Writing this from New York State, where, partway into the death-cleaning, I realized that maybe they call it that because it is so labor-intensive that, at the end, the cleaner dies. Ha ha! Just kidding. But wow: fifteen years of detritus is…a lot of detritus. Actually having fun and feeling energized by undertaking a job that is going to be impossible to do perfectly: kind of like writing a book, I guess.
Doing this work, I keep encountering traces of my former self (in photos and letters and books I bought) and am struck by two things: 1) There really is no solid self. Who was that guy? Who is this one? 2) I have been so blessed and lucky in my family life. Those three dear people, four counting me, clinging to one another and doing for one another and having so much fun, in so vastly many circumstances…
Before we launch into our question of the week, I wanted to let you know that I can now proudly announce the lineup for the coming audiobook of “Liberation Day:”
“Liberation Day,” read by the Author
“The Mom of Bold Action, read by Tina Fey
“Love Letter,” read by Michael McKean
“A Thing at Work,” read by Edi Patterson
“Sparrow,” read by Jenny Slate
“Ghoul,” read by Jack McBrayer
“Mother’s Day,” read by Melora Hardin
“Elliott Spencer,” read by Stephen Root
“My House,” read by the Author
How’s that for a great cast? I’m so grateful to these wonderful readers, and to the legendary Kelly Gildea for bringing this all together so wonderfully.
And here’s a clip of me reading the opening of the title story, i.e., the first four minutes of the book:
And now, on to our question….
I’d like to ask if you have any advice for overcoming self-consciousness when writing? Sometimes when I have a conversation, at the same time I'm thinking about what I should say, or whether what I've just said was quite right. It's the same with writing and I would love to hear your thoughts on how to overcome this. My daily word count is hopeless – I've been writing a novel for a year and have only got to 20,000 words. I also find it hard to work out whether I'm any good. There isn't an answer you can give to that one, but I would like to hear any tips you may have on the first question.
First, I want to praise the level of self-awareness evident in this question – it’s wonderful that you are so aware of your mind’s workings.
Then, let me say that 20,000 words in a year is pretty good, so it might be that this actually isn’t an issue – that this is just the way you work: you put something down, reconsider it, change it, delete it – this is exactly equal to “editing.” You may have an idea about how writing should feel, and how you should be proceeding, but maybe that’s just an idea, if you see what I mean. I guess this is where we get to the second part of the question (“I also find it hard to work out whether I’m any good”). If, in fact, the result of your process IS good – then you truly have no problem; you just have a method.
So, has anyone else (a friend, an editor, a prospective agent, a writing group) read what you’ve written?
Sometimes it’s the case that both 1) our method is painful and offends us and 2) it works anyway. In that case, I’ve found that accepting that the pain is part of my method actually reduces the pain – if I know, for example, that I always get stuck about 3/5 of the way through a story (which happens for me), well – the flavor of my reaction to that changes from “You idiot, you call yourself a professional, why are you stuck again, you moron?” to “Ah, this is happening again. That means we’re 3/5ths of the way through and the story is trying to ascend to higher ground. Hooray!”
But let’s go a little further with this, on the assumption that you wouldn’t have asked the question unless something in your current approach was bothering you, and that there might be some merit in that feeling of being bothered.
If you were my student and came to me with this question, I’d recommend that you give yourself permission to split your process into two parts: 1) the writing and 2) the editing.
Then, take all of what you’re calling that “self-consciousness” and use it only during step #2.
That is, give yourself permission to put that quality on a brief, respectful hold while you jot some stuff down that you are very happy to concede (to that self-conscious part of yourself) is no good, no good at all, just a terrible load of crap. (In this step, you are trying, to paraphrase Truman Capote on Kerouac, to be “not writing, just typing.”) It’s free-writing, really – writing without self-interruption, the judging mind sent briefly away.
If you find it hard to do this – hard to get free of that self-conscious, self-editing feeling – you might just set a timer, for 2 minutes say, and try to get through that period without any backtracking. (The narrower we make the assignment, the easier it will be to succeed.). It’s might also interesting, during this exercise, to watch your mind, see what it’s doing. How is that self-consciousness trying to intervene? On what terms? What language does it use? Are you capable of pushing it back? Swatting those thoughts away?
Once you’ve got some text down, you’ll want to welcome that self-conscious part back in, with a hug and big parade (this is, like, an inverse form of Mao’s “For a retreating enemy, build a golden bridge.”) We’ll ask “it” to have a look at what we’ve done – and, maybe, we add the request that it do so gently. (“We’re all friends here! You’ve known me all my life!”)
Anything in there it likes, even a little? Anything it can work with? You might try “allowing” it to cut fifty words (as we did in our earlier cutting exercise).
The idea is, you are submitting to it and working with it - not opposing it or rebuking it or regretting it. It’s part of you – can you make it work for you?
The benefit of the above approach is that, in this sort of free-writing, there is often more energy and surprise and swagger – all benefits of there being a little less vetting. You might note a more natural feeling in the voice than you’d get with the more slog-like approach we tend to use when our self-consciousness is dominating (the old “type and delete and type and swear, then delete again, while looking in horror at the seven remaining words, which are devoid of life and interest” approach).
Won’t it be sloppy, the result of this free-writing? Oh, yes, it will. But the great superpower we all need to develop is the ability to wade into the slop and convert, say, three pages of slop into one page of….non-slop. (Actually, this isn’t quite true – not everyone has to develop this skill. But those of us (and I’m one) who struggle with overmanaging our prose and in the process denuding the voice, might want to learn it, just because it might make our writing lives less full of anxiety).
In some of my pieces that are in that “third-person ventriloquist” voice I’ve mentioned here before, this is exactly how I start. I just start typing, while “doing” that character’s voice in my head, no looking back, no re-reading. Just for fun. When I feel I’ve produced a few decent-sized chunks of something, I’ll go back and revise – and this sometimes involves cutting, well, whole paragraphs, even pages. I’m sifting through what I’ve already conceded isn’t so good, to find a few slivers of something with (at least) some energy. Then I break those out and come at the whole thing playfully again. All in a spirit of fun and exploration.
So what we’re really talking about it is the idea that we contain many different writers, each of whom has a different set of skills, and instead of trying to choose and favor one and eradicate all of the “lesser” ones, we are just saying that all of those writers are us, and, like a sports coach, we are cycling those talents in and out, as needed.
The trick, I think, given your sense that you are being too hard on yourself, is to strike a bargain with yourself: “Self, you have a tendency to edit me too hard. This is hurting us. I admire that quality and I think it is going to be very valuable in the right context. Can we talk about this? Might I persuade you to leave the room (i.e., my head) while I, admittedly, make a big mess of the kind we don’t like (because, reading it, we may feel that we are not, after all, a writer), on the condition that, soon, I will let you back in and give you free rein, to get in there and be as self-conscious as you like? Look: I wonder if we might want to get in cahoots here a bit. We’re in this together. Can we help each other out? I promise not to, in the future, identify you as a problem, but as a tendency, and, eventually, a strength.”
Well, that’s a pretty long and New Agey talk to have with oneself. But my point is really this: what if we assume, as John Lennon once sang, that there are no problems, only solutions? If we have a certain strong tendency in our writing, we should be glad, and find a way to use it. Are we too scattered? This might be an indication that we have a grand imagination; with a little discipline, this flaw could become an asset. Are we afraid of being criticized? This might be understood as an admirable sense of pride, and we could use this pride to power a more energetic editing process (that is, we might understand “editing” as a way of “eliminating the need to be afraid of critique, because we’ve already mentally hit ourselves with every possible critique a reasonable critic could make.”)
Let me suggest one more idea: that voice you’re describing as “self-conscious” got its training from somewhere – namely, from the reading you’ve done and the classes you’ve taken and the books on writing you’ve read and so on. All very useful. But read a few paragraphs from a writer you love. What is the flavor of the approval you are feeling (the pleasure, the momentum, the compulsion to keep going)? Is it conceptual or sensual? I say sensual. Or, you know, visceral.
So maybe we can imagine there are two different offices in the mind. One houses that self-conscious part. The other houses this visceral part. This second part is the one we’d want to use while writing – the part that is able to assess (to feel) whether a reader would feel pleasure and momentum and a compulsion to keep reading if she was reading that swath of prose (the swath you’ve just written) for the very first time. My sense is, this part of the mind is more generous than what you, dear questioner, have called the “self-conscious” part (that part in that other office, that is maybe more inclined to analysis). This more-generous part of the mind roams through the store, tasting things, seeing what it likes and what it doesn’t. If it doesn’t like something, it doesn’t say much, just shrugs and moves on. It doesn’t care to criticize; it likes what it likes. It is more visceral and less conceptual than that other part, maybe. It just knows, whereas the other part…surmises, articulates, reduces, explains, tears down with logic, etc.
My writing took a big leap forward when I started genially suppressing that smart, analytical, “self-conscious,” part and encouraging that visceral part – the part that, while writing, I could feel steering me toward phrases and sentences that would keep the reader reading, and it was steering me by way of a feeling, a positive feeling.
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