Parting with Pretension: Writing What You Write

canstockphoto5194069I’ve been stuck for months trying to rewrite my first novel. As a skilled organizational artisan, I’ve created the storyboard,  character sketches, and timelines. I’ve scheduled writing time, forced myself to write every day and each time I sit down and write, it feels torturous and miserable, every chapter a chop shop of hijacked words.

I’ve spent too much time lately reading books by lauded authors, writers who have been hailed as literary greats – writers who other writers spend their lives imitating. My own writing became more and more strangled, as I leveled world class academic criticism at it. Everything was shit and sitting down to create more of it became a moribund exercise in self-flagellation.

After working through yet another book that had collected dust in the halls of literary greatness, I sat in silence. This anger that kept erupting inside of me was the result of my own inferiority – this need I could not name. I wanted something that I could not have, that I could not want and still continue to write. I didn’t want to be called a hack. I imagined reviews that mentioned my simplistic prose and unsophisticated ramblings. I didn’t want to be unmasked for the pop storyteller that I truly am. I did not want to be naked in my ignorance, in my lack of creative invention, in my sheer earnestness.

canstockphoto20549017I’ve always believed that in order to be better at anything, I needed to look towards those who are the best in their fields. I needed to read material above my intellect, wrangle with prose until I understood what the author was trying to say, slog through story lines that were miserable and depressing. It finally hit me, I don’t enjoy the books that I’ve been reading. I don’t want to write miserable navel-gazing buckets of guts. I don’t want someone to get to the end of my novel and realize that they need a drink, a rope and a chair. I don’t want someone to read my novel and say “What the hell? I just read 600 pages and nothing happened.”

I wanted so desperately to be something I am not and the words, which I poured out onto the pages were these disappointing, rather stupid children. Why would I expect to write that which I found little joy in reading? Why would I want to imitate authors who I found pedantic and arrogant, writing post-modern, avante garde, experimental bullshit that was more irritating than enlightening. I understand subjectivity, but I was in denial that I am the masses. I am a sheep. I am a pedestrian proletariat with a touch of vulgarity and a smidge of mediocrity. I am all the things that people get called when they just don’t get it.

canstockphoto12772484I like to look at paintings of landscapes, not melting vaginas in the desert. I like music that I can sing to and orchestral pieces that are harmonic. I like a damned good story in language that flows. It doesn’t need to sweat me or make me travel through every minutiae of a character’s day. I don’t need to re-read passages ten times trying to figure out who the hell the dialogue is attributed to and why it’s suddenly daylight.

This is a particular cruelty of self-awareness. You know what you don’t know. You know what you can’t do. You know what you aren’t. Perhaps it was my working class upbringing that has made me so ridiculously sensitive about being perceived as anything less than brilliant. Which is odd, as I have never been described as brilliant. Maybe it’s that I decided to make a deliberate run at this writing thing. Maybe it’s because I’m scared to death that this thing I thought I would always be was a delusion and I’m going to fail so big that it will break me.

This is an epiphany of sorts. We all carry preconceived notions, prejudices and beliefs and as a friend of mine has reminded me “Just because we think it, doesn’t mean it’s true.” Truth has become a priority in my life. And like a true navel-gazer, truth must start with being honest with myself. And letting go of the idea of best and perfection and greatness. Those things were likely never within my reach.

I am a writer. I have stories to tell. I hope that someday, someone will read and enjoy them. The end.

Write your story. Screw literary punditry.

 P.S. Some of the great writers seem like real wankers.

51 Comments on “Parting with Pretension: Writing What You Write

  1. I think what it shows is you’ve made the conscious decision to take this writing thing seriously, unlike so many of us who just do it as a hobby. That’s probably the first step towards success. You may succeed or you may epically crash and burn but at least you made the effort.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m always great with the effort. That will be the epitaph on my headstone “She tried really, really hard.” I just have to get around mental obstacles that I’ve created for myself. Hanging out with literary bigwigs has messed with my head.

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  2. Oh my gosh. I agree with you entirely. My first book I started like 5 times, because it sounded so forced and ridiculous and even I didn’t want to read it. Then I did like you did and said “Pooh on it” and just wrote the story as if I was sitting with someone, telling it to them. It turned out to be a much more enjoyable read. Sure it still has messages in it, but you don’t have to read the paragraph 10 times to get it. And you know what – sometimes the most simple of things are the most brilliant!!!! (Not that I am saying my stuff is.)

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    • I think my brain is trying to do an end run around whatever skills I might actually have. It really just ends up being an excuse on a long list of excuses that creates the mythical writer’s block. I think “pooh on it” is a more polite version of what my writing mantra is now. I just need to write the story that I’d like to read.

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  3. I really like this post because it shows you getting somewhat naked in front of whomever shall read. I also think it is a reflection of so many of us. The key is to realize it then you can do something about it which I think you are currently doing. It takes guts to be honest even with self. Way to go

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  4. After I finished writing my first novel all I could think upon reading it over, was how much it sounded like a child…granted looking back I was still a child and only just imagining what I thought was the horizon of adulthood coming up ahead of me. During my time in college I was told by my creative writing professors that your first novel is always just practice no one ever publishes their first book. It is how we writers who are serious about the art learn who we are as a writer, it is also how we learn how to write. Loved your post.

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    • I’ve always thought that this first novel was my personal workshop, especially since it has been so difficult to get through the re-writes. On the other hand, I like the story so much that it’s hard to imagine it never seeing the light of day. But there’s always more stories to tell and learning to tell them without being attached to the outcome must be a wonderful gift. I’m not there yet. Perhaps that is what a first novel is about as well – keeping things in context over the long haul.
      Thanks for reading and taking the time to share your experience!

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  5. I’ve never been a big fan of writing advice. I’ve seen too many writing students who take it too seriously, and if can be paralyzing. Take what’s useful from it. Let the rest roll off you. Go write.

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    • Writing is, I suppose, like anything else, it carries with it whatever personal baggage you bring. For me, it was always inferiority about my abilities and I do what I always do – I research and study and try to intellectualize my way around things, when what I need to do is just write.

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  6. I know exactly what you’re saying. I finally got tired of trying to be someone. Being ordinary is a great relief.
    Alison

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    • I’ve been thinking about my need, well, this human need, to be regarded as special or unique. If anything, all this navel-gazing seems to drive more writing. Striving to be anything but ordinary is exhausting and in most cases, not particularly fulfilling.

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  7. I find that I can have my own voice in the multiple novels I’ve started, but somehow, everything gets stale and after a hundred pages (or seven) I start to sound like I’m a writer trying to sound like a storyteller. The project goes in the pile of other promising starts until the next one gets tossed on top. Too bad they’re all on the computer and not on paper, I can’t even use them to start a decent fire.

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    • I have to constantly remind myself to stop being a writer and just tell the damned story. I’m like a dog with a bone on this novel – I just can’t seem to let it go. I really, really tried.
      I did read about one writer’s process – much like yours, except that eventually all those false starts yielded enough material to create a solid first novel. You never know…

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  8. I remember the day I fully embraced my gift–I write fan-fiction, and I love it. I know most “serious” writers think fan-fiction is an embarrassment, indulgent hackery, not writing. So did I. I kept trying for Anne Tyler and Barbara Kingsolver, but kept getting drawn back to Marvel superheroes and TV characters who needed development and someone to give them a proper plot. I love what I write. That’s all that matters to me.

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    • Embracing one’s gift and not wanting other people’s gifts is apparently a point of maturity that I have not reached. You sound like a person who loves your creations, a lesson I’ve yet to learn. But I’ve noticed it now and there’s no unseeing this proclivity of mine. Now, to put the lesson into practice…

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  9. Heartwarming really… I published a poetry book in 3countries and I was told it took a lot of effort to read and poems were re read several times to “get it”( the book is called the colors of chaos and I never understood why they wanted to “get it” get what I meant, I’d rather wanted to know how they “got it” !) but it was similar to the way I talk it was real , so I very much agree with you and if I am indeed in denial I hope on day I will come to the realization of what I truly am 😉

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    • I think all those avant-garde, experimental writers bring something to the table – creative styles, language play, etc. You might be one of them and there is certainly room in the world of artistry to be whoever you are. I’ve just recognized that those things are not in my skill set and to keep wanting them is preventing me from being the writer I am. So we stumble on, blind into the night, hoping to find other souls that “get us”. Hopefully you’ll find yours!

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  10. YES! This is a huge breakthrough. You have a voice. It is your own voice. And I very much enjoy ‘hearing’ what you have to say, which is why I follow your blog. It’s why I’ll buy your book(s). Be yourself, just like you are on this blog.

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  11. I like to write stories that my wife and family will enjoy. I do that not because I count on them to read my writing, they rarely do. I do it because it answers the question, “Who am I writing for?”

    Once I know who I am writing for, it changes the way I work. My writing becomes cleaner, clearer and lighter. When I want to write something deeper, darker and more challenging, I change my target audience.

    I also write for no one. Every day, I type a minimum of 500 words into a journal that I know will never be read, even by me. It is my place to try things, it’s like dancing in the dark.

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    • It’s very interesting how we each have to frame our writing. I can immediately shut down my writing if I think about any audience and enjoy myself most when I don’t. When I write a blog post, I edit with audience in mind since I’m usually in danger of being an insensitive clod.

      No matter the fact that I like writing for myself, nothing beats the pleasure of sharing it with others and having them enjoy it.

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  12. Reading this brought me to the point of tears. I can’t explain why without indulging in a lot of verbose shit that there’s little value in reading, because it’s all about junk that I’m trying to LEAVE BEHIND. Just want to say, thank you for writing this. Really, thank you.

    Also, what I want is to sit down with you over a cup of coffee, or soup, or whatever, and have a long conversation. I don’t mean today, but someday.

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    • I can say that this post is a culmination of raging frustration and tears over the last few months. Karen, over at Do Not Get Sick in the Sink, Please shared this quotation with me “You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work.” WILLIAM GIBSON

      That seems like a great place to get unstuck. So, let’s write what we want to write and as our prospective book tours cross, we’ll sit down over a tankard of coffee (with a bathroom in close proximity) and have that conversation. By the way, I’ve pledged to write some complete shit today. You’re welcome to consider that a challenge.

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      • I saw that quote and found it apt. And I love your challenge! Where I’m stuck, though, is … I have this wonderful character. I have an idea of where she is and where she’s going to be – in the sense of interesting location. I have some snippets of dialog that make me, at least, fall about laughing. But … I don’t know the WHY of it! I keep getting to a place and then going, “And then what?” I can’t figure out why anyone would read about her. I know there’s a story, I just can’t figure out what it IS. It’s making me crazy and miserable and I just hate this!

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        • Here’s a piece of unsolicited advice that I need to take myself: you don’t need to know the whys and wherefores. If you’re stuck, drop a piano on her head and see what happens. It’s an exaggeration, but a piece of advice that gets me unstuck at times – having something happen unexpectedly so that you can move the character along. It may be edited out, but it puts you in forward motion.

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  13. “Pretentious as a rich whore” (Mailer on Kerouac.) Ugh. I can relate to your tail-chasing and angst but it sounds like you’ve made a useful development working through this. I keep spinning knobs on my radio station, waiting for it to come in clear. At least I’m getting a signal. Cheers Michelle. (PS, going to a WordPress conference in Portland this weekend…looking forward to meeting other writers and talking about blogging, then writing about how it was to talk about blogging.)

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    • I have The Naked and the Dead in my reading pile even though Mailer has always struck me as kind of a prick. Progress has been slow in coming, but some weeks, the dominoes topple and I figure out a thing or two. There’s certainly a weight that has been lifted.

      I met with a fellow blogger from Iowa over the weekend. I love it when this stuff goes live and the rabbit becomes real. Enjoy your conference, Bill – and writing about it (that’s so very meta!).

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  14. I think ‘write what you like to read’ is a good adage and one you have just accepted as true. Writing with joy shows in the final product. Among many other popular authors, Stephen King writes with joy and he cops academic criticism all the time. Terrific post.

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    • I see a lot of criticism of successful mainstream authors and King is on the list. Perhaps it’s too fine a point to differentiate between literary writers and storytellers. I’ve finally realized I’d take a lucid storyteller over a writer who thinks grammar and clarity are for the plebes. And you make an important point about writing with joy. Most of a writer’s life is spent actually writing, so if it can be an enjoyable process, all the better.

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  15. I am a much bigger fan of epiphanies than sensitivities. My grandfather used to say he was steadfast, not stubborn. Perhaps I carry that over to writing what I enjoy reading and I’m generally surprised if others like it too. By my definition I have enjoyed some brilliant writing on this blog. That’s not the brilliance you were talking about it but it ranks higher in my books.

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    • It’s funny that you mention the steadfast versus stubborn, as I’m writing about fairy tales and fables at the moment and I’m reminded of the tortoise and the hare. I always identify with the tortoise for slowness and steadiness. And epiphanies arrive much the same way – very, very slowly.

      Brilliance is a fairly subjective term, I suppose. I think it’s been brilliant that people have enjoyed some of what I’ve written – what a nice surprise that turned out to be!

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  16. Your reading by others is not lost time. You learned as any writer does, as any kid in school does and now it’s time for you to write your own. Yes, enjoy!

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    • I would never, ever, ever think of any reading as lost time, but I think wandering through the forest of literary “greats” has been distracting. You’re right, though, the time has come for me to focus on my own work.

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  17. I often think it is easier for us to be critics than celebrators of life and each other. Each of us has a story to tell, and if our stories inspire one another, that is I believe the greatest perfection of all.

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  18. sometimes I think writers love to be hard on themselves. I have tried writing a simplistic prose when I was quite young, sometimes it was a drama which had potential until it got to the middle of the plot and the characters seemed either lost or too stereotyped. A friend of mine told me of her inability to see her writing to the end because she always felt she was probably writing a story she had read sometime ago even when she couldn’t remember when. I don’t know if I would get to write a fictional book but I could end up writing an autobiography or not

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    • I think it’s likely an inherent quality in most artists to be self-critical. Sometimes it can be a useful tool, sometimes it can be an obstacle to finishing a project. Fiction is a challenge for me, but it’s one I enjoy. Autobiographical stuff ends up piecemeal in this blog, which is about all I can handle. I suppose all we can do is keep writing until something worthwhile emerges.

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  19. Fantastic post, Michelle. And boy-oh-boy can I relate. It’s taken me a long time to accept the writer I know myself to be, and the hardest part is understanding that my writing career may never gain much traction. I have the feeling that there’s not a large audience for my stuff. Ah well . . . the world is thus. I hope you turn out some good, page-turning stories, ones that you yourself wouldn’t mind reading. Peace, John

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    • Thanks, John. I, too, think that all this work and mental twisting about can easily end up in nothingness, at least in any commercial sense. Of course, then it begs the question “would you keep writing if you were never going to get paid for it?” For most writers, it would be yes and if it were a bare bones choice, it would be yes for me as well, although having readers really improves the experience, paying or not.

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  20. Somewhere along the line as a guitarist, I found I wasn’t gaining anything by listening to other guitarists. I started listening to sax players,and for some reason the refreshing approach I could hear in my ears translated to my hands–and ultimately the fretboard.

    Hey–I just got another blog post idea . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is why I read poetry or international writing or genres that don’t necessarily appeal to me, to see and hear different patterns and rhythms and language choices. That’s the nice thing about writing – anything, anywhere can prime the pump. Including music!

      Liked by 1 person

  21. Speaking of which I pretty much also have wanted to start a blog too so I like were your heading….oh and by the way I am Stephanie storm thrower so lets chat more often!

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