Turn towards discomfort. It might make you a better writer.

February 26, 2020

There’s a little voice in every writer’s head that pops up like a proverbial gopher, saying, ‘this is terrible, no one will want to read this.’ He usually appears when you’re mid-way through writing a huge novel, when the sentences are all starting to sound the same, when there are too many adjectives and adverbs, not enough descriptions and everything is just so… generic.  

Robert Hughes’ famous quote rings true:

“The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”

Except that bit about being a great artist: if doubt equated to great art, then I’d be Michelangelo.

I’m nearing the end of writing my fourth novel, and I’m coming out of the great depths of despair known as an edit, where you pick apart every single word you’ve written (all 80,000 of them). During the edit, especially around that mid-way mark, I’ve been feeling the bog of my inner critic dragging me down into the mud. It’s hard to pluck apart a book you spent a year writing.

When you see how big a novel is, the daunting task starts to feel much like a climber looking at the vertical cliff-face before the ascent. Stare too hard and you’ll psych yourself out.

I’ve had plenty of moments of self-doubt; times when I was scared to write because my protagonist cut too close to home or transgressed some line of discomfort.

I’m slowly being convinced the voice of the inner critic turns up when we access our own vulnerabilities as a writer. We’re far more likely to be critical of things close to us or protect ourselves when we write about our own struggles.

If we write according to our inner critic, we’ll only create safe fiction, which risks falling into mediocrity at the sake of protecting ourselves.

I remind myself of Jeff VanderMeer’s advice in Wonderbook, his guide to writing fiction, that whenever something feels uncomfortable, you should turn towards it in writing. It’s usually the place your story should go. I paraphrase here, because of course I can’t find my copy of the book when I need it.

Sure, I think it’s important to be aware of how your reader might perceive your work. But writing for a reader and writing for your inner critic are two different things. Being aware of where your book might be offensive to others is different to being afraid of tapping into your deep emotions and experiences.  

In making yourself emotionally uncomfortable, you might access things that bring up deep feelings for yourself; I’ve cried so many times writing this latest book, because it will be one of the most personal things I’ve ever written.

The protagonist is so close to my own experiences; an introverted teenage girl wanting to be the best but terrified of failing, coping with a perfectionism that leaves her immobile. In writing her joys and sacrifices, I’ve had to access things that hit me hard, not just as a writer, but a human being.

This book is a letter to myself. The end makes me cry, because I wrote it as a reminder of my self-worth.

And that’s how I know it’s good.

Not because anyone told me so, but because when that good ol’ gopher turns up in my head, I remind myself that I wrote an entire book, just for me.

Even if it needs work now, I can make it better with every edit. Better with every piece of feedback, better with every stroke of red pen. Whenever that inner critic comes calling, remind yourself that a novel is not in stasis; it is a constantly moving dance. It can change, only if you ask it to. And in writing, so too are we changed.        

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