I’ve been leading writing workshops for over 20 years and am still gobsmacked by how stubbornly writers cling to certain myths that suck up a lot of emotional energy, and reinforce practices that undermine the creative process. If you buy into any of the myths below, let them go, and see how quickly you’ll write more, write better, and even be happier (because what writer isn’t happier when writing more and writing better).
1. The myth of the “real writer”
“I’m not a real writer.”
Why do so many aspiring authors feel as if there is some exclusive club to which we don’t belong? Of course, I get it. Writing lends itself to insecurity because our stories, real or imagined, matter to us. Otherwise, why would we take on this meaningful, albeit time-consuming and often payless effort. But who are we to lay claim to such a title, especially if—Let’s see, what are some of the reasons I’ve heard?
“I’m not a real writer because I’m not published.”
“…I’m 88 years old.”
“…My work isn’t literary.”
“…My spouse hates the way I write…”
Here is a reality check. You already are in the Club of Real Writers, assuming you are willing to put in the work of membership: writing; revising; accepting constructive criticism and praise; and pushing through rejection. And here is another reality check. Without the distraction of an identity crisis, you will commit more fully to doing what real writers do, which is believe you have something to say, and then figure out a way to communicate it on the page.
Exercise: Write down the reasons you’re not a real writer. Note: it is important that you put these reasons on paper. Why? Because seeing them in black and white will show you how ridiculous they are. When you are finished, write something, anything, as long as it is from the heart.
2. The myth of the suffering artist
So, you had a happy childhood. Get over it. I am kidding, of course. (Would that everyone grew up in a safe, loving environment!) But I am not kidding when I say that you don’t want to equate a lack of personal trauma to a lack of powerful story material. I can promise that when it comes to experiencing emotions—from love to loss and most every feeling in between—you know much more than you think you do. As Willa Cather once said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
Bottom line: Despite what a lot of authors from Aristotle to Hemingway profess, suffering is not a prerequisite to being a creative writer. In fact, neuroscientists researching creativity have found that positive emotional states are actually better for concentration and productivity, and help steady the mind for a complexity of reasons. Of equal note, the release of dopamine, the chemical in your brain that makes you feel good, actually triggers creativity.
Exercise: “Only trouble is interesting.” That is an apt reminder when it comes to developing our characters and their stories. But we are not our characters. So if you are needlessly cultivating angst, drama, or misery in your writing life, channel those feeling onto the page.
3. The myth of the muse
It is counterproductive, not to mention delusional, that we talk about muses as if they are real. How is that different than believing in Santa Claus, and the possibility that this benevolent round man will squeeze down our chimney, leaving us presents, maybe a completed manuscript, a two-book contract, and an expert in social media already tweeting about our forthcoming release!
The downside of this kind of magical thinking, even if we only pay it lip service, is that it can negatively influence our behavior in very real ways. Yes, there are moments in the act of creation so inspired they may seem only attributable to divine intervention, but too much emphasis on creativity as a mystical experience means that we miss all sorts of opportunities to enhance our creative powers in more practical, earthly ways, like paying attention to the things around us that spark our curiosity; trusting in the creative process even when we feel uninspired; and revising, revising, revising (which is often where the real miracle of the creative process occurs).
Reality check: Researchers who have studied the creative process over decades have determined that creativity does not reside outside ourselves. Rather, it is an extension of what we already know. All behaviors and ideas are generative, building on the ones that came before. Your brain sees almost everything as inspiration!
Three-part writing exercise (that takes five minutes):
- React to the first thing you notice. Describe it concretely. (one minute)
- Respond to the item. What does it bring to mind—a memory, a person, a story? (three minutes)
- Synthesize your thoughts. Quick! Write down a takeaway, epiphany, or new question evoked by your writing, (one minute)
4. The myth of shitty first drafts
In her popular book for writers, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott has a chapter entitled “Shitty First Drafts.” She advises writers to think of our early efforts in these terms, as a way to free ourselves from the pressure of high expectations.
I remember loving Anne Lamott’s book when I read it years ago. That said, I never liked the concept of shitty first drafts. In fact, I don’t believe there is such a thing. Sure, a first draft may be miles from polished prose or poetry, but so what! The purpose of a first draft is not to be perfect, but to open up the creative channels; to capture ideas; to discover. So why call it derogatory names. Think of it this way, you wouldn’t fault a baby for not being an adult so why disparage your manuscript in its nascent stage?
A more productive mindset is to honor every draft, and recognize its place in the creative process. Otherwise, we are likely to find ourselves disparaging our work right from the get-go, which can seriously slow us down and/or scrub a considerable amount of enjoyment from our writing lives.
Exercise: Go fetch a first draft. Ignore the impulse to focus on what is not working; what is not there. Linger your attention on the sentences that simmer with potential. Look for opportunities to amplify. Offer a “thank you” for this beginning of…something that is not a blank page.
5. The myth of brutal honesty
“Be brutally honest!” Every time a writer gives me or the members of our workshop that directive, I feel the need to squeeze a stress ball. I know these writers are sincere about improving their work. I know they are thinking such tough love will help them write forward. But I also know that brutal honesty is never a worthwhile objective when seeking or giving feedback, unless your definition of worthwhile is savagely violent.
In reality, most writers are befuddled, set back, or even crushed when people (including themselves) trash their work. This isn’t because writers are weak and can’t handle constructive criticism. It’s because a call for brutal honesty basically slams the door on effective communication. It ignores the emotional quotient that goes into any interpersonal dynamic. It invites judgments and pronouncements. And it implies that positive feedback is untrustworthy.
Exercise: Pay attention to the distinction between brutal honesty and constructive feedback. The former reduces feedback to comments like: “This sucks.” “Start over.” “You can’t…” The latter focuses on specific weaknesses and, even more so, on the strengths of the manuscript, providing the writer with both insight and perspective on what to preserve and what to develop.
Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out the revised and expanded edition of Joni B. Cole’s book for writers, Good Naked.
Joni B. Cole is the author of two writing guides, Good Naked: How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier (listed as one of the “Best Books for Writers,” Poets & Writers), and Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive. She founded her own writer’s center, and is a popular teacher and speaker at a variety of academic programs, writing conferences, and nonprofit organizations. Joni is also the creator and host of the podcast Author, Can I Ask You? Learn more at her website.