Why So Many Good Writers Can’t Write

Recently, someone I think of as a talented writer wrote to me and asked me if she was fooling herself with her latest WIP. She said she could no longer see her own work and judge it. She said she’d been through the critique process for so long—including our MFA program—that it had torn at her confidence. This really killed me. Not just because I have been this same flailing, tortured, insecure writer, but because I have read her work and have had moments reading it where I honestly felt like I was witnessing greatness. I mean, true once in a lifetime greatness. She doesn’t just have a skill–she has a genuine talent. And yet, she was writing to ask if she should stick her novel in a drawer and move on. Uhm, what?

My friend’s angst is really common amongst writers, and makes me wonder about the way writers are trained and encouraged. It makes me wonder if we–those in the writing and academic community–may be doing something wrong. Okay, this is a really big subject, but I think one of the problems I’ve noticed–after going through writing workshops, an MFA program, and a few writing contests (as contestant and judge)–is that the critiques by writers, specifically fledgling writers, may be doing more damage than good.

It’s not that I don’t respect the opinion of writers in all stages; it’s just that when we are starting out as writers, very often, we don’t know a red pen from a chainsaw. During my MFA program, I witnessed writers with the best intentions shred other people’s work, leaving nothing but stumps. And they did it with the utmost self-confidence, the absolute belief in the superiority of their hacking advice. Hell, I can honestly and shamefully say I’ve been that person!

But now, having been through the writing gauntlet, making my living through my writing business, and having learned some humility, I really wish I could go back and reword or revoke many of my critiques. Maybe the saying, “It takes knowledge to recognize your own ignorance” is true. The problem is there’s a lot of damage you can do to good writers along the way. My sincerest apology to anyone I’ve hurt with my ignorance.

So, if you’re out there starting your writing journey, I share this information with you–beware of advice, both giving and receiving. Remember kindness is something you will never regret. Unless, of course, you kindly let a stranger into your house and he murders and eats your dog. Okay, let me amend that. Kind words are something you will rarely regret.

This email from my friend also shows we writers are far too trusting of other writers, librarians, teachers. We often assume the person judging our work knows so much more than us, but really, there are all sorts of gaps in knowledge. Just because someone knows more about what kind of petticoats women wore during the Renaissance—these are always the most impressive people—doesn’t mean they know how to ramp up tension in your Sci-Fi novel.
So how can you, as a writer desperately trying to hone your craft and step out from the sheltered walls of your own mind, tell if you’ve been given good advice? Well, since I’ve wasted a lot of time following bad advice, I can tell you one of the things we writers need to do in order to perfect our craft is to nurture discernment.
Discernment is a way to fully engage in the craft of writing while being cautious. This caution is not timidity. It’s analysis, an intelligent overview of the facts, a critical eye for advice given, and most importantly recognizing your own goals and showing respect for your intuition. Discernment is learning to identify the people, books, and advice that will offer you the opportunity and knowledge you need while cultivating your ability to ignore that ego-voice, yours and others, that assures you your work is too great or too shitty. Timidity, on the other hand, is just plain hiding. You can’t be a writer and hide. Which is too damn bad, because I really hate exposing myself to people.
Discernment is necessary in order to sift through the wealth of information and advice you are bound to get when you share your work with others.
So if you don’t have this discernment skill or even recognize what it means, maybe you–as I really wish I had early on–should follow the advice Stephen King gives in On Writing (paraphrasing)—write the novel first then share your work with a handful of carefully selected people.  I know the temptation is to send your WIP out to your mom and cousin, to join critique groups online, to sign up for writing seminars, enter every writing contest out there and then sift through all that advice like it’s gold, but that’s not going to help you if you don’t know shit from Shinola.
Discernment is learning to tell shit from Shinola. It’s not easy, especially if you are given smart advice by a famous author that just doesn’t fit your character, plot, or goal. Been there. Discernment will help you through this, because it is different from ego. Ego is the furious onslaught of emotion that tells us that advice can’t be right. Ego digs in its heels and refuses to listen. Discernment is that little niggling instinct that weighs the advice and recognizes it doesn’t work for you. If you listen to that voice, even if you don’t sell, you cultivate discernment and in the long run will be a better writer. Discernment is not being hard headed and ignoring advice that challenges and improves your writing. It’s recognizing what you want from your craft and how not to kill your own instinctual story telling ability.
None of this is easy, because honing this ability inevitably means making mistakes in judgment. Still, if you find yourself—as I have done—revising ad nauseam based on other people’s critiques, you might want to stop. Time and distance can do more for your writing than fiddling at this point. Deep breath. You can come back to it. You will. Just write something to cleanse your palate. Don’t be driven to edit by anxiety, you won’t trust what you produce anyway. Through all of this, please remember, you’re learning. No matter how far you seem from the finish. No matter how hard and difficult your task seems, you are learning. And, I believe in you.

6 thoughts on “Why So Many Good Writers Can’t Write

  1. Getting my MFA was a great step forward for me, because it gave me (allowed me to give myself) permission to dedicate two years of discretionary time and income to my writing. And I made some friends there.

    But now that I've been developing my craft on my own for a few years, I feel that the MFA approach is not very sound. I think a better approach would be to assign a series of short exercises/stories/ flash fiction and make sure that through those exercises the students learn certain craft things. In my MFA program, no one EVER talked about Pacing, for example, and yet, that is such an easy thing to teach in a classroom (harder to teach online). No one ever just sat down with us and focused on openings (except students in students presentations, which lacked the background a seasoned writer could have brought to it) and the various elements that go into a good opening. Same for cliffhangers. And although the program I was in was a pioneer in giving genre fiction some respect, there was little awareness of what really differentiates the genres. Finally, as the students complained about even at the time, as we all commented on at the time, we were taught little about marketing. none of them seemed to know much about marketing. The best advice we got in that department was to join RWA, which is where I personally really started learning about forging a "business plan" for my writing career.

    I sometimes wonder what I really accomplished in those two years, and honestly, in the end, I think the most important thing I got out of it was the identification of myself as a fiction writer.

    I wish we'd had a workshop that made us, say, go to some publisher's website, pick an imprint, read their submission guidelines for short stories or a 15K novella, and write a 15K novella, get feedback from the class on it, and submit and see how we did. THAT would have been useful.

    I don't regret getting my MFA, but I think in general that system should be overhauled. (I don't mean to single out MFA programs either: the same system is used by many very expensive writer's conferences.) Also, the MFA approach carries over into many of our writing groups (since many of them are formed in MFA programs) so the flaws go with it.

    Still, it's the best system we have. It does require discernment, which is the responsibility of the writer. It's up to us to learn to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to advice, which requires a strong belief in yourself as a writer. That's really the most important skill of all.

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