Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Terrors of Writing. What Scares You?

This article came to my attention by Executive Creative Director Suzanne Pope of john st. Advertising in Toronto.

The absolute truths are brilliantly presented.

The Terrors of Writing
by Professor Reinekke Lengelle
Athabasca University (Canada)

The Terror of Procrastination:

Weeding the garden or sorting the kitchen junk drawer can become incredibly important when we have writing to do. In his book The Courage to Write, Ralph Keyes says: “fear and courage are like lightning and thunder; they both start out at the same time, but the fear travels faster and arrives sooner.” The good news is, if you start writing despite the fear, “the requisite courage will be along shortly.” Three tips to combat this terror: focus solely on the task at hand, drop perfectionism, and identify who your reader is. This applies whether you are writing a promotional message for your new business, a difficult e-mail to your boss or union rep, a patient chart, an essay, or a novel.

The Terror of Rejection:

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck was rejected 14 times yet later won a Pulitzer. Mary Higgins Clark’s work was rejected 40 times before she sold more than 25 million books. She didn’t give up when one editor told her, “your stories are light, slight, and trite”. Even The Diary Of Anne Frank received the following rejection comment: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level.” It was rejected 16 times before being published by Doubleday in 1952; more than 30 million copies are now in print. So, take heart and remember that rejection shows up in every aspect of life; writing just teaches you to deal with it sooner.

The Terror of Revelation:

Flannery O’Connor wrote that anyone who has survived childhood has enough to write about for the rest of his or her life. Some people want to climb K2, others psyche themselves gambling, but not you – you want to tell the sweet and bitter truth about your family, even if it’s fiction-wrapped. But you’re human too. Is it any wonder that Canadian poet and author Lorna Crozier didn’t tell her mother about the essay “What Stays in the Family” when it was published in 2001 in the anthology Dropped Threads. In her piece she wrote about her alcoholic father peeing in his shoe. About five years after publication a junior minister used parts of Crozier’s essay in a sermon in her mother’s home-town church. I’ll leave it to your imagination what kind of message Lorna’s mother left for her on the answering machine. There is no definitive way to avoid or solve this terror to anyone’s satisfaction.

The Terror of Criticism (or worse yet, the terror of “reader silence”):

Dorothy Parker once wrote, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” Yet, a scathing review can sell more books than a good one. However receiving criticism on your work is like being told your child is ugly, failed, or fat. Reader silence might be worse though; the “that’s nice” look in the eyes of someone you respect can leave you tossing and turning. You will haunt yourself with what you believe they are thinking about you and your work, while they are off getting a good night’s rest.

The Terror of the Blank Page:  

Your cursor blinks at you; a shadow falls on the too-smooth page of your new journal. But how different is this kind of resistance compared with going to the gym, sorting through a messy closet, or walking the West coast trail? You will face this terror again and again. If the blank page never daunts you, you may have set your standards too low. Failure isn’t a shame, not starting is. And a consolation: writing is hard work because you are creating something ‘new’; as Anais Nin once said, “The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.”

The Terror of (perceived) Mediocrity: 

Consider this: before Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love, she had been writing for more than a decade for a small dedicated group of readers. She wrote about men and men’s issues. She wasn’t famous. On Ted-talks, she spoke about the terror of not being able to reproduce her success. (Though her latest book Committed is now on the New York bestseller’s list). Let the words of Madeleine L’engle inspire you to simply get down to work and forget about achievement for the moment. “A book comes and says, Write me. My job is to try to serve it to the best of my ability, which is never good enough, but all I can do is listen to it, do what it tells me and collaborate.”

The Terror of Comparison: 

This last terror is my favourite. Imagine this. Your newest book is just out. You are happy to notice the only irksome thing about the finished product is that you’ve used the phrase “it struck me” three times on page 34. You read your bio a few times, smile, then pat yourself on the back and go to bed. Once in bed you pick up a book by – say someone like Elizabeth Gilbert – you read her bio and compare it to yours. You realize she is younger than you. This kind of envy has caused writers to reach for the scotch. I go for chocolate and tell myself that Elizabeth Gilbert has no children to raise and interfere with her writing; I start to collect evidence that childless women are more successful as writers. Then I remember that Ursula LeGuin has three; Barbara Tuchman had five; I (re)consider the scotch.

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