“Your historical monsters are the building blocks of your core negative beliefs … It is necessary to acknowledge creative injuries and grieve them. Otherwise they become creative scar tissue and block your growth.”
Julia Cameron—The Artist’s Way
Stephen King and Julia Cameron both speak, in their own ways, of creative monsters and the havoc they bring to the creative life. Creative Monsters are the people we let into our lives who shame us about our writing or who seed self-doubt rendering us creatively impotent. If we have more monsters than creative champions in our life, it can be hard to keep writing.
King writes: “I have spent a good many years… too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I kept hearing Miss Hisler asking why I wanted to waste my talent, why I wanted to waste my time, why I wanted to write junk… I think I was forty before I realised that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.”
By age forty King had sold millions of books, best sellers such as It, Pet Sematary and The Stand. It would be incomprehensible to believe that such a popular and successful author had been so susceptible to doubt and shame, if we hadn’t experienced the exact same thing ourselves.
We all have them, a monster or perhaps a whole crew who hang out in the recesses of our consciousness, on the periphery of our creativity, making us ashamed and doubtful of our talent.
How dare you write?
How dare you write that?
You really think that’s good?
Writer—pft. Who are you kidding?
You call that ‘real’ writing.
I’ve realised the idiom sticks and stones may break my bones ‘cos names will never harm me is a load of bollocks. Words do hurt and especially for writers (whose creative ‘mud’ is words). They leave an indelible print on our creative psyches. They destroy confidence, crush dreams, they come to us in our moments of vulnerability. They make has double and triple guess ourselves until we no longer know the way forward.
Like Cameron writes, they are injuries and need to be healed if we want to reach our potential, or even just begin to explore it. Creative Monsters are mudslingers and it’s time to take ourselves down to the creative river and wash away the dirt. I know I love the feeling of cold, crisp water coursing over my body and how you can’t help but feel refreshed afterwards—body and soul!
But how do you do it? How do you find your way down to the river?
Deconstructing the Monster
It’s not only wicked witches who dissolve in water! The river looks something like this (actually, it looks nothing like a river!)
Write down everything you can remember about the incident, including what was said or written, how you felt and what happened afterwards. How did you deal or not deal with the comments? What happened to your writing? Your confidence? Your ability to trust other people with your work?
Understanding how their words effect you and how they’ve become part of your creative reality, is the first step to moving on. This is an exercise I make everyone complete and share in the first part of my beta reading courses.
My, How Monsterous You Are
I spoke about my creative monster in my article earlier this month who told me point-blank I needed to go out and live in the real world. I was naïve and people didn’t really act like that out there.
I don’t deny I had lived a sheltered life—I’d spent almost all of my education in a Catholic high school and I hadn’t been adventurous as a teenager. But I read through his words and heard I was an imbecile, and I had had the audacity to write. What’s more, his words were instant creative castration for my vulnerable self.
From that moment on, my passion for writing waxed and waned. It still does! Mortification, is the only word I can use to describe the realisation I had earlier this month, when deconstructing my fears, that his words formed the core of all my worst fear.
Knowing the Difference
I still shudder to think I was so willing to take his words on board. Thankfully now I understand how to deconstruct criticism and to know the difference between the constructive criticism of your work and a cheap personal shot. The difference is simple:
- gives you information on the strengths and weakness of your story, and uses examples from the work in support of the comments and insights.
- offers suggestions on how to correct or tweak the bits which are weak/confusing/disjointed/missing. In doing so it creates a road map toward a strong story.
- is ALWAYS specific.
- is given with a caveat that states this is one person’s opinion. It is not offered as intractable truth or fact.
- comes from somehow who is making a genuine investment in a stronger story, working in partnership with the author.
The other sort of criticism is simple to spot. It is always:
- general in nature
- personal by definition
Three years ago I let go of notions I’m wasn’t smart enough or worldly enough to write. I assumed the audacity to write badly, and feel okay about it. I built the confidence to try new things, to share my work and do what I needed to grow, mature and hone my skills. In short, I served something of an apprenticeship to my craft.
Earlier this month I left go of the fear I was too naïve to write. I’m not ashamed of wanting to write or scared to make room so I can. In fact, I actually moved into my own writing space a fortnight ago—the first time ever I’ve had a dedicated space of my own to write in.
Now I’m busy running through a pile of edits to finalise three anthologies in time to start an extended writing sabbatical in June. I’m excited and impatient. The self-doubt which dogged me for years is gone (probably to be replaced with a new incarnation of it, but that’s another story). You could say I’m on the brink of my time as a journeyman to my craft.
And all the time I’m editing, I’m doing my best to be a creative champion. Endeavouring always to ensure I don’t give any of the authors I work with cause to drag my name up in ten years time as being the person who devastated their dream to write. It’s a good thing I’m scared of the dark. I could never be a monster!
Who are your creative monsters—today is your opportunity to expose them? What was the shaming charge leveled at you? What self-doubts did they seed? How has it fashioned the way in which you perceive yourself as a writer and your ability create?