Tag Archives: Writers

Discerning Between Your Inner Critic and Your Inner Low Self-Esteem

From Wikipedia:

The critic is considered to be the dialectic of genius. This insight was formulated early by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as “not every critic is a genius, but every genius is born a critic…genius has the proof of all rules within itself.” Kant scholar Jane Kneller has read this to indicate that, as opposed to the externally oriented and culturally dependent critic, “genius demonstrates its autonomy not by ignoring all rules, but by deriving the rules from itself”.

Derivation:

The word critic comes from Greek κριτικός (kritikós), “able to discern”, which is a Greek derivation from the word κριτής (krités), meaning a person who offers reasoned judgment or analysis, value judgment, interpretation, or observation.

Every November I get a little queasy and uncomfortable.  That’s because it’s National Novel Writing Month.  It’s not that I’m directly opposed to the concept of writing a 50,000 word novel in a month – after all it can pull you out of writer’s block, or any other self-imposed hurdles that keep you from actually producing a body of work, instead of just talking about it, and it could turn writers into authors.  It’s the emphasis that it puts on just throwing words at the page, seemingly without discrimination or concern for the finished body of work.

I put out a tweet a few days ago stating my concern:

I think one of my main objections to nanowrimo is that writing a novel isn’t just about throwing words at the page. Sometimes you need to take scissors to it.

I got some flack there.  Apparently there is plenty on the nanowrimo forums about it being a draft, etc., but that’s not my point.  My point isn’t that you produce a finished polished work in a month at lightening speed, because that’s rarely possible, unless maybe you’re someone prolific like Stephen King.  My point is that the whole flurry of tweets, posts, blogs, and so forth creates an atmosphere that seems to negate the self-critic.  It doesn’t focus attention on the hard work that needs to be done to create a book, ready for public consumption.  It’s part of the whole, to me disturbing, lack of discrimination that I see, as if producing art was easy, something anyone can do anytime, and that it doesn’t take dedication, commitment, and a hard long apprenticeship.

I remember I was teaching drawing some years back at a college, and I had a difficult student.  She was sullen, reluctant, and didn’t want to do the work.  The quality was poor, even though she was coming to class and doing the homework.  I asked her what the problem was, and she replied that she was a painter, and she was forced to take drawing, but there was simply no point to it!  I feel the same about the writer that only emphasizes self-experience and getting the words out at the cost of actually honing the craft, learning what works and what doesn’t.

That is where I listen to my lovely self-critic.  The muse may inspire, but the critic gets out the scissors.  I love my critic.  He walks with me every step of the way.  Sometimes I override him, but we have a good collaborative relationship, so he doesn’t take it hard, or say “told you so” when it all goes wrong.  Sadly, all too often, the critic gets the boot from people’s writing practice because he gets blamed for that which he is not responsible for: the nagging negative voice of low self-esteem.  The critic believes you can do it, but just wants to help you do it better.  Low self-esteem doesn’t even want you to try.  Critic will tell you off for wasting time playing mindless games, always pushing you to achieve your goals, reminding you that time is finite (don’t kid yourself it’s not), and that the best time to get your dreams accomplished is now.  Low self-esteem is always telling you that a game is better, or cleaning, or laundry, or you can do it tomorrow.

Critic is willing to tell you the hard truths: that page is crap – do it again.  Low self-esteem will say: that page is crap – just toss it out and go back to bed.  If you are truly listening to your inner critic, and now your low self-esteem, a lot of time the news is good: this idea rocks; you are doing great; don’t listen to that agent that doesn’t think your work will sell; wow, didn’t you write a lot today.  Critic misses you when you’re not writing, and tries to remind you to do it.  Low self-esteem just tells you you’re a loser for not writing.

Discerning the difference can be tough, but it’s worth the challenge.  One needs to be ignored, overridden, and combated.  The other needs to be taken on as a partner in the endeavor, for he has many words of wisdom to impart.

Back to nanowrimo – it’s fine idea, as long as you take your critic along for the ride.

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To Publish, or Not to Publish, That is the Rub…

back cover art for Panthology artwork by Jack KnightHaving spent quite a few months working on the Panthology it’s time to ask myself: what’s next? I’m happy to get back to reading and writing in my collaborative novels at Pan Historia, but ultimately I thrive on goals and projects that can yield tangible achievements. Writing on Pan is the most pleasurable form of exercise I know, but I still consider it exercise. It’s social, it’s fun, it’s interactive, but the end of the day it’s building things that last that I enjoy the most. Tinkering with the structure of Pan is something that gives me great satisfaction and joy as I strive to increase membership and participation by increasing the ease and functionality of the site. Of course I’m only a tinkerer when it comes to site construction but I believe that Pan reflects its users to a large degree. It’s not so much about bells and whistles and high tech apps, but about being a comfortable place to express one’s imagination. Writers just need to write, ultimately.

Perhaps that explains my mild obsession with publishing Pan Press books? I mean the logical conclusion of a writer’s work is to be published. It’s as old as the hills—or as old illuminated manuscripts anyway. To be published is to be real, genuine, accepted, legitimate. Technically it’s considered a form of publishing to post material, such as this blog, on the internet for others to read, but both you and I know it’s not what WE mean, as authors, when we say we are “published.” Even when we boast, as I have done, of my status as a “published” author deep down in my heart I want that book with pages of vellum, binding, rabbit skin glue, and black ink. This is probably why authors, as a group, are the most resistant to the idea of eBooks. It’s not quite… printed… is it? Of course it is, and I would be thrilled to be selling millions of copies of my novel in eBook format, but that will never cure my schoolboy crush on the first object of my desire: the book; either paperback or hardback.

So what is next? Besides going back to work on my own novel, a supernatural/horror adventure, I think I will prepare one of my collaborative novels, FLESH, from Pan for publication. Like the Panthology it will be a collection of writers, but this time we will bring the whole stories. It will be a challenge to edit the pieces together in order to tell each story (it will be a collection of about 4-5 stories set in a post-apocalyptic world where a virus has turned people into zombie-like killing machines). Zombies are hot items, and some of the stories are really very good with some great writers from the site. This is a piece that I feel has merit beyond the site, and can engage a larger audience of readers from hardcore zombie fans to general horror lovers. I would love to see if I can expand beyond members of the community and engage the interest of other readers for our publications. If it’s even mildly successful it opens the door for any number of such projects for any number of genres represented at Pan.

Illustration by Jack Knight


Letting the Genie Out of the Bottle

I just watched an amazing presentation on the source of genius and creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, that I want to share with you all on my writing blog this morning. Not only did it answer a few questions for me as an artist but it confirmed some of my own beliefs about art and the myth of the tortured artist. Elizabeth talks not only about writing but writing as an art form and the writer as an artist but about the other arts as well so this talk is essential for all creative people.

As a student majoring in fine arts (I have a Masters in painting) and as the offspring of artists I’m, more than most, fully aware of our stereotypes, culturally, about artists as tortured souls that pay for their genius (modern definition of the word being that genius is being really smart or creative) with terrible mental and emotional problems. The quintessential poster boy for this viewpoint is, of course, Vincent Van Gogh. The viewpoint is so all prevailing that I know artists who have considered themselves failures when they didn’t die young, or bemoaned the fact they haven’t had a nervous breakdown yet.

Normally sane people, in other words, will drink, take drugs, cultivate disruptive and destructive behaviors, just to fulfill society’s prophecy that the creative individual is doomed. There are, naturally enough, tons and tons of examples. As I was studying art, being a rather sane individual that really didn’t want to booze myself to death or suffer from mental illness just for my muse, I had plenty of cause to think about this topic. I was also studying art history at the same time and it’s pretty easy to trace the history of the idea of artist as tortured individual from its origins. Great art has been produced of it, but is it really that useful of an idea? Can we change it?

Elizabeth wants to give us a new myth about artists and creativity and it’s actually a very old myth. Watch and rejoice:

Elizabeth Gilbert on Genius


The Bones of a Leaf

The human mind is an amazing instrument capable of processing data from multiple inputs at speeds that make the fastest microprocessor look like a slow moving cement mixer. Not only that but many of the functions it performs are sorted and prioritized without the owner even seeing or sensing the processes involved. One of the astonishing abilities of the mind is the interpretation and creation of symbols: one thing standing for another thing. Letters form words that the brain then interprets. A picture of shape that is roundish, red, and has a sticklike appendage near the top becomes an apple. I catch sight of a piece of leaf with just the stem and a small part of the base and I see a tadpole swimming on my carpet.

Art, whether written, pictorial, or musical, is the mind’s conscious manipulation of symbols to create images, emotion, and meaning in the mind of the observer/listener. I take something that is not there, create symbols (words or images), and deliver it to you so that you have an experience. Creating words from letters, then forming sentences, all of which describe the world, exterior and interior, is really an astounding activity and yet so many of us, from children to the most humble, can do it. Of course a lot of people tend to stick to the literal, the true, the tangible. It takes another flight of fancy to make stuff up – to make beautiful meaningful lies.

But even the entirely made up should be full of truths eternal. They may be very small, but I believe that even in the most lighthearted or humorous or fanciful piece of fiction writing there should be yet another layer of meaning underneath the obvious. I should be able to paint a picture for you of another reality and underlying my fictional reality is yet another substrate of meaning, of symbol. A really satisfying work of art lingers with you a long time after experiencing it. It’s the movie that makes you keep thinking days later, or the novel that resonates years in the future so that you have to pick it up again, and lo and behold there is even more there than the first time around. It’s the painting that haunts, or the musical refrain that moves you to tears and you don’t know exactly why.

If I can ever write just one novel that has the ability to resonant in the reader’s mind long after they put it down I’ll have succeeded as an artist. If someone reads my words like I can read the remains of a leaf as a tadpole on my carpet then I have done my job.


The Passionate Salmon

salmonThe creative process is a tricky thing. Many hear the clarion call to create something – indeed it seems to be a fundamental building block of human nature – hence the proliferation of ‘things’ that clutter our lives from gadgets like egg slicers to paintings that uplift our spirits in some kind of deep and meaningful way that is ineffable. Of course the many millions of inventions that have been produced over the course of human history have many benefits, though there are many that have dubious benefit or can be labeled down right evil (the atomic bomb, the iron maiden). Our minds constantly seem to be thinking of new things. Even the least creative of us have the urge to create, improve, adapt, and otherwise manipulate their surroundings in some way. For many it’s an unconscious act (choosing wallpaper for the living room, selecting one make of car over another) that seems to have little bearing on the whole creative stream, but magnified by millions has an enormous impact.

It’s when you take a very active role in creating that the process of selection and manipulation becomes a powerful struggle. Which word? Which color? You’re like a salmon trying to swim upstream against a raging waterfall to spawn. The odds often seem against your work of art successfully being birthed into the world. Then all those little fish of creativity that do hatch then have to make their own difficult way back to that enormous sea. So few grow into a mature salmon. How do you have that original idea that will allow your small egg of concept to grown into a magnificent force of silver scaled nature? How does your book stand out of the crowd?

There are countless blogs and books out there to tell you how to write, how to be a better writer, how to sell, but there wouldn’t be a market for those things if it wasn’t actually a total shot in the dark, almost akin to that salmon heading upstream. You can be the sleekest healthiest salmon in the whole damn ocean but fate can still mess you up, you can still make the wrong move, just be unlucky. And ultimately art is not a salmon. The analogy can only carry us so far. Creating a story that lasts in the minds of your readers is not just about following rules, or even going with what’s been successful before. You can’t sit down and plan to be the next Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer (read Stephanie Meyer’s story in her own words to get a great idea what I’m next about to say to you). If you do it comes out formulaic and dry.

You can only sit down and write about something you are passionate about. No matter how much college you had, or creative writing classes, or blogs on writing you read, you will not write anything that anyone wants to read, that strikes a chord within another person’s soul, if it’s not something that sings to you. Meyer’s had a dream and she followed it through. I have not read the book, I probably won’t because I’m sick of vampires and turned off my young adult fiction, but regardless of my personal preferences Stephanie Meyers touched an honest chord in her readers and now she has her deserved fame and fortune. Some of it was just plain luck, but without the passion it’s never going anywhere.


Happy Endings

One of my goals for the rest of this year is to work on endings. One of the nice and not so nice aspects of collaborative fiction is often a lacking of endings. I’ve nearly perfected the technique, made famous by M*A*S*H, of stretching a scenario out over multiple installments – much like the Korean War which last but three years in reality but spanned eleven years on television and 251 episodes. But even M*A*S*H had to end and its season finale was one of the most watched TV finales in history. Ah, if only I should be so lucky.

This year may be half way through, but that means it’s a perfect time to search for some endings to some of my tales and some of my characters. I had already made the decision to actually wrap up my modern fairy tale The Midnight People with the help of my fellow writers. It’s a fantasy tale of dark versus light with lots of grey areas in between and it just naturally begs to have a grand finale like when Aragorn claims his throne and saves Gondor with an army of ghosts against the Dark Lord Sauron. It’s good stuff and the meat of the fantasy genre. My story, however, has stalled and waits me to lead it to the crashing crescendo of gore, valor, and dénouement. What causes me to pause in this plunge to the end?

I often wonder if just the thought that the story is to end makes it seem less worth while? I’m not sure if my ambivalent feelings towards reaching the natural climax of a story is something that other writers experience. Is my reluctance to take up the reins of a story that I know will then be finished and done with akin to the feelings that the writers of M*A*S*H felt as they reached the end of their tenure: a mixture of relief to be done and sorrow to have no more to do?

Since I have had such trouble orchestrating the ending of my tale of Elves and Men I have decided to work on some lesser endings. In my modern zombie apocalypse collaborative novel FLESH I have taken several story threads as far as they can interestingly go and still be a zombie story. With all the zombies nearly gone it’s time to wrap it up. Again there is a bittersweet feeling about it as these include several of my favorite characters. But therein lies the rub: no character can go on forever. When it’s time to throw in the towel and call it a night, like poor old Clyde Alden in the 1987 film version of The Witches of Eastwick putting his wife Felicia to her eternal rest, you know it. There is a feeling of ennui around the character or a feeling that you’re forcing things, desperate to find yet one more scenario to throw them into.

Better to take that poker and end their existence with some pride still intact.


#WriteChat on Twitter

Right now I’m participating in #writechat – which is a rather cool Twitter phenomena. Every Sunday writers form a free-wheeling chat group in the Twitter stream that weaves in and out of other conversations. Topics are about writing: inspiration, mood, tips, techniques, publishing, etc. For those new or unfamiliar with Twitter, the chat/microblogging platform, hashtags are used to separate out topics and make them easily searchable. If you have software like the Tweetdeck on your computer you can actually create a ‘group’ for any topic you want to follow and it separates them out for you, regardless of whether you follow that person or not.

One of the recurring topics on #writechat is often how such conversations help inspire writing or writers. I don’t really find that to be true. Actually I tend to think of such activities as a bit of procrastination from the act of writing itself. After all if you’re reading a bunch of ‘tweets’ about writing and then jumping in yourself you can hardly be busy at work.

That said I still think it’s a very valuable tool. One of the reasons I’m a big fan of collaborative writing is that I’m a social animal. Traditionally writing has tended to be a lonely business with its fair share of misanthropes in its austere and often dusty ranks. Activities like #writechat connect up different writers to each other and shake out the cobwebs. So even though it doesn’t always lead me to more or better writing, I would be the last one to deny the benefits of just hanging out and getting to know other writers.

And for those that argue that they can see no point in Twitter it’s definitely one of the better uses of the application. It is an excellent Petri dish for meeting and breeding new writers and just one of the examples of how Twitter can be used in a good way to increase connections between people, rather than magnify the modern malaise of alienation, as many detractors of social media claim.