Especially after a success or two, I see that sometimes I try too hard while writing. Elated at that recent byline—or whatever it may be—and beginning to believe I really am a writer, I seek to duplicate glory.
This guest post is by Noelle Sterne. Author, editor, writing coach, workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, Sterne has published more than 400 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, and short stories. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, New Age Journal, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Academic editor and coach, with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) further aids doctoral candidates to award of their degrees.
The signs are unmistakable, whether for a new piece, a revision of an older one, or one final look before submission. I giggle at the puns. I murmur self-approval at the turns of phrase. I hear readers’ gasps of delight at my ingenuity. Worst of all, a red warning flare shoots through my brain—Oh, oh, ego ascendant.
If I don’t pay attention to that flare, I know it heralds disaster: I’m trying too hard. The work cannot help reflect this over-conscious effort. The technique, wordplay, and resplendent diction I so admire somehow overpowers whatever message I want to convey.
Poet, novelist, and professor Stephen Taylor Goldsberry in The Writer’s Book of Wisdom: 101 Rules for Mastering Your Craft warns us, “Try not to overdo it. ... Beware of contrived lyrical embellishment and fluffy metaphors.” I would add to beware of too eloquent, balanced rhetoric; repetition for effect; overly ripe similes; too-intricate expositions; and too-pithy observations.
More cautions: In Dare to Be a Great Writer (how’s that for a challenging, uplifting title?), novelist, editor, and writing teacher Leonard Bishop observes that all of us know with undeniable certainty that we possess “a talent capable of lyrical flights, able to use prose in a style so grand that [we] can make great poets seem like senile doodlers.” Bishop (using the generalized masculine pronoun) hurries to dispel any approval of this observation: “As he becomes more professional, he works to control this vanity.”
After I devoured Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, I read a transcript of an interview with her. Working on her next book, she said, she produced 500 pages trying to imitate her bestseller. Her style was similarly breezy, flippant, and pseudo-deep. Gilbert finally realized what she was doing; she knew she had to junk the whole new draft. Then, no longer trying to duplicate the earlier success, she wrote a completely different and honest book, Committed. And Committed was successful in its own right.
Like Gilbert in her post-E-P-L foray, when we try—even with all our might—we end up failing or at least falling short. I think of a friend’s story about his father, who came from Italy, settled in New Jersey, and founded an automotive products store.
As a twelve-year-old, my friend helped his father after school in the store. One day, his father instructed him to unpack a shipment of tires and stack them in a certain corner for maximum display. The boy answered, “I’ll try.”
In his limited but effective English, his father bellowed, “No try! You do!” My friend did. And never forgot the lesson.
Do ... Or Don’t
Our writing lesson? We shouldn’t try. We do, or don’t. Maybe it means not writing at all for a while, walking away, or actually shelving the project. Or writing a lot of nonsense first, accompanied by that horrid, hollow feeling that we know it’s trash.
Or incessantly using the slash/option method. This is one of my favorites/best practices/most helpful methods/greatest techniques for skirting stuckness and continuing to slog. Or going back countless times to excise, refine, replace, restructure, or even—like Gilbert—pitch it all out and start again.
Trying means we’re writing too self-consciously, usually to impress or force. In contrast, doing, like my friend’s immigrant father knew, means total immersion. However many drafts we need, however many flailings in the creative mud we dare, our success rests not in trying—but in doing.
Talk to Yourself
When you suspect you’re trying too hard or you’re tempted to do so, remind yourself of a few things, like I must (more often than I like to admit). Stop trying to be clever and knowing. Stop trying to beat out your writing colleagues. Stop trying to show off your wit and dazzle everyone. Stop trying to replicate your just-success.
Tell yourself you’re not talking to them. We know who: the friends and family we so ardently want to show we’re not wasting our time; the editors who dangle acceptance, publication, and even a small check; the agents whom we envision stumbling on this piece and rushing to call or email us with an offer of representation and suggestion to make this essay into a book they will sell at auction to the most powerful mega-publisher; the endorsers who will exalt us; the critics who will worship us; the moguls who will magically make our words flesh in the great film; the fleets of tweeters and repeaters who will blast our dazzling new name through the galaxies ...
All that trying for all those external outcomes cuts off your talent and expressive truth and especially your honesty as a writer.
Instead, go apart, mentally and physically. Take deep breaths, meditate, stretch, swim, sleep.
Talk only to yourself. As you shut out all that trying, paradoxically, when you go inside, those outside accolades will come more easily. And always paradoxically, as you shut out all of them and go deeper alone, you will reach the reader who is the mirror of you.
I’m reminded of this truth by Bill Kenower, the wonderful writer and editor of Author Magazine: “The quickest route to another person’s heart is through my own. The deeper into my own experiences I dive, the further I go beneath the surface of time and place and circumstance, the more I am able to find those currents flowing endlessly from soul to soul to soul.”
Going deeper—dare I say communing—is not at all indulgent. It is why you are here. You will reach your Self, the Self who knows what you really want to write and what gives you the greatest satisfaction. You will reach the Self who knows why you’re here, blessed/cursed with this drive and talent, and who will direct you to flow it out. Believe it. Allow it. Receive it all.
Trust yourself. Trust that mysterious and wholly reliable Voice inside that gives you every answer every time you ask, unencumbered, What do I do next?
Turn away from trying, relax your forced and fevered labor. Listen to your Creative Soul and just write.
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