Being a writer is hard enough, by its very nature. We’re torn apart both by self-doubt of our abilities, our voice, our message, and by comparing ourselves with other, more experienced and established writers. Any negative messaging we develop while wrestling with these aspects is further compounded by how long it takes, how much labor it takes to gain any public notice… to say nothing of establishing a regular readership.
In many ways, developing oneself as a writer is like undertaking a self-improvement course: you have to identify and confront your inner demons. You have to scrutinize yourself for weaknesses and make plans to overcome them. And you can only momentarily bask in your achievements before lifting your eyes to the next challenge. Being a writer is not a lazy path at all.
For now, I want to address what I think are among the most difficult challenges for any writer to overcome in their craft:
- Giving yourself permission to write crap.
- Learning to take criticism.
- Trusting the audience.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott coined the invaluable phrase “the shitty first draft”. This is such an important philosophical concept for writers, I hate to paraphrase it at all. What it means, crudely simply, is letting yourself off the hook for producing a perfect piece of work in your first attempt. Let yourself generate the shitty first draft: write as fast as you can without editing, without censoring yourself. Just puke it all out on the page with abandon. There’s plenty of time for revisions and rewrites later, there always is. Yet some writers will lock themselves up into stasis with self-consciousness, worrying that they’re not good enough to make this attempt, or that their ideas aren’t fully fleshed-out and ready to be storified. That will come later! So much of the story is created while the story is being written! Forgive yourself, go easy on yourself, and release your ideas without restraint or apology. You’ve got to start somewhere, and no one will die if you don’t nail your novel down in one stroke.
Taking criticism is very difficult. It’s a real test of adulthood, to listen to correction from someone else and not take it personally. Obviously you’re emotionally connected to your work: you’ve poured time and brainpower into its creation. But you do yourself a disservice by defending it as-is and lashing out at anyone who can point out a couple errors or make some suggestions. I read a story by a young writer who had only heard the expression “let alone” and, without looking it up, persistently wrote it out as “little lone”. With respect and gentleness I tried to point out the error, and he blew up at me. “I guess I should just chop off my hands!” he cried.
That hadn’t been my point. With little respect and no gentleness I let him know he sounded like an idiot, and he would continue to embarrass himself in the future if he couldn’t accept advice. A writer who wants to do things right and improve needs to learn that a useful critique of their work is not a personal attack, and they should thank anyone with the ability to help them amend the finer points. (And if someone’s clearly just being envious or trollish, it’s useful to learn to truly, sincerely shut them out.)
What does it mean to trust your audience? It means to give them credit for not being vapid consumers in a vacuum. Some writers see their world so clearly, so vividly, they’ve got to record everything to faithfully transmit it to the reader, or so they feel. “Beneath an azure sky partially streaked with cirrus clouds, Belvedir rode his 17-hand dapple gray into the forest, which comprised 34% oak trees, 54% maple trees, and 11% hickory trees in its southeastern-most acre. The varieties of birds within earshot were as follows…”
Yes, we get it. Your world is very real to you. You spent a lot of time building this world and you want to bring the reader into it as well. But step back and trust that the reader knows what a forest looks like, what a bedroom looks like. Trust that the reader can imagine the general content of a city without studying the urban planner’s designs. If the detail is absolutely crucial to the story—say, when it’s being studied by a thief or a private detective—take your time and lead the reader through a sweep of its inventory. But the rest of the time, ease off the detail. You can have your character smile without further explaining they’re delighted at something someone just said. You can show actions and leave the reader to infer their relationship to each other, just like we all do in real life. Your story becomes a more interactive experience when you leave the details to the reader’s imagination: the reader can feel more of an attachment to the world you built with them, rather than a curated display. You just have to learn to… relinquish total control.
That may be what all three of these points have in common: unclenching your sphincter. Give up the notion that your first attempt must be perfect; accept constructive criticism as useful, not a personal affront; lay off the nitpicky details of your narration and let the reader do some of the work. You can’t control everything and you shouldn’t try to, just manage the aspects of storytelling that lie within your reach. That reach will expand in time, just keep at it.