writing

Facing the Monster

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Where were you when the monster first wormed its way into your brain?

For me, maybe I can trace it back to that fateful day when I announced to my sixth grade teacher that I wanted to be a writer. She greeted the news with a level of enthusiasm typically reserved for experimental dental surgery.

I can’t remember the reaction of my parents when I told them, but I suspect there was a pat on the head and a canned response of “That’s nice, son.” Making a living as an author is a hope, skip and a rocket launch away from astronaut and space pirate on the realistic career scale, especially for a young child. Still, parents encourage our dreams, or at least don’t dash them straight away.

But that teacher? Maybe her reaction didn’t sign a lease for the monster, but it served as a pretty good real estate agent, showing it around and recommending the best places to hide.

I vividly remember the first day I met it, however. When I moved on to junior high school, I spent an inadvisable amount of time picking at short stories and even novels about the characters I loved. My grades reflected that uneven distribution of passion, but who needed algebra or chemistry? I was going to be a Writer, one who wrote Important Books. At home, if I wasn’t filling up the blank notebooks I got for Christmas every year(at my request), I was banging on the keys of either an actualy typewriter or our trusty Apple //c.

One day, I looked over a story about Mega Man and felt pretty proud of it. I typed it up in AppleWorks, powered up the dot matrix printer, braved the painfully long wait for the job to finish, then tore off the perforations(seriously, if you didn’t live the dot matrix days, you can’t truly appreciate an ink jet). In it went to the backpack, and as friends gathered for lunch that day, I produced the story and passed it around the table, certain this was the first step toward writing my Mega Man novel.

Sometimes, I can still hear echoes of their laughter.

Giving each other crap is a rite of passage for adolescent boys, or so we’re led to believe. In a few days, heck maybe a few hours, they’d forget about it and move on to something else.

I didn’t.

I couldn’t.

As we went our separate ways, I tore the pages into tiny shreds and dumped them on top of a pile of unfinished cafeteria spaghetti. Thankfully my emotions cooled over the course of the day, because in the heat of the moment I wanted to rip up the original and delete the file as well after my last class. I can’t remember what I did when I got home. I probably handled things maturely, either by eating a package of Swiss Cake Rolls or playing an NES game.

What I didn’t do wasa power up the //c and sit down in front of the word processor, and didn’t for a few days after. A little voice whispered in my head as I looked at the computer or even my notebooks.

Why bother? You’re not good enough. Don’t even waste your time. They were right to laugh.

I did get back to writing, of course. But while there have been periods of relative silence over the years, the monster has been with me ever since.

We’ve all experienced the monster, though I suspect it’s preferred habitat is the mind of anyone in the creative arts. Whether you’re making a feature length film or sketching to share with a handful of friends, it peppers you with doubt after doubt. No flaw escapes its notice, and it can even make us question the things we’re most confident in. It can haunt you at every step of the process, paralyze you from getting any work done at all. At its most insidious, it can make you want to give up all together. Sometimes it even succeeds.

It feeds on the negativity in our daily lives, hones it until it’s razor sharp then magnifies its effect. Even the slightest criticism becomes the front page headline in a newspaper filled with encouragement and compliments. Even if you’ve never so much as glued dried macaroni to a piece of construction paper, I’m sure you’ve experienced it. It’s the bad customer in a day filled with pleasant experiences, the one negative in an exemplary performance review, or the one fault our friends and loved ones thing we can improve upon. Whatever it is, there’s always a little voice that nags at you and can’t let it go.

That’s because the monster never goes away.

Believe me, I’ve tried. When I first discovered online fan fiction communities and posted my work, I could get dozens of positive reviews. I’d fixate on the one negative, and it would haunt me the next time I opened a document file. Even if it wasn’t a valid critique, even if it was something as infantile as “This series sucks and so do you!” I gave it validity. Maybe the series was terrible, and I was a terrible person for loving it.

I’d read over the positive reviews and take in the glowing praise that awaited me, but the monster chimed in and reminded me of that one dissenting voice. I’d throw on headphones and crank up a favorite inspiration song, but the monster could drown it out. Spending a few choice words speculating on the parental origins and mating habits of the reviewer? Nope, it only added a thin patina of guilt over my immaturity to the whole thing. Stress eating, playing video games where I could blow things up, or a half dozen other coping mechanisms did nothing and only added to my frustrations.

The truth is, no matter who you are, the monster will always find fuel for its fire. Even commercial success can’t provide you immunity. Just take a look at Harry Potter. It’s a cultural landmark, a best selling series with two film franchises, multiple theme park lands and a devoted and loyal fan base. Yet author J.K. Rowling has to do no more than open Twitter and search her name to find any number of people happy to tell her she’s rotting the minds of children, that her work is sub par as best, and any number of more colorful insults.

I’m sure she’s used to it by now, but I’d be shocked if there aren’t still days it gets under her skin. But it just goes to show you that no one is universally beloved, no matter their success. Even the writers who form the canon of English literature aren’t immune from criticism. Were he alive today and still as revered, even William Shakespeare would look at his mentions from @Jonson611 and think, “You know, maybe he’s right. I always thought that porter scene in MacBeth was a little much…”

So, I’m telling you we can’t escape the monster, and we’ll all inevitably face the sort of criticism that drives it. What, then, can we do about it? Do we press on in spite of its Terminator-like persistence? Do we listen to its ramblings and let them paralyze us? For that matter, should we just drag our entire writing folder into the recycle bin and wash our hands of the whole business.

Unless I’m writing a remarkably dark and depressing post, you probably suspect I have some suggestions. As fate would have it, you’d be right.

First, let’s address the matter of the monster’s primary energy source, all those negative and sometimes hateful comments. A few paragraphs ago, I suggested there’s no way to avoid them. Unless we keep our work locked away in a drawer, away from prying eyes, we’ll almost inevitably encounter some of them.

There’s a lesson in that.

Fear of that kind of reception that lead us to paralysis. I’ve known a number of writers and artists, myself included, who have kept polishing a piece and looking at it from every possible angle. We’re doing it because we want to please everyone and guard against those fearsome words.

The reality is it can’t be done. No matter how hard you work on a piece or how many times you go through it with a fine toothed comb, there will be someone out there who will find fault with it. Maybe they don’t like the genre, or something about one of your characters rubbed them the wrong way. Maybe you’ve got a character named Vance, and that’s the name of their ex who ran away with their beloved dog and–

Well, you get the idea. The point is, you’re never going to make something that appeals to everyone. If you try, you’ll never finish your work. Now, I want to make a distinction here. There are people who won’t like your work and will politely tell you it’s not their cup of tea(or coffee or scotch). That may hurt, especially if it’s a close friend or family member, but there’s nothing wrong with that! Every piece of work has its own audience, and your job as a creator is to find them.

But I’m thinking less of those instances, and more of the people who get something stuck in their craw about your work and can’t wait to tell you about it. No matter what, if you put your work out into the world, you’re going to encounter these people as well. Sadly, the nature of the internet, and social media in particular, rewards snark and jokes over thought out criticism in many cases. There’s a lot of noise out there, and much like your work, their criticism is struggling to make itself stand out. (I think it’s worth bearing that in mind, and also bear in mind behind the keyboard that typed out those hateful words is another human being, just like you. It might be tempting to fight fire with fire, but no one wins in an internet flame war, and it’ll only make you look bad. It’s best not to respond directly in most cases.)

There are two categories of these negative comments. The first are senselessly harsh, something along the lines of the “this sucks and so do you” response I mentioned earlier. These are easier to brush aside, because they could have happened just because the commenter was having a bad day and wanted to take it out on someone. If the monster latches onto these, remind yourself how empty those words really are. There’s nothing to glean from these comments, they’re the written equivalent of white noise.

The second kind, no matter how harsh, might actually contain a kernel of insight beneath the hard shell of inflammatory language. These can be very specific, sometimes fixated on a specific detail in the story, or even as general as a dislike of a particular character. Expend just a little thought on these, because there might be a reason for their anger. Did you make a mistake on a culturally significant detail? Is there a reason they responded so harshly to the character? Look past the language and decide for yourself if there’s validity to it.

It’s important to point out that I’m not considering legitimate critique and complaints the same as these inflammatory comments. It might not feel nice to hear what you got wrong(and remember that a good critique focuses on the positive and negative), but it someone has taken the time to compose their thoughts in a reasonable and mature manner, you should always at least acknowledge that, even if you don’t agree with their assessment.

The point being, if you can break down these comments and look past the words that are meant to injure and anger, you rob them of a lot of their power, and thus their usefulness to the monster.

That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but what about the monster itself? I said earlier that you can’t rid yourself of it, that its persistent voice will remain with you as long as you continue to create. Do you have to deal with this nasty little goblin forever? Well, there are a few ways to subdue it and weaken its influence. In fact, there’s even a way to take advantage of it and bend it to your advantage.

Many writers have different writing styles, and I’m told there are a few lucky buggers out there who can produce impressive work on their first draft. Often these writers can tinker, disassemble and reconfigure the work in their heads before they sit down to type. Maybe there are a few so blessed that the words come out fully formed and effortless on the page, though I’ve yet to meet any of them. And while a few of the posts on my site are first draft pieces, I’ve come to discover that’s not the type of writer I am.

My particular monster(which I fancy looks like a Mordle from the Rocks, Bugs and Things toyline) loves to poke and prod on first drafts, often to the point where I’m paralyzed. I used to pressure myself to get it right the first time, but I’d question every section, every line, sometimes even every word. The monster loved to sink its little claws into my frustration in an attempt to get me to stop. However, I learned an amazing trick that has put the jerk in his place, and I’m going to share it with you now.

I give myself permission to fail on the first draft.

My favorite writing instructor in college vividly described them as vomit drafts, but I’ve come to prefer the term discover draft more these days. Simply put, I write out the bones of the story and remind myself nothing has to be permanent. The monster can gripe and complain all he wants about about a turn of phrase or the way a particular scene is structured, and for now I can just ignore him. I let him writhe in the background while I make potential mistake after potential mistake. It’s fine, let him complain, I can fix it all later.

(As a side note, your mileage may vary, but I know my particular monster is a guy, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them are. They’re forever locked in the mindset of those classmates of mine at the lunch table, and thinking of them as such goes a long way to rob more of their power.)

I imagine this can work for people in other creative fields as well, whether it’s an artist doodling thumbnail sketches of poses, a practice snapshot of a scene or a rough edit of a video project. In all of these cases, you just have to remember it can all be changed later. You intend to change it. Just don’t let the monster grab the controls. Does he think the scene plays too long, or the arm doesn’t look quite right? Maybe it does, and you can make that determination later.

Sometimes people like to think of this as letting the inner child take over, and letting your mind drift back to that time when you had a piece of paper, crayons and endless worlds of possibility. If you’ve got the ability to completely shut off your critical mind and can essentially just play, then by all means do so. But I’ve found among the creatives I know that this can prove difficult if you’re trying to produce any sort of commercial work, because there are always some limitations involved. The trick is pressing on in spite of the monster’s incessant noise.

If you find that nasty voice is getting too loud to make this possible, then another helpful technique is to talk your way through it. One of the greatest blessings in a creative person’s life is finding friends you can turn to for discussing ideas, working through problems and discovering solutions.

I don’t want to discount the importance of having cheerleaders in your life who support your work, because we all need that. That’s not what you need here. You need to find a friend who has the honesty to look at situations objectively and tell you what they see wrong, but also the tact and sensitivity to keep you from careening into a pit of despair(It also helps if they can be your giant or swordsman to rescue you if you’ve found yourself there).

If you don’t have those kind of people in your life, there are places to find them. If you can find a community of artists or writers, this can be an enormous help. But don’t expect to find this kind of help right away, and make sure the group you find is the right fit for your personality and work. If you’re writing thrillers, a group for romance writers might not be the best idea, even if they’re wonderful people. Sometimes you can also find people in your life you wouldn’t expect who are willing to help you.

One other suggestion as far as this goes… if you do find someone willing to help, you should be willing to provide the same kind of feedback for them. But I’ve found that if you become known as a person who will give honest, objective feedback, others will find you as well.

But if you can’t find them, there’s still an option. Open a journal or a word processor and write out your thoughts on your own. Things can get jumbled up if you leave them in your mind, and of course that lets the monster sprinkle on his trademark negativity. Whether it’s a stream of consciousness piece, a letter to yourself, a poem or even a dialogue with the monster himself, it doesn’t really matter. Maybe brainstorming or idea trees or little sketches would work for you. More than likely, you’ll be the only person who sees them. They exist to give you a road map around your current impasse.

There might be times even this won’t work, and we can’t manage to quiet the monster enough to complete our work. In those moments, you need to give yourself permission to step away from a project for a while. There comes a point of diminishing returns where forcing yourself to try and produce work only makes matters worse. At times, what you need is to put distance between yourself and the work. Maybe for a few days, maybe longer, until your mind calms.

Or maybe you abandon the work entirely. Now, this is never a good feeling, but it does happen and sometimes with good reason. This is a lot easier when you’re in the nascent stages of a story or the first lines of a new sketch, of course. When you’ve put a lot of time, effort and tears into a project it’s not easy to put it down for good. I’d not take this kind of step lightly, treating it as an option of last resort when nothing else seems to work. The monster will probably launch into a happy dance, but ignore the little jerk and start something new, and accept maybe he did the right thing this once.

Because the annoying reality is that sometimes the monster is right.

The monster isn’t just an oppressive, angry, negative force that exists for the sole purpose of making your life miserable and ruining every project. He’s a complex little creature that draws on any number of things deep down inside of you. Like those negative comments I mentioned earlier, within his harsh words might be a nugget of truth. While I’ve talked about him moving in, he’s probably always been there, and part of him is drawn from your logical mind and the internal critic we all need to have as creatives.

There are moments when the monster’s ceaseless pestering is steeped in a subconscious realization something’s wrong. Perhaps you’re overusing a certain phrase, or as an artist there’s a problem with the anatomy or perspective. Lawrence Block once suggested in his incredible books on writing that writer’s block is a symptom of that sort of intuition. Indeed, writer’s block and the monster are probably very closely related.

That’s one of the advantages of both the ability to analyze the negative comments on your work, and of the letters you can write to yourself about it. If you lay your thoughts out, you might find the detail that’s increased the volume on the monster’s nagging. It’s never easy to acknowledge there might be some validity to second guessing yourself, but over time you can sort out what’s a valid concern and what’s the monster just shouting to make himself heard.

In fact, with practice there’s even a way to make the monster work for you, a monster when he can be unleashed in a controlled fashion to your benefit: Editing.

If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably heard some variant on the adage kill your darlings. If you haven’t, don’t worry! This isn’t advocating a Game of Thrones-eseque killing spree of your cast. Instead, it refers to the idea that when you revise your work, you need to be willing to remove fun dialogue exchanges, self indulgent bits of description or even entire supporting characters if they’re holding the story back. This is never an easy process, except for the monster. Since he delights in telling you what’s bad and what’s worse, let him take control when you have the red pen in your hand.

That’s not to say you should follow his advice without question, of course. But if he hones in on certain aspects of your drafts and keeping harping on them, this is a wonderful time to call upon those trustworthy friends. Show them your draft, if they have the time, and highlight the things that stood out in your revision. You’re still under no obligation to remove any of it, of course, but if the monster and your beta readers agree, it’s worth giving some serious thought.

You’ll never escape negative comments, and the monster’s riding along with you for the rest of your journey whether you like it or not. It’s a consequence of living a creative life. But with practice, you can learn to live with it and even make it a part of your toolkit if you work hard enough at it.

Just don’t ask about the kind of stuff mine said when I was writing this. I try to keep the foul language in these pieces to a minimum.

Have any stories about the struggles with your own monster? Have a few techniques to keep them at bay? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to leave feedback here, or get in touch on social media. I’m always interested in hearing from others on this crazy journey we’re all on. Hope you enjoyed the piece, and above all else… keep creating!

Just a reminder, there are a few photo prints for auction on eBay to benefit the American Red Cross, and all sales from my RedBubble store until the end of September will be donated to charities helping the recovery from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Even if you don’t buy, please consider donating! There’s still a lot of people who need your help!

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