“It is possible to write out of ego. It is possible, but it is also painful and exhausting. Back in my drinking days, I used to strain to be brilliant, to write the best, the most amazing, the most dazzling…Is it any wonder that additives seemed like a good idea, like a secret hidden advantage I just might need?
Once I stopped drinking, I found all attempts to be a “great” writer or even a “good writer” to be both exhausting and somehow besides the point. I began to sense that writing was about something more than a “career.” I began to sense that writing was about writing itself. What I needed to do was simply write and not worry so much about judging it. But how?
I was told by screenwriters to post a little sign by my desk that said something like, ‘Universe, you take care of the quality, I’ll take care of the quantity.’
Good advice, all, but my ego bridled at this new humility, wondering if this meant I had ‘no standards.’ As I told them, I ‘had my reservations.’ Nonetheless, I tried their advice and my writing freed up immediately. Some days the writing seemed good to me. Other days it seemed less good. But I was writing regularly and with relative ease.
I came to the humbling conclusion that over time I wrote pretty much the same level all the time, a few peaks and a few valleys but overall: just Julia. I began to think of myself less as “author, author” and more as a word processor. I began to be more willing to let ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ was, write through me. I began to write more quickly. My ego was less invested. Not coincidentally, my writing career began to lift off.
And so it is, nearly twenty years later, that I find myself passing the same advice that gave me so much freedom: let something, or somebody, or writing itself write through you. Step aside and let creativity or the Great Creator or, as my sister calls it, the Great Author, do its work through you. In other words, cooperate, don’t seek to co-opt the power that can enter the world through your hand.” – Julia Cameron
Revisiting Cameron’s lovely The Right to Write and feel myself discovering the majesty, the mystery, the enchantment of writing again. Too often does writing feel like work: tedious, frustrating, laborious drudgery, especially when we’re writing from “I”-the ego.
“Is this piece brilliant/dazzling/clever/quippy/original enough?” we wonder, “Will it get published?”
Rather than concern ourselves with what it is we’re trying to say, we worry about the results: will it be applauded? condemned? How will it be received? Will we have frittered away hours and hours if all we get in the mail is rejection slips?
I often feel this anxiety when I embark on a new project. At first, the piece begins as pure play: I revel in the dissecting, the theorizing, the exploring of ideas. But as I begin to shape a fully-formed piece from the fragments of notes and bullet points of my outline, I feel frustrated: how should I organize all my material? Would it be better to structure the piece chronologically by analysis of scenes or thematically by analysis of ideas? Had I established my main claim well enough? Or had I not adequately proven my assertion? Where did I need to elaborate? give more detail? Where did I have to cut?
Suddenly, the thrill of playing with ideas is replaced with the insecurity and self-doubt of “is this good enough?” Knowing I wanted to submit the piece to Bright Lights Film Journal didn’t help. Now that I was considering publication, a whole new set of doubts started shuffling in: will my work match the style and tone of Bright Lights? Is it written for an intelligent audience? Is it analytical without being overly stuffy? academic? pretentious? Was the writing confident or condescending? over-blown with pomposity? Did every word “sing”? Or was every sentence a string of stale metaphors and obvious cliches? An avid reader of Bright Lights, I couldn’t help but compare my prose to the prose of my favorite contributors. Surely my analysis wasn’t as hilarious or clever as Chatterjee’s. Surely my words weren’t as lively, as precisely chosen.
Why do writers suffer this paralyzing self-doubt? Why do we indulge in comparison, the most destructive kind of self-mutilation? Writers only become self-conscious when they’re writing from ego.
“Will they think I am eloquent/well-spoken/witty?” we worry, “Or will I be found out as a fraud?”
Self-doubt originates in the obsession with me, me, me. When we stop worrying about the quality of work-if it will be published, if it’ll be praised-we can do what really matters: write. Like a comedian who fumbles a punchline because he’s too preoccupied with how his audience will react, most of us only write “badly” when we’re overly concerned with what others will think. The first axiom of writing: write honestly. (Or, as Ernest Hemingway so simply phrased it, write “one true sentence.”) When we write to show off or to impress, our writing no longer resonates as authentic. Readers can sense our dishonesty and no longer believe what we have to say. That is the only thing that makes writing “bad”: untruthfulness.