Other people’s words about … writing (and shame)
The voice I wrote with felt new to me — unrestrained. For years I had been trying to cool down the temperature of my writing, to pull it back, pull it back, pull it back — neutralise it, contain it, make it crisp, clear, and sharp, every word carved out of crystal. This writing was nothing like that — it was drippy, messy, breezy. I was working through a mind frame, not a conceit. I was creating a world, not words on a page.
by Julia May Jonas
There is a practice called Loving Kindness Meditation that I first encountered some years ago when I was participating in a forty-day meditation challenge that involved raising money for a particular charity by pledging to my sponsors to meditate for ten or more minutes every day for forty days. Although I tried many different kinds of meditation during those forty days, and although ultimately I didn’t keep meditating after the challenge was over, the idea behind Loving Kindness Meditation has stuck with me. Essentially, this kind of meditation is about generating, through your meditation practice, kindness and love to other people — as well as to yourself.
There’s a quote by Femi Kayode about writing that I keep close to me whenever I myself am writing. I don’t remember where I got the quote from, and I’ve tried but failed to trace it back to its source. In it, though, Kayode says:
Most of all, write in love. Love for the characters — good or bad, and the story. Love for the reader, for the craft, for humanity. An unconditional compassion for the human condition is the one true gift I believe a writer can give the world.
I thought about Kayode’s words when I came across the passage I’ve quoted at the start of this post, from Julia May Jonas’s wonderful novel Vladimir. The narrator in Vladimir is, like me, a middle-aged female writer who has had two novels published early on in her writing career but has struggled to bring out a third novel. Now, when I think about the ten years I spent between having my second novel for young adults published and submitting my third manuscript to my agent, a novel for middle-grade readers that remains as yet unpublished, what I remember most is how I wrote and rewrote the same manuscript, then wrote and rewrote it some more, all the while trying to perfect it — all the while not understanding that there is no such thing as perfect, and that the search for perfection can take you a long way away from the place you started, that place of excitement and hope.
Stormy skies over the Port River, Port Adelaide, February 2023.
I mentioned recently that I’ve now begun working on a fourth manuscript, a literary fiction novel. This time around, in an attempt to break free of the tangle of lonely perfectionism that I’d somehow found myself ensnared in during the writing of my third novel, I’ve deliberately sought feedback from readers early on in the process. Predictably, some of the feedback I’ve received has been positive, and some less so. Your writing lacks introspection, one reader said. And: We never really get to know or understand your narrator, so it’s hard to care about what happens to her.
To be honest, I was a little shocked when I got this feedback. I thought I’d been writing with great restraint; I thought I’d been ‘showing, not telling’; I thought I’d been practising the principle of ‘less is more’. All those old writing saws. But I’ve slowly come to see, as I’ve mulled this feedback over, that in writing this way I’d been falling into the same trap as Jonas’s narrator, trying to carve my words out of crystal. To neutralise my writing. To contain it. To pull it back.
And here is where I find myself returning to the idea of loving kindness and compassion that I began this post with. It’s okay to try to improve your writing, to see the flaws in it and work hard to make it better: more interesting, perhaps, or more insightful, or more moving. But trying to improve your writing isn’t the same thing as condemning it. Because what is the act of trying to neutralise your writing other than a reflection of your own self-doubt and self-hatred? What is the act of trying to contain your words and thoughts other than a reflection of the shame you feel about yourself? What is this whole painful process, other than a way of saying to yourself that your writing is not good enough? That your characters are not good enough? That you, by extension, are not good enough?
Calmer waters, the Port River, Port Adelaide, February 2023.
In the end, what I’ve learned from all of this over the last few weeks (or perhaps over the last ten years) — what I’ve learned from Jonas’s words, and from the words of those people who were kind enough to read my manuscript and give me feedback, and from, finally, the words of Kayode — is that writing, any kind of writing, can’t come from a place of shame.
If, as a writer, you ask your readers to care about your characters, then you have to allow yourself to care about your characters, too. You have to write from a place of compassion. You have to write — yes — in love.
Lately I’ve been reading …
- So that’s what it’s come down to. I have two college degrees, nearly thirty years in academia, have published thirteen books in five languages, co-written two television movies, and can’t afford to replace a washing machine. Welcome to the new American middle class. We have the finest doctors, nurses, techs in the world. The American health care system can save your life, as it has mine, repeatedly. And in doing so, it sucks up everything around you. It saves your life, but can leave you with little left to live it: Steven Womack, on writing, cancer, the American medical system, the publishing industry and climate change, among other things. Towards the end of this essay, Womack tells us that 64% of cancer patients in America declare bankruptcy. If that’s not an indictment of the US medical system, I don’t know what is. And yet, novelist to the last, Womack keeps writing …
- One year ago my brother was killed by a tree: Elisha Cooper on how to honour a dead sibling.
- Some days, the hardest thing to do is to forgive myself for being myself: Devin Kelly’s writing, which I’ve provided links to in the past, never fails to astonish me. Here, in one of his earlier pieces, he writes about running, writing, shame and joy. Mostly, in the saddest kind of way, about joy.
- But solitary is not the opposite of social; it’s the opposite of gregarious: Danielle Clode on koalas and how we may be mistaken about their preference for solitude.
- There’s another quote I keep on my desktop by the poet Amanda Gorman, yet another quote for which I have lost the source, in which she writes, I think if I could go back in time and give myself a message, it would be to reiterate that my value as an artist doesn’t come from how much I create. I think that mind-set is yoked to capitalism. Being an artist is about how and why you touch people’s lives, even if it’s one person. Even if that’s yourself, in the process of art-making. Vanessa Zoltan takes up a similar theme in her piece about NaNoWriMo, or National Writing Month. Zoltan writes: Writing a bad novel is a belief that something doesn’t have to be ‘productive’ in order for it to be worthwhile. It is a belief that you being you is, in and of itself, a worthy thing. It’s faith that even if it never turns into anything but itself, it was worth the time and practice of writing the thing anyway. I’ve always been faintly horrified by NaNoWriMo, but maybe I should reconsider. It is, Zoltan writes, nothing less than an act of resistance against capitalism.