The tragedy of the self-silenced writer

I had planned to write my own post on subtle censorship today, as it’s the first day in quite some time that I’m not going to be yammering at you about the rigors of standard format and I’ve been dying to jump into the conversation. Over the weekend, however, a couple of the comments on guest blogger Shaun Attwood’s post — who knew it would generate such a plethora of responses from readers? — got me thinking about a deadly form of censorship: the kind writers sometimes impose upon themselves.

Since I’ve depressed myself into a stupor thinking about it (not the best state of mind while on a writing retreat, alas), rather than write about it afresh and be-glumming myself still more, I’m going to re-run an earlier post on the subject. Some of you may remember the story; I try to honor Marc’s memory by telling some version of it here about once per year.

This is the story that Marc did not live to tell. He censored himself in many, many ways, including the ultimate one, before he could.

A moment of silence, please: I’m giving a eulogy today.

My friend Marc, a genuinely gifted poet and playwright, died a few years ago, and I, as one of the few people in our college class who was reading his writing hot off the keyboard, was asked to give his eulogy at our reunion. One of the liabilities (or joys, depending upon how one looks at it) of going to a reunion-happy school lies in the inevitability of, as time passes, more and more of one’s classmates requiring eulogies.

Today, it’s my turn to step up to the podium.

Marc was only 39; I had known him since we were both 18. Brilliantly talented, he lost faith in his own writing before he could find the right agent for his work. And so, out of respect for him, I am going to step aside from our ongoing series and devote today to urging you to maintain faith in your own writing talent.

Marc was one of those writers whose promise was obvious to everyone early. Year after year, all throughout school, he won poetry and essay prizes; his English teachers adored him as the kind of super-creative, insightful student who comes along only once in a blue moon; his basketball coach praised him as the ideal of a hard-working athlete with natural talent. Confident in his abilities, he never doubted that triumph would continue to follow triumph for the rest of his life.

Yet as every high school hero is shocked to learn, the rules change radically after graduation.

The talents that spelled success within the sheltered confines of a private school are not automatically lauded in the world outside, and as many a crestfallen college freshman can tell you, there are always more than enough highly-praised high school Juliets on campus to fill all the roles in a college production of ROMEO AND JULIET forty times over.

Big fish, welcome to the ocean; you’re not in your little pond anymore.

At Harvard, Marc was surrounded by brilliant young writers from all across the country and all around the world. His work was appreciated, because it was very good, but no longer was he the outstanding talent. While some writers might have embraced a new-found community of very talented people, Marc went the more common route: in the midst of such stellar competition, despite the fact that he was clearly able to hold his own with the best of them, he started to doubt himself.

Heaven help us, he started to wonder if he could really write.

Oh, if only we could all rewind our lives back to the point before we started to question our own talent! To before the demons of self-doubt and endless internal criticism started to nag us! How many among us have not been turned away from our computers at least once by the fear that our best was just not good enough?

Marc did keep writing, but increasingly, he kept his work to himself, thus reducing to zero the chance that it might see publication. He ceased entering contests; he gave up querying magazines; his writing resume languished. Like so many aspiring writers, he began to believe that the slightest defect poisoned an entire work, so he stopped being able to incorporate good criticism.

So what did he do with all of that pent-up creative energy? He wrote a solid first draft of an interesting novel — I know, because I’m one of the few human beings he allowed to read it. It would have been very marketable after a single revision, news that should have brought joy to his heart.

Instead, after only one or two rejections from agents, he stuffed it in a drawer, never to see the light of day again. As thousands of aspiring writers do every day.

He next turned his talents to writing plays, but there, too, even the most minor criticism seemed to make his confidence wilt. Eager at first, he soon came to regard attaining finalist status in a competition as evidence that he had failed abysmally.

Like so many aspiring writers, he fell into the trap of expecting every word that sprang from his fingertips to be perfect without revision. As, again, do thousands.

It’s very seldom the case, even with the most brilliant of writers, but it’s an easy trick to play on yourself: if you were truly talented, the imp of perfectionism whispers in our ears late at night, you wouldn’t have to struggle. The world would be beating a path to your door, unasked, to read your work.

This isn’t plausible, of course. It is utterly impossible to sell work that you don’t send out, just as it is impossible to win contests that you don’t enter. Yet self-doubt would rather not try than to risk defeat.

Because I’m a generally upbeat person, Marc and I frequently argued over our respective expectations of the literary market. He was astonished that I just kept plowing ahead, regardless of rejection, until agents and editors started saying yes; having attained success so easily in the past, he was suspicious of incremental gains made through persistent effort. Yet by insisting that his own work had to be born perfect before he would allow others to see it, he made it harder and harder to get himself to sit down and write at all.

This is a very common logical conundrum for writers, one I tried to understand at the time by incorporating an analogy gleaned from Neil Fiore’s excellent book on procrastination, THE NOW HABIT (without which, truth compels me to state, I probably would not have completed my master’s thesis). Fiore compares any major task to walking the length of a ten-foot board that is six inches wide.

When the board is sitting on the ground, getting across it would be an easy task, right? Yet the procrastinator worries about crossing the board perfectly — and thus waits until conditions are perfect. As the deadline nears, it becomes clearer and clearer that the task is getting harder to do well — thus emotionally raising that board until it feels like it is stretched between two five-story buildings.

Now, crossing the board is terrifying, as the stakes of failing are much more severe. What a procrastinator does to end this situation, Fiore argues, is to set fire to his own end of the board, metaphorically speaking: with absolutely no time to spare, perfection in execution does not matter nearly so much as simply scooting across the board as fast as possible.

For Marc, as for many, many writers, a similar logic applies to completing a book — or a play, or a poem, or a contest entry. They do not want just to walk across that board — they want to do so in such a memorable style that the admiring multitude will be telling their grandchildren about it for generations to come.

With such lofty intentions, that board is not just stretched between adjacent buildings; it is wavering in the wind between the Empire State building in New York and the Transamerica pyramid in San Francisco.

No wonder it’s terrifying: effectively, every sentence the writer produces has to be the greatest since the invention of the pen.

Marc, and writers like him, expect inspiration to waft them into a state of such divine creativity that all of their latent promise as artists will undergo some sort of instantaneous alchemy that produces the philosopher’s stone of writing, the book that is perfect with no revision.

Then, and only then, will they believe in their hearts that they are genuinely talented.

Every single time that inspiration, as is the way with muses, comes and goes at its own sweet pleasure, the self-doubter comes to doubt his own talent more. And even when, as in Marc’s case, inspiration does hit hard enough to produce a stellar short piece, that success apparently does not count as proof: it could have been a fluke, or it wasn’t a big enough success.

Or it was a short story, rather than a novel, or it was a genre work instead of literary fiction, or it was literary fiction and unlikely to appeal to a broad mainstream market. Any excuse will do, because there is no one more voracious for justification than a talented person in the throes of self-doubt.

Painful? You bet. And painful to watch? Absolutely.

I am telling you this, not to criticize Marc — that’s not usually the point of a eulogy, is it? — but in the hope that his story might help inspire those of you out there who are afraid that you’re not talented enough to start the book you’ve always dreamed of writing, or whose fears have paralyzed you into stopping in mid-draft or mid-revision to give yourselves a bit of a break.

Instead of abusing yourself for not producing perfection every time you sit down at a keyboard, why not reward yourself for sitting down there at all? Instead of berating yourself for being in the midst of writing a novel for a year or two or ten, why not break the task up into manageable smaller goals, and celebrate those achievements as you reach them?

There’s no better cure for self-doubt than tangible evidence of talent, and you’re more likely to convince yourself that you are indeed gifted if you don’t demand that you produce THE DIVINE COMEDY every time you sit down to write a poem.

Regardless of how talented you are.

Start small — remember, even the best-upholstered ego is a fragile thing, and it needs to be rebuilt with care. You could start by setting time goals for your writing, logging in the minutes as you go, or set yourself a page goal for each writing session. Keep track of your successes, so later on, when you start to berate yourself for not writing as often as you should, or as much, you can look back in your log and say, “Hey! I wrote for ten hours last week!” or “Hey! I have been averaging three pages per day!”

Start there, because no matter what the imps of doubt whisper in your ear, there’s never been a book written yet without the author’s sitting down day after day and writing.

So there.

If these goals seem too tiny to you, requiring too many added together to reach the goal of a completed book, remember this: prolific writer Graham Greene wrote only 147 words per day.

Which, I suspect, is why his dialogue exchanges are so short. Most of us can easily expend 147 words in debating where to go for lunch.

Greene carried around a little notebook, and (the story goes) would not allow himself his first drink of the day until after he had penned word 147. Now, I wouldn’t recommend emulating the drink part, at least not on a daily basis, but his strategy was basically sound: those words, few in and of themselves, added up to many very highly-respected novels.

Oh, and a Nobel prize in literature.

However you decide to go about it, please start easing up on yourself soon, because there isn’t always time to change.

I tell you this from experience, because I shall never be able to wipe from my mind that saddest of literary sights: a brilliant, partially-revised novel sitting in a drawer, awaiting the beneficial touch of a writer who can never come back to it again.

Keep up the good work, my friends. Your talent is worth it.

3 Replies to “The tragedy of the self-silenced writer”

  1. Very poignant. Very relevant. A lot of my own avoidance-behaviors (not writers block) comes from an uncertainty that my idea is ready to be worked with, and the fear, the doubt that I, not my skills and talents, for I know I have them, but I am not up to the task. So I avoid the work. Perhaps not exactly the same as Marc’s case, but, the effect seems to be the same.

    Thanks for this post. Just supports my own plan to write 900 words a day from Memorial Day to Labor Day. I just hope I can stick to it. I shall refer to this post often.

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