The Struggles of a Self-Conscious Writer

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Looking back on when I began writing and what I wish I had known, just one thing comes to mind: that it was okay to make mistakes.

Like I’ve said earlier on this blog, I was raised among avid writers and readers. My father, my aunt, my 2nd cousin, my grandmother, my great aunts, they are all very skilled and published authors. I grew up surrounded by people who constantly consumed and produced literature. Because of this, I quickly learned how to read and began devouring book after book. Attempting to write was just a part of the natural course. My family encouraged my creative efforts, always supplying praise and support with gentle instruction.

Unfortunately, I was a very self-conscious child. Every time my grandma put her red pen to my latest draft, I cringed, embarrassed and ashamed. At every mistake I thought, I should have known that. Why did I make such stupid mistakes?

So I self-imposed an unrealistically harsh standard for my writing very early on. If something didn’t meet my expectations, I trashed it. For many years, I wrote and compared and shredded most of my work. Slowly, my frustration and embarrassment manifested in my writing process.

I stopped showing anyone my works-in-progress. I gave finished products only – and a very specific selection of those. If anyone walked by while I was writing, I thought they might be able to see what I had written, and made it a habit to slouch over my paper and block the motion of my hand with my other arm, while checking on the people around me – to make sure they weren’t reading my work. That became exhausting and unproductive, so instead I wrote only if I was completely alone, without even the chance that I might be disturbed. Yet, even within this isolation, I continued to berate myself for my mistakes. At some point, I could no longer write freely. I stared at my paper or monitor composing and discarding and editing sentences in my head before daring to put them on the page.

I became so self-conscious of my failure that I almost stopped writing entirely.

During this time, I began writing poetry. I’m still not quite sure what it was about poetry, but I found I could write it without incurring the full weight of my criticism. Perhaps it was the inherent subjectivity of the medium, or the drastic structural differences between writing and poetry – whatever it was, poetry became the thread that kept me connected to writing. For the first time in nearly a decade, I was writing something I was proud of. It began as a tiny sliver of confidence that gradually grew strong enough to push me back into attempting creative writing.

I sometimes catch myself deleting things, even though I know they’re fine, allowing that glimmer of self-doubt back into control. As soon as that happens, I pause to collect myself, rewrite what I erased, then deliberately ignore it and move on to the next part. Sometimes, all it takes is the decision to move forward.

If any of you feel similarly about your writing, my advice is this: keep writing. It sounds simple, but I know it can be extraordinarily difficult. Don’t let that stop you. Write something, write anything. If a fragment of a scene is all you can do – that’s incredible. Write it, save it, and do it again.

Good luck,

Plutark

What kinds of things do you struggle with in writing? Let us know in the comments!

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Letting Go of Drafts

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The esteemed hostesses of this site have generously allowed me some of your time to blog about an important part of writing that often goes ignored: ERASURE and CUTTING. Arguably, a good deal over half of anything you write is not going to make it to the final cut. So here’s why it matters and why it’s important you get rid of it anyway.

First, some background: I just graduated with my M.A. in Creative Writing with a 267-page thesis that comprises part one of a planned four-part novel. I took a semester off to write what was supposed to be a 400-500 page novel-length piece. I wrote about 400 pages in the first three months. Two semesters later, and countless numbers of meetings with Cya and Plutark, 20 of these 400 pages remained intact enough to make it into the new draft. The rest of the new 267 pages were written anew, mining very minimally from previous drafts (a phrase here or there, some dialogue).

So how do you let go of the months spent on writing 400 pages? How do you let go of the FOUR HUNDRED PAGES themselves? Or, less personally: How do you let go of what gets cut? How do you leave a draft behind?

It is not simple. Pride plays a big role in writing. You have to be proud of what you write, generally – but the catch is also knowing when what you write is good but not good enough. The first draft of anything you write, I can guarantee, is not going to be publishable. It’s just not. And that is not a bad thing.

A classmate in a graduate fiction workshop once told our professor, visiting writer David Maine, “I never rewrite anything. I believe everything you write the first time comes out the way it’s supposed to be. Isn’t that part of the creative process? Total creation.” The rest of us sneaked looks at each other, trying not to be judgmental but screaming internally, not because her first draft was bad – it wasn’t – but because we couldn’t imagine letting any of our first drafts fly free into the world like that. You’re not birthing a baby where you thankfully only get one experience pushing it out. The great part about writing is that you have the opportunity to perfect something.

These days everyone fixates on immediate results and immediate fame. Some authors get their big break on their first try and that’s awesome. However, what none of us see are the years and drafts preceding their actual publication. All the drafts that no one outside your writing group sees matter, just not to your future reader. Rewriting and revising (subtly different from one another) matter only to you because they will make your final draft, the untouchable draft, everything that it could not be without all of that previous time and effort.

Many writers tell their fans, the unpublished and hopeful legions, that the key to being successful is writing every day. What they do not always elaborate on is that this is not just to keep a habit going or to finish quicker and thus get published; it is to improve your writing, slowly and steadily. All of the drafts that build up, even if they get removed and forgotten by all but you, improve your technique, your organization, your structure, your syntax, every little aspect. Every day that you sit down to write, the words come smoother, even if they come slowly. You build your style, you learn what works, and – the kicker – you can discard what doesn’t without consequences.

Yes, it is deeply, achingly painful to know that you could have finished a project sooner had you not discarded four hundred pages. But look back at those drafts – are they really what you wanted? Are they better than what you produced in the following drafts? Odds are, they pale in comparison to your current version. They were building blocks to your current success. But you wouldn’t have gotten to the more publishable draft without them. Keep building.

C. Kamei

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PS. To end, I’ve attached a short video that does a better job explaining all of this. The first part of the video is a brief summary of Leonardo Da Vinci’s early years building to his success. Many people skip over the sixteen-year gap of failure, practices, and revisions. All of the drawing and painting and techniques he practiced every day, many were not masterpieces and many go unrecognized by the majority, but they allowed him to come to fruition in his piece, The Last Supper.

The Long Game Part 2: The Missing Years http://vimeo.com/87448006

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Have you had to let go of a draft you loved? Let us know in the comments!