This is Part 4 in a series of posts chronicling the journey of one writer from self-defeat and creative paralysis back to a love of writing and productivity, heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s excellent Zen in the Art of Writing. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
“I went back to collecting Buck Rogers. My life has been happy ever since. For that was the beginning of my writing science fiction. Since then, I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows, or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle”
Bradbury was talking about actual literary snobbery, directed at him, in actual rooms. This certainly still happens–there are plenty of anecdotes about authors of one subgenre sneering at authors of a different subgenre on convention panels. But what this passage brings to mind for me is something else that we face daily now: a perceived criticism that comes from having 24/7 access to the opinions of nearly everyone we know.
I have a friend who writes pirate stories. She’s very good at it. She loves her characters, and she’s incredibly skilled at bringing them to life and sending them on adventures, getting them into and out of danger, facing foes and defeating evil. Every now and then she’ll mention how her pet project is coming along, and invariably she’ll slip into demeaning modifiers: the dumb book, or the silly book, or the stupid book. Because she’s absorbed the false notion that the kind of stories she enjoys writing don’t count, that the only stories that have value are literary masterworks of crossover fiction that explore Important Issues. Because what she hears when someone says “Notable Author’s story was so great it made me cry! I hope they win an award!” is “Your story did not make me cry; your story is not great. QED.”
What would you say to her? What would Ray say?
I think he would say: If someone is making you feel that way, you pack up your Jolly Roger and leave the room.
The problem is that today the room in question is the internet. The room is Twitter; the room is Facebook. Social media is simultaneously the best and worst cocktail party ever thrown. At its best, we get to have energetic conversations with people with similar interests and shared concerns. At its worst, a person can be utterly dehumanized in 140 characters. Somewhere in the middle is where most of us live–constantly exposed to the opinions of hundreds or thousands of people, many of whom we respect and admire, a few we care for deeply, but most we’re connected to only through a shared interest of one kind or another.
I have some very successful literary friends who I mostly keep in touch with via Social Media. I love them very much, and I want to know what’s happening in their lives. But sometimes I have to cop to the fact that seeing every single sale announcement, every word of (totally deserved) praise for their work, well, it gets to me. I’m not talking about professional jealousy–a phenomenon I also sometimes experience–or even about competition. I’m talking about comparison, and the sense that in that comparison I fall short. We’re pattern-seeking animals, and when our work doesn’t measure up (whether in quantity or perceived quality) to the patterns we think we detect in the constant stream of information–it can do very bad things to our confidence and our commitment to our craft, and to ourselves.
Suddenly our love of sideshows and gorillas looks stupid beside other people’s love of black holes and post-apocalypses. That’s our cue: It’s time to leave the room. (The Mute button on Twitter is wonderful for this.)
“I wrote at least a thousand words a day every day from the age of twelve on. For years Poe was looking over one shoulder, while Wells, Burroughs, and just about every other writer in Astounding and Weird Tales looked over the other.
I loved them, and they smothered me. I hadn’t learned how to look away and in the process look not at myself but at what went on behind my face.”
-Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Run Fast, Stand Still…”
Today “every other writer” is right there in our Twitter timeline. We have to learn to look away (eyes on your own paper!), stop comparing ourselves to them, and look within. Our excellence will be found where our heart is, and it will look like no one else’s.
Next week we’ll start the work of discovering our excellence within our authentic selves, and using it to find our way into stories that are uniquely our own.
Next time: Part 5 – Hidden in the Nouns, Lost in the Lists