I Am Not My Writing

“Power of Words,” Antonio Litterio. Wikimedia Commons

I’m currently revising a novel in which some folks have said I do a whole lot of telling and not enough showing.

I trained as an academic, so it’s practically a given that my early fiction attempts would skew towards the didactic, the wordy, the analytic. I knew that going in.

So if that feedback is so straightforward, why am I struggling with feelings of embarrassment, even shame? (And now we enter Inception-level neuroticism, in which I’m a little embarrassed about feeling shame.)

All I really have to do is add some more dialogue, inject more ambiguity in my characters by showing actions rather than explicating motives.

But when I sit down to do so, when I open the file and look and what I’ve written, when I revisit the feedback I’ve gotten, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t see these issues before.

Why do we writers do this to ourselves?

When I teach writing, I hammer the idea that writing is a skill, a techne, that improves with practice and feedback. I also insist my students share the following assumption: a critique of someone’s writing is not a critique of that person. I can object to a vague thesis or point out a comma splice and still think the writer is good and smart and worthwhile.

By the end of the quarter, my students can recite my mantra with me: “I am not my writing.”

So why can’t I take my own lessons to heart?

I think the answer lies somewhat in the mystification of the writing process. Those who don’t write regularly see only the final product, not the messy process, and so creation seems magical.

And indeed there are some inexplicable moments in the creative process when the right word or the perfect action is gifted to the writer by something that resembles a muse. But those moments are few and far between, patches of inspiration on a path littered with absurd turns of phrase and cringe-inducing dialogue.

Good writing seems to come from some place deep inside. I can deal with that.

The corollary, however, is chilling: if we can’t produce good writing, does that mean we don’t have good insides?

Obviously that’s poppycock, and yet . . . when has the subconscious ever made sense?

So I’m left relying on a process that seems to work for me: naming the thing that shames me. It’s a technique both modern and ancient. Dredge up the fear and give it a name. Call it by that name and declare its powerlessness.

My fear: if I write something someone doesn’t like, I am a bad writer, a poseur, an object of ridicule. I am bad.

That fear is absurd: I write to tell stories, to connect. If somebody teaches me how to tell a story differently, in such a way that I can connect with other people in better and more powerful ways, they have given me a gift. I want to use that knowledge to make my writing better.

I am not my writing.


  1. byamtich says:

    I had a close friend suspect they weren’t a good writer, and I had a different opinion. I suggested that writing is thinking. Does it follow that “I am not my thinking”?

    1. Out of Time says:

      Interesting point! Seems to me that writing is thinking, yes, but also so much more: feeling, reacting, connecting.

  2. acmoyer says:

    Amen to all of this. I spent so many years writing didactically and super-concisely that my first attempt at fiction post-academia was basically an outline. Talk about demoralizing. That was SO not what I was going for. I think we are kneecapped by the conventional wisdom (no such thing) that says good art is created by “genius,” not hard work and tons of revision. That of course implies that if you had to work or (gasp!) edit, automatically your writing must not be “good.” And it then follows that you have no right to call yourself a writer. Anyone who has ever written knows this is a load of BS but for me at least, it is hard to un-drink that Kool-Aid.

    A parallel, to my mind, is the idea that only skilled (and preferably thin, young, and beautiful) people should be seen in public dancing or singing. From the perspective of practically every other culture on earth, this is absurd–and so is the notion that only genius produces “good” art. (Which is not to say you’re not a genius…but even geniuses have to work.)

    1. Out of Time says:

      YES!!!! Yes yes yes yes yes to all of this!

      Have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on inspiration, “genius” (with the root of “genie”), and work? I find it really helpful.

      1. acmoyer says:

        I have not seen this talk but will remedy that ASAP!

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