Writing Reflections: Writing as a Hostage Situation

Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!

On the Trials of an Inner Editor

courtesy of foundshit.com

I have frequently heard writing referred to as a “socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” In part, I consider this an amusing reference to the fact that (most?) writers live with other people inside their heads – their characters – and make their living by looking at things through someone else’s eyes. But there is also another reason why writing can perhaps be seen as a somewhat schizophrenic profession: the Inner Editor.

I don’t know about anybody else, but I assume there are a lot of you out there like me (“inner editor” brings up over 2,750,000 hits in Google), and I tend to be of two minds regarding my work, whether I’m just doing a daily 1000-word exercise or in the midst of a long project. Some days, I’m absolutely thrilled with what I’ve written. I think it’s brilliant, everything is flowing wonderfully, the characters are vibrant and alive and I begin to feel that maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to get the hang of this writing thing. Maybe I can make a go of it after all.

And then there are those days when all of my previous optimism drains away, leaving me feeling beaten and hopeless. The descriptions I loved previously turn into flowery, clunky prose; the characters become puppets; the plot loses momentum and drags through wallowing, incomprehensible twists and turns. It is somewhat like I imagine the sensation must be for those in fairytales who, upon sitting down to what they think is a feast in an enchanted castle, bite into the food only to discover it is really made of ash. Who am I kidding? I ask myself. I have no idea what I’m doing. Nothing I write is of any merit whatsoever. Why am I wasting my time with such an impossible pursuit?

Speaking from my personal experience, I think the social conception of writers as reclusive, unstable geniuses prone as much to the depths of despair as amazing flights of fancy comes from the fact that a fair number of us are pretty insecure about our work. As many others have said before me, and as I mentioned in last week’s Reflections, writers put a great deal of themselves into their writing. That is not to say that they necessarily make their characters in their own image – rather, they infuse them with their own perceptions and ideas, their own understanding of the way the world works, how people think, what people do and why. It is in many ways a risky profession, at least in an emotional sense.

Perhaps as a consequence of this, there is, I think, for some writers an almost overwhelming tendency to self-censor, to self-criticise, to hate one’s creations almost as much as one loves them. There is often a little voice in your head that nags and nags: this doesn’t work, that sounds stupid, he’s an idiot, she’s completely 2-dimensional, and so on, and so forth. The Inner Editor (which is how many of us typically refer to this nagging voice) can be useful for pointing out those aspects of a novel which need to be improved, and bits you need to work on. Dissatisfaction, after all, is the main impetus for improvement. However, the problem with some IEs is that they don’t know when to shut the hell up and let you write.

It is at this point that, in my mind at least, writing becomes a hostage situation. You pretty much have to sit your Editor down with a metaphorical gun to his/her metaphorical head, and force them to be quiet while you get that first draft done. Only then will you be able to write in peace, without obsessing, as Oscar Wilde joked, over the placement of a comma.

There are various ways you can do this. Some of my favourites include:

  1. Impose a time/word limit. Freewriting exercises, such as writing down your thoughts for a full minute, or writing as much as you can on any subject in five, ten, twenty minutes, can often help distract the Inner Editor. The pressure of “Oh my god there are only x minutes left!” overrides the instinct to polish the prose as you go, and can often lead to unexpected insight. On a larger scale, writing events with wordcounts and deadlines such as NaNoWriMo make it easier (and more fun) to overcome the Inner Nag.
  2. The “I’ll Do it Later” technique. Kind of like the time limit, but requiring more discipline, this essentially involves noting those places you want to rework (I use square brackets around a phrase) and forcing yourself to move on with the story, promising to come back to that part later. Works best for those niggly, “to comma or not to comma” parts rather than character or plot problems. See here.
  3. Proof of competence. You’re bound to have written at least one piece you’re really proud of. Maybe you won a story competition with it when you were a teenager. Maybe someone you respect said it was brilliant. Maybe it’s just a piece that makes you laugh when you read it. Whatever the case may be, have that piece of writing (and any others you particularly like) close by. When you get really stuck, read them through. Nine times out of ten, you’ll end up thinking to yourself: “Hey, that wasn’t too bad. Maybe I’m not such a terrible writer after all.” Which is exactly what you need to get yourself started. The rest will follow. And guess what? It doesn’t matter if today’s 1000 words suck like nothing has ever sucked before, because you know that you can write something good, you have written something good, and you will probably write something good again.
  4. If all else fails, shoot him. Okay, so that’s a little dramatic. Basically, I have this little visualisation I like to do when I really can’t stand my Inner Editor any longer. You know those old arcade-type games where you have to whack a jack-in-a-box on the head each time it pops up? Your IE is that jack-in-a-box. When s/he starts bothering you with ill-timed criticism, picture a huge mallet smacking him/her on the head. If nothing else, it’s guaranteed to make you smile!

So, how about you? What are some of your favourite ways to threaten, bully, coax, cajole, and otherwise con your Inner Editor into letting you write your first draft in peace?

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    • xen
    • May 31st, 2010

    Haha, well put! I liked number three, proof of competence. It’s what I do when my inner editor is driving me crazy, prove to it that I can write something semi-decent/coherent, thankyouverymuch. Number four is excellent as well, I’m going to have to try it.

      • Black Sheep
      • May 31st, 2010

      😄 Thanks. Good luck with your writing!

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