader myself, and I have trouble seeing any connection between myself and the skittish and impatient creature called “The Reader” that the editor describes.
Guilt permeates my existence. It creeps into my dreams. Sometimes I feel guilty without knowing why and have to look for something to feel guilty about, invent something if necessary, to reassure myself that the intensity of my remorse has meaning.
Naturally my cat uses my guilt against me. By accident I stepped on her paw once. An ear-splitting yowl followed. To say I was sorry, I pampered her with tuna treats. Now she routinely feigns being stepped on in order to procure apologies in snack form. If my foot barely grazes her toe, she will unleash an agonized wail that would make the Marquis de Sade weep with pity.
However, as bad as guilt is, embarrassment runs a close second.
Recently someone accused me of being defensive.
My response went something like this: “Me? Defensive? Who’re you callin’ defensive, yer defensive. Yo mama! Hrumph!”
My critic rejoined that I should read the self-help classic How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I rolled my eyes. From all I had heard about the book, it seemed to be all about remembering and repeating names so that people who loved hearing their own names would like you more.
For me, even the most well-intended criticism of my writing stings initially. An electric shock goes off in my brain. I can practically hear a buzzer going off, the kind used in game shows. It says, You are incorrect! Wrong. You have failed, failed, failed.
After the initial shock, an unexpected transition sometimes happens. I see things I was unable to see before.
Good writing criticism is chocolate wrapped in a thin, sour shell. At first it tastes awful. It zings the tongue. It triggers resistance. But once the shell melts away, the taste of chocolate delights as you imagine exciting new possibilities. You watch with fascination as metaphors enliven flat prose. You see how strong action verbs energize writing. You see vague phrases resolve into clarity.