4 Tips for Loving Your Stories
4 Tips for Loving Your Stories
Chapter 10 “The Writing Life” – Section 5 “Love of Craft”
“Tell me all your stories, tell me all the feelings about your stories. And I'll compassionately accept you, your feelings, and your stories.” - JP Sears (On how to speak to ourselves)
One of the biggest dangers that I've discovered in the writing craft is in defining one's self-worth from it. With stories, writing, or art being so integral to our lives, it is hard not to let it singularly define us instead of letting it be healthy part of us. As a result, we judge ourselves based on warped standards for writing that come from other writers, from critics, or even from ourselves. For me, this becomes a particular danger when my primary writing is the creation of tutorials, in which I try to discern and teach “good” writing from “bad” writing. As a result, people could potentially make judgments about their own writing based on my standards. I also get caught up in the standards that I make for my own work and tend to beat myself up for not meeting those standards. So today, I want to give you (and future Blake) some tips for loving writing and not letting it become an authoritarian critic in your life.
Tip 1: Honor the pain that comes with the writing process.
One of the reasons that I have such a difficult time when a test-reader critiques my book is that I feel like the story is a part of me. In fact, it is. Every character I create (good and bad), all the themes, and all the events are direct, symbolic, or exaggerated pieces of my heart, my mind, and my experiences. I imagine that I am not alone in this, that many writers experience the same. The problem then arises when something so close to us requires elevated standards, judgment of the artifact, and criticism in order to improve.
If we are ever to become adept at allowing our writing to be critiqued and made better, we need to come to terms with both our relationship to the art, as well as the need for improvement. What we need to then learn is to move forward without these two factors coming into destructive conflict. I've found that the starting place for that is to value the emotions that come with criticism and the process of improvement. It is perfectly valid to cry when someone cuts into your flesh—whether literally slicing your skin or figuratively slicing through your novel. Think of test-readers as literary surgeons whose healing help does not come with anesthetic.
The resulting sadness and pain are sacred emotions that you should value. They are part of what makes you human, and part of what will make your book so powerful. And when we look at these feelings as valid and even good emotions, we stop identifying the pain as a poison meant to destroy our self-esteem and happiness. Additionally, sadness can be a feeling that accompanies emotional healing. Feeling and accepting your temporary emotion of sadness, while a close friend cuts your story to pieces, can help to heal the injury to your pride, your happiness, or your ego. In my experience, this then helps to protect your productivity from shutting down due to defensiveness, depression, or discouragement.
Tip 2: Remember that while writing is a piece of you, it is not you.
There was a time (not too long ago) where my entire sense of self-value came from my writing. As I identified myself more as being a writer than as being me, all of my emotions became wrapped up in the ideas of success, of being a great author who wrote life-impacting stories. That meant that when I once wrote an entire novel in a month, I felt like I was on top of the world. But a few months later, when it took all of my emotional fortitude just to finish a couple pages in a day, I felt like crap. In addition, I unhealthily sought validation through my writing tutorials. This included how many people read them, how many favorites I got, and how many subscribers I had. The truth is that some days, I still do that. This warped sense of self-worth then caused me to feel like a failure as a person because I hadn't published anything. What was the result of this unhealthy wrapping of my self-worth into my writing? Spirals of depression that made my writing both slower, less enjoyable to write, and less powerful.
So why did Blake do this to himself? It's probably due to a childhood where he felt he had to earn love through over-achievement, as well as his living in a culture that assigns people value by what we do rather than by who we are. But the ultimate truth is that our writing accomplishments do not define us as people. No story you could ever tell, even if you were to write a multi-volume epic, could ever encompass who you are as a person nor match you in terms of value. Nor do the feelings and ideas expressed in your stories mean any less just because you are not a “published author” (cue Gregorian chant music). You are valuable for who you are, your personality, your ideas, your happy experiences, and your painful experiences. And when you can separate your self-worth from your writing, you will love your writing much more for it.
Tip 3: Love your crappy first drafts, and the process of improvement.
You might have heard the saying that “We hate the things in others that we despise about ourselves.” For example, emotionally abusive fathers don't allow their sons to cry because they perceive that emotion as weak, and don't want to acknowledge that there is a “weak” inner-child crying inside of them. As for writers, we often feel ashamed of our early drafts once we mature in our writing abilities. This then causes emotional pain as we try to improve those writings and are constantly reminded of our mistakes and flaws.
When I look at my own past writings, I'm frequently ashamed by what I see. I'm ashamed when I see examples of sexism, where I portray women as pathetic and needy. I'm ashamed when I see examples of teen angst, and emotional turmoil that now seem silly to me. I'm ashamed of all the crappy grammar and structure that indicated that I was once an amateur who didn't know what he was doing. I'm ashamed of these things firstly because my test-readers have now seen them and know these secret things about me. I'm also ashamed that I was ever that way. Unfortunately, the result of that shame is that I enjoy the process of writing less. That results in my writing less. Most detrimentally, it results in my feeling ashamed of the person I once was.
If we ever want to change this vicious cycle that cripples our writing, we have to learn to love our crappy writing and to respect it. But how can we possibly do that? It's not easy, but we can begin to love our crappy writing by acknowledging all the good in it. You look at the core good ideas in your plot, the places where you have created potential for improvement, the characters you like, and the fact that you have even written something in the first place. After all, writing a crappy first draft is one of the most difficult and worthy accomplishments in the world. One thing that helped me was to learn to be embarrassed by my past shortcomings, without feeling ashamed of myself. When I found that a test-reader had found one of my stupid mistakes, I learned to laugh and blush and to genuinely feel amused by the situation, without falling into the trap of thinking that they made me a failure as a person. For example, past Blake described demons in WAY too sexy of details. Is that embarrassing to admit? Yes! Am I okay with being embarrassed? I'm finding it brings me more joy and amusement every day.
But what if our writing is so crappy, and we have to deal with the vile truths about ourselves like sexism, racism, our inability to write as well as we want, difficulty in making anything but one-dimensional characters, etc? How can we ever hope to love and respect ourselves or our writing when those elements are a part of the equation? The way I started to respect past Blake and his writings was to realize the strength in his vulnerability. Even though his writing was crap, he pushed that crap out (crude pun intended) and risked his own inner-critic and external critics pointing out how terrible his writing was. If that feat wasn't brave enough, past Blake also cared enough about his crappy story to seek out pain-inducing ways of improving it. My own self-congratulatory example aside, this basic level of respect for our past selves and our past writing will lead us to loving the craft of writing more and finding joy and fulfillment within our art. It will allow us to feel happy when we are able to identify something we finally understand as being an objective or subjective flaw in our work, because we get to improve both as writers and as human beings. Thus improvement itself becomes a joy.
Tip 4: Take all writing advice with a grain of salt.
Whether receiving critiques from a test-reader, reading what that Blake guy writes in his ludicrous tutorials, or even considering the advice of published authors, consider others' opinions without completely giving in to them. Writing, as with all forms of art, is an attempt to create a physical representation of some aspect the creator's own subjective life experiences. In other words, there is no “true” or “best” way to create art because it is a personal journey towards achieving our own best. So people genuinely trying to help you with your writing are really just sharing the ideas that personally helped us with our writing. And our determinations for what makes a story “good” or “bad” come from the standards and criticisms which promoted success in our own particular writing style. Like with martial arts, most of these constructs will be pretty universal (like the idea that doing push-ups is a pretty good idea), while others are more tailored to our own style (like whether you should block a punch or dodge). When we critique your work or give instruction, what we are really doing is just telling you what worked for us, what we've seen done successfully/unsuccessfully, or what we like to see in a story. These opinions are valuable, but they are not the sole determiners of artistic merit.
Does this mean you should throw all advice out the window? That you should argue with your test-readers who voluntarily spent their free time lending you another perspective on your story? Or that you should send nasty letters pointing out all the flaws in the advice of authors who painstakingly wrote out ideas that they wished they had been given when they first started writing? No, that would be tremendously rude and ill-advised. In fact, we writers should be eager to hear to perspectives of people who are as not as emotionally connected to our work as we are. Those perspectives are usually more balanced and fair than our own perspectives. Nor does this advice mean that should you take the lazy route of writing by just doing a crappy few drafts and then refusing to take advice that would make it better before you publish. This is not loving your novel, it is sabotaging your novel.
What it means is that while their opinions matter, they do not get to determine the value in your work. Your writing does not have to live up to their standards, only to your own. So if that crazy Blake guy tells you, “Hey buddy, I love the idea for your story but I'm bored by all the technical mumbo-jumbo going on with how your science fiction technology works.” You should realize that most readers will probably pick up your book and think the exact same thing. That's what test-readers are for—gauging and predicting the responses of certain audience demographics (and finding objective flaws like grammar, plot-holes, and places of untapped potential).
However, if your dream is to write a super-technical sci-fi novel intended for a small clique of readers who appreciate those sorts of details, then do it. And make the story so strong and passionate that Blake has to put up with the boring details he hates because the novel is just so damn good that he can't put it down. While you should always be looking to improve and glean knowledge from others, the story is ultimately your own. While some people may love it, nobody will ever love it as much as you did for bringing it into existence. Love your novel enough to make it excellent by your own standards; and seek out strategies, advice, and critiques that will allow your novel to reach its own maximum potential according to those standards.
Weekly Recommended Watching: George of the Jungle (For subtle insights into how to take things less seriously. Most particularly helpful are the scenes in which George teaches Ursula how to be silly and make silly mistakes without letting that discourage her.)
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My Travels: My most recent travels have involved driving down from Connecticut, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and finally arriving in Kentucky. I'm in the mountains here, and that is lovely. And I find myself amused by the hiking trails with warning signs that bears or poisonous snakes are inevitably going to attack me, and how to deal with those situations. Silly Kentucky. I know how to deal with bears. Moldy coffee and inter-dimensional rifts do wonders to clear them out. And if that doesn't work, one can always try a hug and a compliment for how fine the bear's hair looks that day.
ANN - Chapter 9 - Our Terrifying Descent
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I only wonder if we need to give the growing crowd of fledgeling authors that have discovered self-publishing services the advice to shrug off any harsh criticism with claims about personal style - it's difficult to draw the line between objectively good advice and subjective perferences. Nevertheless, I am pleased to see you brought it up at all, and in a fairly balanced way as well.
Thank you for sharing - I suppose I'll be linking to this every once in a while, even!
Well, I would never advise anyone to shrug off any politely-given advice, regarding style or anything else. All criticism (when given in a healthy way) is valuable, no matter how harsh the nature of it is. Writers should definitely be encouraged to disagree with criticism in regards to style, but only after careful thought and meditation. And even then, the writer should strive for a compromise--a fix that resolves the critic's objection in an unexpectedly innovative way that preserves the author's voice and vision. That's my opinion, anyways.
I also believe that what you make has the potential to leave a legacy far longer lasting than any child you bear, and this is especially true for the creative, the ambitious, and the revolutionary. It's a state I want to achieve. To say I travelled from being unreliable, socially intolerable, only willing to work on his own designs, to a man who's hard work, willingness to learn everything, and perfectionist striving left a creative legacy that would last through generations to come. Wouldn't that be something?
Additionally, I am also learning these same lessons in my work, both now and of recent times. It's truly uplifting.
There are even details that can make me think this is written for me.
Thanks for this article. I needed something like this.