I’ve been following the fabulous Nina Killham’s blog ever since I read Believe Me and went searching for anything else she’d written.* Damn, but the woman can write.
And one of the things she can write about is writing.
Recently, I’ve been so bound up by the ‘rules’ of writing and whether my current WIP might not be another ‘practice’ novel but the real thing—whatever that might be—that every sentence I write seemed to be a worthless pile of unconnected letters. I even posted a think-I’ll-go-eat-worms whine about it.
But Ms. Killian provided the perfect counterargument. And a fairly graphic graphic, too.
She also referred back to a post written by Jennifer Louden, aka the Comfort Queen, who provided wise words and some suggestions of things to do when everything seems to stall.
I particular like number ten. It may be a superstitious cop-out, but you can’t say there wouldn’t be a certain amount of proactive effort involved.
But that aside, I was reminded of why I quit my old writing group a couple years ago.
One person got a nibble from an agent, and suddenly, anything anyone brought in, was being judged on whether it would sell once it was a novel—because that’s the only thing that brings in enough money to be ‘worth the effort.’ And the basis for criticism wasn’t whether someone’s newest pages told a good story or had POV problems or even made no sense at all, but solely by the rules of the latest class someone took or writing book someone read.
Do you know how many contradictory rules are out there for writing a cover letter to an agent so she or he will give your sample pages a mere glance? Let alone how many superstitions are floating around out there about how many lines on how many pages go into a synopsis and which font will tell an agent that you’re the next Stephen King and which ones are the kiss of death?
Some people got into an actual shouting match about whether it was unprofessional to mention that a novel was one’s first, each side waving various manuals and fistfuls of printouts from different websites. And I’m not even going to get into the fight about calculating word counts.
The whole thing made me tired. And not a little ticked off.
I mean, I can understand it if a reader thinks that my stuff has too many people or too much humor or not enough humor or—I’ll admit this one did hit the old ego—I was ‘trying too hard.’ I do respect the honest opinions of everyone in that group.** No one is required to love my writing—if enough people don’t get it, I need to do some serious editing. I have to be able to take it if I want to get better at storytelling. I don’t have to agree with them, as I say to my kids, but I do have to be polite.
But I don’t like it when I am given regurgitated 2nd hand criticism originating from someone who not only hasn’t read my particular piece and is not present, but gave these rules in a class I didn’t take or wrote it in a handbook I didn’t read. And I don’t like it when the focus of the criticism isn’t on the characters or the dialogue or the plot or the regrettable fact that everyone who came in contact with it is clawing their eyes out in confusion and despair,***but on whether it fits in with the latest superstitions from the publishing industry as divined by people who are not actually in the publishing industry.
After a while I felt patronized and pressured and just not good enough. So I stopped going to the meetings.
Unfortunately, it appears that I can generate those feelings all by myself. Anne Lamott calls it K-FCKD, the radio station that plays in your head 24/7 and tells you how much you suck.
I tend to forget that I didn’t start writing—in notebooks with unicorns on the covers and later on my Dad’s manual typewriter—because I wanted to see my name on a spine or have fame and fortune. I wanted to tell a good story, one that resonated in my imagination the way my favorite stories do when I read them. If my stuff resonated for other people, that would be absolutely awesome, and if they liked it enough to pay me for it, holy cow . . . but it was the act—the rush—of writing that was the real deal for me. The absolute need to get that idea or character or bizarre thought down on paper right now—to escape, as Stephen King put it, through the hole in the paper.
Otherwise, why bother? Right?
So I’m going to do my damndest to get out of my own way. The destiny of my story can take care of itself for a while. Right now, I need to go back to the beginning.
And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the goat.
*Two of her books are on the shelves near my favorite spot on the couch and I visit the other one on a regular basis at the library.
**Except for the guy who told me in an impatient voice that quote, “no one cared”, unquote about what I’d just shared. He tore a lot of people down this way before he finally left. He’s allowed his opinions, but I don’t respect him for how he shared them. In fact, I still occasionally hope he dies alone and forgotten in a box–because I’m allowed my opinion, too.
***I’m pretty sure this hasn’t happened, or at least it hasn’t been traced back to me yet.