The Shame of Writing
Creative writing teacher and fiction author reveals what keeps you from writing.
Posted Mar 21, 2017
I woke yesterday to two emails from a woman I have not met. I’d submitted a guest post for her blog. Her first email was a thank you and a lockdown on the posting date. Her second was a pile of mean wrapped in hair. She said she’d just read the article I’d submitted, didn’t know who had written it (surely it couldn’t have been me because she’d tracked down the one salvageable sentence to my blog so knew I could write and wanted more of that), said the rest had clearly been written by a “failed academic,” and declared that the last paragraph of the piece (which was my bio) read like an “infomercial,” so I needed to delete that but also, could I send her a bio?
She left me with two options, either to 1) write the article myself, or 2) have someone else write an article about me, because, “Mixing those two modes won't work. After all, I want your work and book to shine, Jess!”
I'm chuckling as I type this. The levels of absurdity (for the record, she actually had a good point about the tone; the rest was crazy cakes). But if you think I was anything but locked in Rage Tower, shooting death rays at my dog, husband, and child (price of admission, folks) after I read that second email, well, thank you for thinking so highly of me.
The Firestarter fury burned itself out within the hour, but it left behind a worm of doubt. Maybe this isn't the right time to write that book I've been dancing around for months… Now here is where it gets interesting for me. I’m 15 books into my career. I know how transformative, empowering, and life-changing creative writing is. I also know the games I play, how I’ll scuttle into the nearest excuse and hide there, a hermit crab of a human being, comforting myself with the fact that of course I’d work on that book if not for this lovely, formfitting excuse.
But We Get to Play? The book I’m “working on” now? I’ve never gotten so personal in my fiction, and not coincidentally, desperate in my reasons not to write it. The book is Lovely Bones meets Stranger Things, a time travel to Paynesville, Minnesota,1983, when boys were being abducted and returned but the adults never told us why. It’s an examination of the monsters we all grow up with. It’s mystery and magical realism, nostalgia and freedom. I’ve outlined it every which way but Wednesday, and now, I circle it. Looking for reasons not to write it.
Maybe I should self-publish a Murder-by-the-Month novella and make some quick cash so I can pay for the trip I want to take with my family, and then I’ll write this next book. And I’m going out of country in a couple days. I should wait until I return to dig in. And I have articles to write for my book that’s coming out May 1. That’s time sensitive. I should do that first. And I work too much. I need more time for fun, less time writing. I already have a full-time teaching job, I shouldn’t make writing another job. And maybe I’m not good enough of a writer to…
It was that last weasel worry that finally woke me up to what I'd been doing, and I have this morning’s email to thank for it (you might want to take a gift-wrapping class, blog lady, but gratitude for the present just the same): Maybe I’m not a good enough writer to… I recognize that old writing companion. His name is Shame. He masquerades as a fear of failure, or a fear of success, a need to get this one page just right before I can even think about going on to the next one, a million reasons not to begin or not to continue, worry that I’ll waste hundreds of precious hours writing, that people won’t like the book, that they’ll see my imperfection laid bare in my words, or the order of my words, or that they just won't want to see my words.
I imagine I'll wrestle with Shame at the beginning of every new book I write (he loses his seat at the table around page 100, dunno why), and I'll have to fight myself back to this place each time. Steven Pressfield does a great job naming this crisis of confidence in The War of Art. Anne Lamott offers an antidote in “Shitty First Drafts”—that whole book is a must-read. But here’s what I know, and forget with each book: there is only one cure for the shame, and it is this: word count.
The writing is the reward. The writing is the reward. The writing is the reward.