The Pain of Fixation

When I write, it looks like I’m having a seizure. So perturbed by certain words, I have a physical reaction every time I feel inclined to use them. Expressions like “just,” “was,” and “very” cause an eye twitch, despite my own personal belief that these are not something that can break a story. This blog is called “What’s Worse than Was,” for a reason. Yet, no matter how much I realize it is not only ridiculous to write an entire story with no adverbs, but not appealing either, I still can’t help myself second guess with every “was” uttered.

External input and how to receive it can be the hardest part of the writing process. It’s just as wrong to blatantly take advice as it is to blatantly reject it. In college, I had a professor try to simplify the problem by saying, “Just decide to take it or don't.” But it was not something he had a lot of experience with, and so did not realize why that wasn’t really viable.

In the beginning, few of us are trying to improve as much seeking the thrill of achievement. In this first stage we want to show what we’ve done, to get some emotional reward for all the hard work. This is often disparaged, especially how, as we are not yet looking for criticism, we can take it badly. But there is nothing wrong with seeking approval, as much as we like to say it is. An artist needs to gain confidence, feel the pleasure that comes from someone else reading their work, and really understand how good the feeling can be before they start to actively work to being better. People often give up because they don't remember what the reward will feel like after the years of work.

But, after a while, we want bigger things than just a couple of compliments: publishing, admiration, large scale readers, and though the need for approval is still there, we can sacrifice our egos in order for a bigger payoff.

My professor, who had not yet even completed an independent work in his life, had not come to the point in his life where he actually wanted feedback, so he did not understand why a basic do or don’t attitude doesn’t work. I know because there would be a hell of a lot of postmortems ending abruptly when he was the director. For those who are seeking honest ways to better themselves, the question becomes a lot harder.

Say, for instance, someone says, “Don’t use adverbs.”

Now, we might logically know several things. This is a common piece of advice that repeatedly circulates. Its well versed nature means that it may be good on the grounds that many people agree with it, but it may be bad on the grounds that it takes little thought to parrot it. The author is aware that he would be hard put to find a “great” book that doesn’t use adverbs, and that a bad story does not immediately become good after having deleted them. Does that make it untrue?

To simply reject it as a lie seems too simple too. We then have to consider why the person said it, and what it actually means. They say “don’t,” “never,” and “always,” which sound as if they are absolutely true, but everyone knows that’s not right. So learn to interpret it. “Don’t use” means “don’t over use.” “Never” means “use less,” and always means “use more.” Then, we think, the person is probably saying it because they feel like you did overuse adverbs and they want you to use less, but in order to avoid explaining exactly how much less, they utilize the assumption that you’re not really going to listen to them completely, and hope that you will end up with a good balance. Plus, the ramifications of you actually listening is now you have no adverbs at all, which doesn't seem like a big deal. There is a clear benefit to just telling the author to go overboard rather than really trying to figure out the "appropriate" amount.

The next question we have to consider is if they thought you overused adverbs because of what you did, or because they were looking for them. Getting feedback is a little problematic because people don't necessarily know what "good" and "bad" is, probably because, in my opinion, it doesn't actually work like that. So they often will clench onto some sort of pet peeve and utilize that to define quality, such as if "I look to see if you have an inciting incident on page 15 of a screenplay," or something equally as arbitrary. It's important to watch out for these because trying to abide by these Calvinball rules will just make you crazy.

It’s like Neil Gaiman says, “When people tell you something is wrong, they are 100% right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are 100% wrong.”

When actively trying to improve work and ourselves, if we ignore what doesn’t make sense or what isn’t true, then we will have little to go on. If we were to just delete all adverbs, than we'd be limiting ourselves to an extreme amount for an guaranteed (and unlikely) benefit. If we were to just leave them, we are ignoring an opportunity that is rare enough as it is. Getting someone to read your work and respond to it is nearly impossible; we can't afford to ignore the less-than-perfect critiques.
This analytical turmoil is not just a problem during a criticism. It is much worse when the author sits in his home, alone, staring at his computer screen with only himself to discuss the problem with, and he comes along an issue that he’d thought he’d come to terms with. We sit there, unable to get external advice, freaking out because we're not sure if it is acceptable to have eight main characters or if that's a huge ding on our book.

It is common to overuse “be” verbs and adverbs and saids and overwrite and underwrite and passive-sentences and all the things that people say are overdone. But if we were to try and prevent ourselves from using any of them, we wouldn’t be able to write at all. Fixating on these inane, if not accurate, restrictions causes a lot of frustration.

It’s a hard point to balance on, the difference between trying know what to change and to know what to keep the same, to know what is legitimate judgment and what is ridiculous. There is no reason to cling to decisions that hinder us, but actively trying to change rules of the writing world that don’t matter is just a waste of time. The only advice I can give when being faced with arbitrary rules is to not worry about it. Easier said than done, believe me, I know. But sometimes knowing that’s okay to not give a damn, even when we realize that giving a damn might lead to insight, is exactly what we need to move on without needing to hold our tongue down. Fixating on the little details may be helpful, but it's too painful to deal with constantly.

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