Repairing Cracks in the Ramparts
Recently I’ve been feeling discomfort — a combination of pre-publishing jitters and critical voices that have wormed their way into my head and affected my work. Every time I start something new I hear some voice explaining, in the most condescending, superior tones, why I’m wrong, why what I think is good literature is in fact crappy literature. I keep writing negative reviews for work I haven’t even started yet. I hate the idea of writer’s block, but I suppose there’s no other name for it.
This is not a good state for a writer. It’s also not an unusual state. Others have been here before me.
What to do?
Well, I’m lucky. I’m in touch with a few writers I admire who are kind enough to share their advice and I’ve had some excellent chats over the past few days. I wanted to poll how they coped, or don’t. What triggers them, what restores them. I’ve drawn some conclusions.
1) No Googling one’s self. None. Not at all.
2) No reading reviews. If there’s a really good one, have someone tell you about it. Otherwise, silence. I shall start that now. This includes print reviews and Amazon and Goodreads and so forth. Just no point. Bad reviews are toxic and corrosive. Mavis Gallant once told me all bad reviews “must be burned.”
3) For bad reviews you’ve already read — forgive, and quickly, for the sake not only of our soul, but also for your creativity. There are all sorts of stories of writers who, years (sometimes decades) after they’ve received a horrible review can quote it, line by line. They still lug around a sack of resentment and fury. They speak of literary enemies. I can’t live like that. I can’t write like that.
4) No book groups. No reading groups. Why? You’d think sitting around chatting about books would be a wonderful thing for a writer, wouldn’t you? Well, even the most well-meaning groups tend to discuss books analytically, from a place of ideas, of thought, all from the head. Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Robert Olen Butler reminded me that this is not the place in which a work of art can truly be experienced, and certainly not the place from which a writer can create a work of art. Others may make meaning from the chaos of existence through abstraction, ideas and analytical thought, but not so for the writer. A novel or short story, for a writer, must be experienced through the senses. Butler says, “The artist is comfortable only with going back to the way in which the chaos is first encountered –that is, moment to moment through the senses.” He calls it the Thrum. A soul-deep aesthetic experience. If a writer spends too much time sitting around analyzing or listening to the arguments of ideas it will probably affect the writing in a negative way. It may not be true for all, but it has been for me. Butler says, “Your ambition as an artist is to give voice to the deep, inchoate vision of the world that resides dynamically in your unconscious… that’s the only ambition worth anything to you as an artist.”
5) All the above are a variation on this theme: Protect the temenos, the sacred space of writing. My home, my library, that place where I create, must be protected. Nothing should be allowed in except that which nurtures the work I do. In an era of social media infiltration, one must be so careful. The windows, I think, should be thrown open onto the life of the world beyond one’s desk, to the wild wood and the deep night and the scent of heather on the moors, the spirits and the people passing by, so full of stories, but that doesn’t mean just anyone can come in tracking mud and noise and discontent.
So, I re-dedicate my temenos, patch the cracks in the ramparts, re-fill the moat, pack up anything that doesn’t belong to me and send it back to its rightful owners, pull up the drawbridge, and even as I write these words, I catch a glimpse of it — the whirlwind on the tree-tops, tripping across the tall grass… story this way comes.
What a lovely essay. I especially think the last two paragraphs show that you’ve internalized the advice that went before. Is Bailey prohibited from the writing space? My cats are!
Thanks, Vicki. But now, Bailey is the opposite of banished. He’s my muse. And he reminds me walks out in the world are part of the writing process, too.
This is wonderful, Lauren. Of big help to me at the moment too! Thanks so much for taking the time to write and share it.
Glad it was useful, Diane. We’re in this together, yes?
It makes sense to me to have someone screen reviews so that you can avoid certain kinds of worthlessness, but not reading any reviews – including raves – seems to me like much too unilateral a move. Thoughtful and respectful reviews should not be shunned. Also helps to know that Goodreads is sort of overrun by a trolls and bullies. There are a lot of unchecked mental health issues among Goodreads’ most frequent posters, and while that’s sad on some level, it ought to help to realize that these aren’t people who should be passing judgment on what color your shirt is, let alone how good your book is. That they have anything resembling power in the literary world is one of the most frustrating things about publishing today.
Hi Jack, thanks for commenting. And thanks for the information about Goodreads. How sad. As for reading worthwhile reviews, I agree. That’s why I said: “If there’s a really good one, have someone tell you about it.” I should have clarified that ‘good’ doesn’t necessarily mean an utter rave, but positive, thoughtful and respectful, as you say. And yes, the distribution of power in the literary world these days is both alarming and frustrating. But we go on, yes? Thanks again.
Robert Olen Butler has some wise words.
Synchronicity never fails to astound me, Lauren. I was just about to compose a blog post on this very subject, based on an article I read in the March London Review of Books: “Against Self-Criticism” by Adam Phillips, pp. 13-16. Procrastinating, I thought, “I’ll just check in with Lauren. Haven’t visited her in a while.” Voila. You beat me to the punch! The Phillips article is brilliant too, characterizing Cervante’s Sancho Panza as our self-critic and referencing Freud, Hamlet and Richard III: ‘ O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!’ Here he explains how our super-ego (Freud’s term) “…makes cowards of us all because it is itself cowardly. We believe in, we identify with, this starkly condemnatory and punitively forbidding part of ourselves; and yet this supposed authority is itself a coward.” He ends the article with: “We may have underestimated just how restricted our restrictiveness makes us.”
You have provided good advice for writers on how to avoid the paralysis of analysis. Most of the reading groups I have been invited to have been very kind, too polite to get analytical to my face. They just asked good questions and listened to me read. But once, two participants were downright mean. That hurt, but I got over it. “Don’t take anything personally,” as Don Miguel Ruiz says. Still, it did give me pause when one said, “Your book is just so depressing. There is not a stitch of humour in it.” When I pointed out the passages I think are hilarious, she didn’t see it. I felt like a heckled comedian 😉 It has made me consider lightening up a bit, though Shakespeare always had a clown. Which takes me back to Philipps, who refers to the critic A.J. Close’s description of Sancho Panza as a typical 16th century clown: “lazy, greedy, cheeky, loquacious, cowardly, ignorant, and above all nitwitted”. Phillips says this characterizes our super-ego, and thus, we mustn’t take its criticism too seriously.
What do you think? I think I just wrote my blog – on your blog! I’m just going to tweet yours out and get back to work in my sacred space. Sending all my writing love to you today.
Hi Lise, thanks for your comments. I’m glad you found something useful in the blog. Just to be clear, however, I’m more than happy to visit people’s book clubs if they’re reading my work and would like to chat with me as the author. I’m always grateful if people invite me to talk about my books and I’ve had great experiences in that sort of setting, for the most part. A couple of visits where people clearly hadn’t read the book, and were more interested in wine than literature, but that’s a tiny minority. What I’m less enthusiastic about is a reading group where I’m expected to discuss and analyze other people’s books. That’s just not the part of my brain I want engaged in literature — it too easily turns into the critic’s voice when I’m writing.