The mind's ability to throw up obstacles is a marvelous thing. Eighty percent of the time, there's a "not-good-enough, not-good-enough" train of thought chugging along in my mind that must be suppressed when I embark on a writing project. But then, when faced with a cool opportunity to publish a new piece of writing, there's a bizarro, arrogant train that shows up. And this train of thought indicates a hoarder tendency. "Whoa Nelly," it says, "what if this idea is too good? Better to save it for another day."
In many ways, this reflection seems to be the opposite of my note on not cramming:
Here, I wrote about not using every single idea in a given piece of writing. I still hold to that. What I'm talking about today is the shadow twin of that idea. In the creative hoarding mentality, I cling to my good idea, worried that I might not have another. In this scenario, rather than the writing being insufficient, every publication venue becomes suddenly not good enough. Even magazine or journals I've spent years admiring.
Both impulses, the impulse to cram a piece of writing full of every idea and the impulse to hoard and hold back good ideas come from a place of scarcity. On the one hand, the crammer fears never having the opportunity to write again. On the other hand, the hoarder fears never having a good idea again. In this second scenario, the writer becomes like Gollum with his "precious" in The Lord of the Rings. And look how that turned out.
Plus, there's this: when I have a new idea I think is good, I get very, very excited about it. I have lots of energy I want to devote to coaxing that ember into a bigger, brighter fire. But when I hold it back, thinking it would be a good book to write when I'm older, wiser, fancier, have more time, etc., that initial energy dissipates and the project tends to languish, never to be realized. Months or years later, when I come back to the idea, more often than not, the excitement has dissipated and even if I have the time, I don't care to pursue that particular line has thought.
The good news, though, is that thoughts are not a finite resource.
Spending a good one doesn't deplete one's creative accounts. Indeed, often thoughts beget more thoughts. Robert Boice's important book Advice for New Faculty Members (linked below) on successful faculty bears this out in its research on faculty productivity.
Here, Boice notes that professors who release their writing into the world without waiting for it to be perfect end up being more cited, more influential. The same might be said of the writer who does not wait for the perfect venue or the perfect life moment to pursue that good idea. The more we let go of our ideas, the less we hold back, the more we end up putting out into the world. And who doesn't want that?
I’m doing some research on Bette Davis at the moment and it has brought me to some amazingly wrong-headed career advice she received early on in a fan magazine. In it, the magazine’s beauty columnist advises Davis to stop playing such unpleasant women and, among other things, not to jut out her chin so much because it makes her neck cords pop out unattractively.
The beauty columnist insists on her appropriateness to offer Davis advice. She writes, “Now maybe you think I’m stepping out of my rôle as beauty doctor when I tell you that in this letter I want to talk to you about your personality. Really, I’m not, for beauty and personality are inseparable.”
Here’s the thing, though, she is wrong. She’s not an acting coach or a psychiatrist. And, luckily for us, it doesn’t appear Bette Davis listened.
So, what does this amusing anecdote about Bette Davis have to do with our creative work and us?
As with the beauty columnist in question sometimes judges of writing and other creative output get a little confused about their role and the kind of judgments appropriate to it.
In addition to being a writer myself, I’m also a teacher and a member of several social media writing support groups, including groups focused on academic work, creative work, and freelance writing.
With some regularity, a wounded writer appears, whether in my office or in these online spaces. Although the contexts vary, the type of wounding is remarkably similar: some gatekeeper has taken it upon him or herself to judge the writer unfit. This judgment often takes the form of unsolicited advice about a change in career.
When I speak of wounded writers, I am not asking that we stick a prize on everyone or make everybody feel good all the time.
Plenty of writing and artwork is bad. I make bad work all the time. Everyone who creates does—it’s a necessary part of making good work! And sometimes, I don’t realize work is bad until a reviewer tells me it is. Sometimes lots and lots of reviewers at lots of outlets need to tell me something is bad. Then I trash that work and try to make something better.
But telling a writer or academic or artist that she is trash (or not fit for X profession) is not only unhelpful and mean, it’s also outside the reviewer’s purview.
If you are a writer, artist, academic, other creative or thought worker just starting out, here’s a guideline for categorizing appropriate responses to your work:
All of these, including the judgment of a thing’s not-goodness are fine and useful. As you receive feedback as a maker of things, consider which of these categories of response you are getting—engage a friend to help you translate.
Importantly, nowhere on this list is the feedback: you, maker of bad thing, you are as bad as this piece of crap thing. Get out you crap-making person.
If you’re getting feedback that doesn’t fit into one of these five categories, especially if you’re getting judgment from someone who is not your career coach, therapist, or God about your value as a human being, bring in that friend to help you see whether the reviewer is stepping out of his or her role.
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote