Overcoming Creativity Wounds

Today’s guest post is by Grant Faulkner, executive director of Nanowrimo and author of Pep Talks for Writers.

For writers unaware, Nanowrimo is National Novel Writing Month, where writers around the world challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It starts November 1. Learn more.


Somewhere deep within most of us, there is a wound. For some, it’s vile and festering; for others, it’s scarred over. It’s the type of wound that doesn’t really heal at least not through any kind of stoic disregard or even the balm of time.

I’m not talking about a flesh wound, but a psychological wound—the kind that happens when someone told you in an elementary school art class that you didn’t draw well, or when you gave a story to a friend to read in the hopes they would shower you with encouragement, but they treated the story with disregard. We put our souls, the meaning of our lives, into the things we create, whether they are large or small works, and when the world rebuffs us, or is outright hostile, the pain is such that it might as well be a flesh wound. In fact, it sometimes might be better to have a flesh wound.

To be a creator is to invite others to load their slingshots with rocks of disparagement and try to shoot you down.

I’ve been hit with many such rocks. Perhaps the most devastating rock was slung by a renowned author who I took a writing class from. My hopes were ridiculously high, of course. I wanted her to recognize my talent, to affirm my prose. I wanted her to befriend me, to open up the doors of her mind and show me the captivating way she thought. I was young, and I walked into her class as if I was a puppy dog, my tongue wagging, expecting to play. My first day of class might as well have been the opening scene of a tragic play.

When I turned in my story for her feedback, not only did she not recognize my talent, but she eviscerated my story. She might as well have used shears. “No shit!” she wrote in the margins of one page. I met with her in her office hours to ask her questions and hopefully make a connection, but she was equally cold and cutting, offering nothing that resembled constructive critique, just the pure vitriol of negativity. She said my story was boring, pretentious. She said my dialogue, which others had previously praised, was limp and lifeless.

That was the only time in my writing life when I felt truly defeated. It was the only time in my life when I was utterly unable to pick up a pen to write anything. I’d been critiqued in many a writing workshop before—relatively severely even—so I wasn’t a naive innocent. But I’d never experienced such slashing and damning comments. I’d always been resilient and determined in the face of such negativity, but this time I lay on the couch watching TV for several days afterward, my brain looping through her scissoring comments again and again.

I hope you haven’t experienced anything like this, but, unfortunately, almost every writer I’ve talked to has a similar story. When something you’ve created—something that glows so brightly with the beauty of your spirit—meets with such an ill fate, it can create the type of wound that never truly closes. You can stitch it closed, but the swelling puss within it can still break the stitches back open. It’s always vulnerable to infections, resistant to salves. Time heals . . . a little, but not necessarily entirely.

The question is how to begin again, how to recover the very meaning and joy that we found in our first stories—to recover the reason we write. It’s difficult. I still see that “No shit!” in the margin and sometimes wonder if I have anything worthwhile to impart, or if the quality of my prose allows me to impart my stories and ideas in an interesting and engaging way. I’ve wondered this even after getting a story or essay published. I wonder if somehow the editor didn’t realize what an imposter I am. I wonder this even now, as I write this book on the subject of writing of all things, a book that has a publisher, a book that has been guided by a fine editor, a book that is sold in stores. Wounds can open when least expected, and from them self-doubt riles with a snarl.

Pep Talks by Grant FaulknerThis pep talk is titled “Overcoming Creativity Wounds,” which is quite different than healing them. To overcome means to prevail. To overcome means not succumbing to the wound, but to bandage it and move on. To overcome means that you have to tell yourself that you’re creative, that the only significant thing you’ll accomplish in this life will come from that singular imaginative force that is you—that you deserve to frolic with words, to explore worlds, to dance with the characters in your stories (or follow them down dark alleys and go to war with them). To overcome means to say no to the naysayers and yes to your indomitable will. (Trust me, you do have an indomitable will, even if you’re thinking about turning on the TV.)

To overcome is to write your story, to believe in it.

There’s no one recipe to overcome a creativity wound, but putting a pen between your fingers and then resting it on a piece of paper is a pretty good start to finding one. Start writing. Keep writing. And the wound will fade and even fuel your work, even if it might not truly go away.

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Guest Post.

Grant Faulkner is the Executive Director of National Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and the co-founder of the online literary journal 100 Word Story and the Flash Fiction Collective.

He believes quite simply that everyone is a writer—that we create our world through stories we tell—so he prods everyone he meets to write a novel and discover how life can be transformed through a daring creative act.

His stories and essays have appeared in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, The Southwest Review, PANK, and The Berkeley Review.

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Grant FaulknerAnne JennerStar OstgardCristine EastinLiz Gauffreau Recent comment authors

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Fiona Ingram
Fiona Ingram

I had an experience like this when a fellow MG author whose work I respected reviewed one of my MG books and ripped into it like a tornado. The review started out brilliantly and then halfway through the praise turned to vitriolic condemnation. I have never forgotten her words and, despite the fact that this book has won awards, and I am also published in Japan and China by publishers who love my work, I don’t think I will ever forget this review. It didn’t stop me writing, but it did make me doubt myself for a long time. So,… Read more »

Larry

Grant Faulkner’s article reminds me of the old, but true wisdom, “We may not remember what somebody said, but we will remember how they made us feel.” A good reminder, both with a nod to the past and an awareness to think twice how we administer “constructive criticism.

Thank you for an important reminder.

Brooke E Turner

Great stuff! Thank you for sharing. I am currently in my first fiction workshop and just handed in a 20 page short story. It’s terrifying! This helped…

Frances Caballo

What a beautiful post, Grant. I’ve experienced a similar blow in my life but from a writing group. Whereas others had always praised my writing, including professors in college, members in this particular group shattered what confidence I had as a writer. Yet, I kept returning to the group and I continued to write. Whether it’s a professor, a colleague, or a reader who leaves a public bad review, we all have to overcome the hurt and just keep writing. By the way, I went to your bookstore appearance in Petaluma and was so enthused by your talk that I… Read more »

James Stack

Thanks for writing this. I am one of the writers who has wounds from teachers. It took me nearly 40 years to put pen to paper such that I was willing to share my stories, but share them I have and been published too. I hope someone like me who is still a child reads your post and puts pen to paper instead of streaming shows on TV.

Marianne Jones
Marianne Jones

Years ago, when I wanted to act in community theater, a director I wanted to please eviscerated me and told me I had no talent. I cried for 3 weeks, believing my dream to be shattered for all time. Finally a little voice inside said, “Wait–who is this guy to tell me I can’t act? The only person who gets to decide that is me!” I picked myself up, auditioned for a play and have been happily acting and directing since. That moment at the bottom was the most empowering of my life, when I stopped giving the authority over… Read more »

Nita Leland

If people would only believe in the creative potential they were born with, they could do whatever their heart desires. They will still have to do the work. That is where the healing happens.

Liz Gauffreau

Grant, what that “renowned author” did to you was unconscionable, inexcusable, despicable, and any other inventive you can think of. People like that have no business getting anywhere near a classroom. Just the thought of it makes my blood boil.

Carolyn O'Neal
Carolyn O'Neal

If nothing else, this story illustrates that writing and teaching are separate skills and being good at one doesn’t mean you’ll be any good at the other.

Derek Ayre

Yes, I can identify with what your saying here. As a child of around 10 years, I was preparing for a music (piano) exam and running through the music I was to play with my music teacher. I hit some ‘bum notes’. She showed her impatience as the exam was getting so close and asked me to take it from the top again, and again the same mistake occurred and then again, several times over. She began to smack across the back of my hands in exasperation. It was very painful.. And then same mistake again with a few more… Read more »

Brooke Warner

Great post, Grant. I had a high school teacher who did the equivalent of this to a paper I wrote my senior year. It was devastating to me, and probably part of the reason it took me as long as it did to start writing and publishing my own work. Thank you for sharing your story. You give the best pep talks!

Rudy Owens
Rudy Owens

There are fewer reporters today than in the past because of the newspaper industry’s massive devolution. However, learning the craft of writing under deadline for a “newspaper” or other publication remains one of the best forms of instruction. Your writing will be cut, mercilessly. Editors will insult you loudly, and laugh at you and tell you that your writing stinks. And you get over it fast and get better and understand what storytelling means instinctually. Too bad more writers can’t get this training these days because of the industry reinvention. This “school of hard knocks” would help them immensely. Assume… Read more »

Raili Taylor
Raili Taylor

To remain sane and functional as a writer you must learn to deal with criticism. My test came when I enrolled on a very expensive writing course and realised there was a personality clash between me and the established author who ran the course. Then, one day, she ripped apart my piece, focusing particularly on my use of “triangulate” to describe an attempt to work out logistics between three points. She told me how very wrong I was, that triangulate is a surveying term and has nothing to do with locations. I looked at her and thought how wrong she… Read more »

Liz Gauffreau

All excellent points! Probably the best advice about feedback/criticism I ever received in a writing workshop was, “Take what you can use, and leave the rest.”

Cristine Eastin

Yep…I’ve got a couple wounds like that…one from a “friend,” one from a professional reviewer.
I’m alternately depressed, furious, defiant, paralyzed, and galvanized.
Then I remember: there are mean people everywhere. And I remember the grain of truth embedded in the meanness, and move on.

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

Once I understood the difference between giving constructive criticism and being an ass-hat, I was able to recognize pretty early what I was receiving and thus, when to quit listening. The next step was recognizing the problem was with them, not my story, and that I needed to look elsewhere for authentic feedback.

Anne Jenner

Great post Grant. And “wound” is the perfect analogy to describe this particular kind of psychic hurt. I wrote something along the same lines on my blog recently which applies specifically to writing but can relate to any endeavour where you put your heart and soul on the line. (“I don’t think I know of any other occupation where those most drawn to it are those least equipped to deal with the kinds of gut punches that being a writer constantly entails. We’re sensitive souls, we bleed out our innermost dreams and thoughts and imaginings onto the page and if,… Read more »