How do you know, really know, when doubt is just fear and when it is justified?
I’m a doubter by nature. everything in me is drawn to question. Other people latch a hold of things with such surety, absolute certainty, and they switch blindly with the very same certainty, never pausing to doubt, to observe the inherent contradiction. It is one way, it was another. I exist in the transition, the question that leads to the change.
It’s not a wise place to squat. I’m trying to find my way to the other side. How does the serial doubter reinforce their self-belief, if you can’t even find a scrap to begin with. Affirmations are not really my style, not in the general sense. But neither am I so complacent – okay I’m desperate. Taking the theory – they have thousands of years behind them – and combining it with a bit of science (social science, pseudo science.. desperate, okay) results in Amy Cuddy’s book Presence. In between the power posing (I will let you laugh at me over that later) she outlines the concept of Self-affirmation Theory. The idea behind it to understand what makes you, you, that this is ultimately where we find our sense of self and that gives us power.
Be yourself, everyone else is taken ~ Oscar Wilde.
She asks you to take your three best core values, narrow them down to a word each, and working from there try to think of examples when you truly embodied those values and felt good because of it. If we can do this before we are put under stress, occasions when our sense of self might be challenged, we find we hold steady, and are able to perform as if there is no pressure at all.
Can we use this as writers?
We spend so much time focusing on our flaws. What’s wrong, where must we do better, what parts are letting us down. How can we make that transition to focusing on our strengths and believing in our ability, and not as I do, get stuck in the questioning? Can we in fact use our critical faculties to identify our strengths, is it the places where we see that we don’t fit, that we are ‘different’ that rather than making us flawed, make us unique. And can we use that to understand who we are as writers and believe in what we have to give?
Clichés or their kinder cousin, tropes, exist because mimicry, (again a kinder cousin to plagiarism) is what we seem to be good at. The reason might owe much to our innate desire to fit in, to being born with brains that are hardwired to seek out ways to connect or ‘mirror’ one another. We even have what are termed mirror neurons, making us mimic body position, basic gestures, the pitch of our voice, even the language we use, hence why certain phrases and words, like literally, go literally viral. Or even advice, like adverbs are evil. And some might jump in with well, its not that they’re evil, except of course deep down we know that really, that’s exactly what it means. Good writers walk wary around an adverb. We may not believe it but we believe others believe it and thus we have in hand a simple easy to apply route to better writing. To not standing out. This is the appeal.
It’s not that we are innately incapable of innovation or originality, it’s more that we fear it. It marks us out from the crowd. And the writer – well i always believed the writer was a shy wary creature uninterested in being the centre of attention, this may not be true, but lets run with it. Yet the writers we love and, perhaps more importantly, for the purposes of this article at least, the writers we are all aware of, may well be the ones who strayed. The ones who didn’t do it just like everybody else does.
The worst example I could possibly give is the example I’m going to give. Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s terrible writing. You know this, I know this. I suspect EL James knows this. I’m almost convinced she was half way to writing a parody, when she realised that folk were eating it up as straight erotica. It’s generally written off as a phenomenon of hype, of mass idiocy, of twilight devotees. Of Sex selling no matter what. Have you read some of the sex scenes – the tampon one is currently doing the rounds on Facebook, i thought it was a joke. Others will cite the story – the story was great, girl meets boy, boy stalks and beats girl, girl leaves.. not really a classic.
None of these seem particularly credible. The marketing came after it had already sold enough to be picked up – without first publishing rights – by a big publisher. While I think the sex helped – quite a bit – there’s a lot of sex floating about fan-fiction sites. Was it a case of ibble obble chocolate bobble, this one shall become more famous than Potter? It is possible it was random. Is it also possible it was precisely because it didn’t fit, all those scenes with tampons and meringue dancing inner goddesses, scenes you’re about as likely to read in an erotic novel featuring a young vrigin and handsome power mogul as Cersei Lannister is to take up basket weaving and elope with the washerwoman. Was it the ludicrous language, the ridiculous dialogue, the awkward inner monologue that some how helped it stand out enough to become that random success story?
We might never know and while it is an extreme example, virtually every book and writer that is a well known name, especially if they are well known outside of their own genre, tends to be known for their quirks, good or bad, the things that make them distinct from the rest of the pack.
It’s not an easy route, it’s not a guarantee of success, most writers will spend an average of ten years dedicated to the craft (not including teenage scribbling) before they achieve success. Many books, many rejections, but rather than being beaten into submission, in their cases did it give them time to find and hone that unique quality. How many others learnt to cull those adverbs, find that seven point plot arc, peruse the emotion thesaurus and refine their ‘fist clenching, nostril flaring, chest thumping’ display of flawed heroism?
We often berate one another on writer’s sites for daring to cite examples of famous writers ‘breaking the rules’. They are outliers, exceptions, and in one way they are correct, we shouldn’t be seeking to copy these writers, but we should be learning from them. The underlying pattern is not the use of adverbs, but rather the authenticity of voice. The willingness to ignore the norm.
This is not the same as being good. Fifty Shades of Grey still sucks. You can be both. You can be one or the other, you can be neither. But success, may owe more to authenticity than it does to competence. It’s possible that being you, might be as good as you need to get. And the better at being you, you get, the better your chances of success.
The best way to know yourself as a writer, is to read yourself as a writer. I find myself torn in two by the writer and reader within. It would seem there is a little man smoking a pipe and wearing a beret inside of me, he calls himself, an auteur cherié, I loathe him a little, but I think he likes it. I’ll admit, just between you and me, description, I love writing that shit, setting a tone, I’m like Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen with taste, characters are my escape from me, cherié.. On the other hand when I read, I don’t care about the colour of the sky, I don’t want your weepy self analysis, I don’t give a shit if mamma breast fed you til you were doing algebraic equations. Tone is short for Tony, who better be about to find a dead body in his pizza oven. Authenticity lies somewhere between the two and that’s maybe a hard sell. Like the happy sci-fi writer, the giddy girly, non-kick ass feminist, the show don’t tell afficionado who doesn’t believe in veins popping..
I’m not sure those are my three defining qualities. I’m not sure ultimately that my wordsmithery is my calling card. It was for Joyce, for DFW, for Grassic Gibbon. For King, Child, Rowling the answer lies in what they present. King was a horror writer who wouldn’t know a pinch point if it pinched him. His pace was permanently glacial, his back story and characterisation triumphing over the ghosts and ghouls and gore every single page. In a world of snappy dialogue and cheesy repartee, of jaded nihilists just trying to run away from the dame who broke his heart, the heroes who were the very best of the best but still couldn’t hold back the rising tide, he wrote working joes and nerdy kids, and then he broke them down piece by sordid piece.
I’m not sure I can narrow it down to three words. Not yet. But if I can find three examples of who I am, where writer and reader meet to bring my voice and vision to life, then I might be able to hold them in my head, any time I feel the doubt start to overwhelm me.
I’m gonna give it a try. I’m desperate, okay.
If you’re interested this is Amy cuddy’s talk. From what I remember, the emphasis is more on the power posing, but it might still interest you.