Monday, September 18, 2017

How to Tell If You’re Being Too Hard On Yourself

“I know I’m being a bastard, but don’t worry. I’m too hard on myself too.”

“Yeah. I’ve read your writing, and I don’t think you are.”

He had the tendency to tear the other members of the group apart, and like any hypercompetitive pissing contest, many of the writer’s group just let him sit with his ego. People refrained from criticizing him, tried not to pair up with him, and would smile and nod as he went on a rampage about their work.

He had just gotten done with a stream of condescending insults when he finally noticed the poet was pissed. She just sat, arms folded in front of her, watching him levelly. He, as many are inclined to do, back peddled, but only a bit.

He did not expect her to respond that way.

It has become my policy that whenever someone looking for feedback says, “I’m too hard on myself,” to take extra precaution. Anecdotally, I have never met a person saying this who wasn’t extra sensitive to criticism.

And it makes sense as to why. If you really believe you’re too hard on yourself, it means you think or hope your work is better than you think it is. And, considering that we get most offended the more credence we lend to someone else’s opinion, and are most insulted when someone “confirms” our secret fears, it makes sense that those who get the most upset about feedback are those who are hoping their opinion is just too biased against their own work.

It’s a popular ideology amongst writers that you can’t like your own work, and if you do, you are delusional. We also constantly claim that you must have exterior editors because you can’t edit yourself.

These thoughts, while valid in some sense, are not entirely accurate. Not only that, but the writer who depends too much on other people’s opinions while renouncing the legitimacy of his own is going to be someone voiceless, mainstream, and even contradictory or overwhelmed.

I do recommend getting outside feedback. Highly, in fact. But I believe in the power of self-editing, I think it’s foolish to give away the first draft of a manuscript you haven’t actually read yourself (writing it is not the same as reading), and using your instincts to gauge what is “wrong or right” with your book is what’s going to make that book yours—and therefore need to exist. It’s your unique set of personal tastes that people are really buying, not what hypothetical generic American teen probably wants. Sure, formulaic books sell well, but most times the author genuinely did have those pedestrian tastes. They were passionate about what they wrote, with a sort of magic behind the simplistic words. While you can’t only depend on your own opinion, turning a blind eye to it and hoping others have a “better” sense of taste is silly.

The main problem with self-editing is about pushing yourself. There are definitely people who are far more willing to let unsatisfying literature slide if it’s their own, those people who don’t see the flaws in their “children.” The secondary problem is the opposite; we hold ourselves to too high of standards and refuse to produce anything because it’s “not good enough.” We delete perfectly good—maybe even brilliant passages—because it doesn’t meet our standards. Or, worse, because we’re afraid the risks taken will be construed as mistakes. We let fear cloud our judgment.

We would like to think we don’t have our heads up our asses when we like our work, we’d like to think we’re just being too harsh when we don’t. Sometimes it’s a big problem, especially when we wonder if we’re ready to submit.

It’s the biggest question: How can I trust my opinion on my work?

-You have a variety of opinions.

This, obviously, doesn’t work if you’ve only written one manuscript. However, if you have several stories, even unfinished ones, the big question to ask yourself is how do you feel about each of them?

If you see a commonality—i.e. you despise every single one—it’s a sign that it’s you, not the story.

The quality of your writing will never be consistent. You should have different opinions about each work. The more varied those opinions, the more seriously you should take them.

-You can see the good and bad.

Allegedly, if you see a 'bad' in a manuscript you make a change. But sometimes 'bad' doesn’t necessarily mean a 'mistake.' Sometimes it’s just a ramification of your reasonable choice. Maybe the genre of your book became popular and is now trendy while you were writing it. Maybe you know that having a minority as a protagonist will deter some people. Maybe you know that some people won’t like the romance preempting the action. In many cases, every choice has a good and bad side.

If you read your story and you can’t find anything good to say about it, you feel it is “just terrible,” it’s a sign you’re being biased. On the other hand, if you read it and can’t see anything someone might complain about, it’s also a sign you’re being biased. Yes, we all are often biased against our own work, but we're also biased in general - that's what subjectivity is. It's nothing to accept as fact because the author always needs to be able to rely on his own opinion as he can't always count on other people to accurately tell him what's "in good taste" as they're just as biased as well. But how do you know?

You have different standards for other people.

My brother and I—of all people—were talking about wedding rings once. I said that I wanted the man to pick out my engagement ring (while my brother said he would never waste the money on one at all. We’ll see.) because if he picked it out and there was something “wrong” with it—like it shanked my clothing when I walked—it would just be an honest mistake, completely forgivable. How could he have seen that coming? However, if I picked out a ring and there was something wrong with it, it would be because I’m a complete moron and need to be shot.

I often find myself forgiving people for things that I would never forgive myself for. I have far higher expectations and standards for myself than I do others (it doesn’t mean I’m a precise person, just a self-judging one). This has its benefits—I push myself to achieve and am less likely to show off something I’m not completely proud of. But it also has its consequences.

It took me fifteen full-length manuscripts before I actively started pursuing publication of my novels. Yet, when I bit the bullet, wung it, and submitted my short stories to literary journals, I, lo and behold, got published. There is merit in pushing yourself, but there is also merit in taking a risk.

If you have the tendency to judge yourself harsher in things outside of writing—like picking out a messed up wedding ring—there’s a very good chance that yes, you are judging yourself too harshly in this as well.

I believe that anyone who isn’t as successful as they’d like has a decent idea as to why. Either you’re not working towards it at all (haven’t written anything), or you’re not creating anything of good enough “quality.” Perhaps it’s that you aren’t getting the word out there, or a mixture of all three. Sit back and take a good hard look at your hang ups. You probably know what’s holding you back on some level. 

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