Monday, May 18, 2009

The Ten Deadly Sins of Writing

Food for the writing soul:

#1 The Temptation to be Inauthentic: In order to please readers, I might be tempted to invent a protagonist and world who does and says all of the correct platitudes within the safe setting of a world where a deux ex machina wraps up the heroine’s chaos in a tidy package while at home my own world continues to come unraveled never again to be wound back tidily onto the original spool. Do write authentically. The readers need to know they are not alone and that will please them to no end.

#2 The Temptation to Live For Recognition: After my novel lands on the shelves, there is that temptation to hold my breath, waiting to see if the readers approve, tell all of their friends, and then spread the word like mad that a literary phenomenon has entered the world. Writing for the audience of one means progressing to release your story to the community for which it was written and then focusing on the next story.

#3 The Temptation to Live in Fear: What if I fail? What if I never sell another book? What if I die and my books are tossed into the grave after me? What if I write too honestly and the readers turn their backs on me? Our identity is what it is and its value measured by the honesty that compels us to be ourselves.

#4 The Temptation to Compare: Think about it: There are only a few famous novelists. But readers tend to flock where other readers flock rather than around writers. If we attend the national book conventions, there’s that dread of the long line at the bestselling author’s booth and the comparisons we’re tempted to make. The temptation to check the bestseller list as soon as it’s posted is another way we compare. Our culture of celebrity nags us into comparisons. Remember why you started writing and compare your current story to the last one you wrote.

#5 The Temptation to Exaggerate: I once sat on a platform with T.D Jakes at a book convention—we shared the same publisher that year. One novelist sitting next to me said, “You know we can claim now that we shared the platform with T.D. Jakes.” I’m glad she was kidding, but I’ve seen that type of exaggeration when it comes to publicity and how we try and create a measuring stick for readers that makes us appear successful in hopes of creating our own bandwagon. Walt Wangerin once said, “But isn’t propaganda, after all, a lie?” Explain the unique qualities of your stories honestly and allow the readers to find you—they will!

#6 The Temptation to Feel Chronically Inadequate: I think that if you add together, 1,2,3, 4, and 5, you get #6. The erosion of the soul, IMHO, is taken into avalanche mode when I deceive myself into believing that by attacking my own worth I’m self-abasing. I’m a lot more effective when I’m focused on the task at hand rather than self-absorbed nit-picking. Surrender mode is a perpetual struggle for me even when I know that it will ultimately give me peace and contentedness. And to what should we surrender--that our beautiful imperfections are what make our stories so gallant and readership-worthy.

#7 The Temptation of Pride: It can crop up when we get reader mail or, if unpubbed, when we get the first kudo from an editor or an author reader at a workshop. Pride slides in the door with good reviews, top sales figures, fan mail, a book contract, or awards. The old cliché is “New Level, new devil.” So we have to avoid success? No, just fixing our eyes on it. Think of success as the Medusa of writers. Avert eyes, keep eyes on the work in front of you. A post-it note for the heart: “Don’t believe your own fictions.”

#8The Temptation to Manipulate: For “the market” or for financial reasons, I am tempted to write about overtly sympathetic or holly-go-lightly worlds that might manipulate the reader’s emotions. While true that our job is to help the reader suspend disbelief, gratuitous writing clumps up a lot of unearned emotion and summarized exposition robbing the reader of depth and believability. Part of our purpose as writers is not to overlook the genres that readers love; but every genre should have its gems that provide an artful story that might open an otherwised closed heart.

#9 The Temptation of Envy: It creeps in when a close writer friend gets a highly starred review or an award. I have to train myself to remember #4. It’s hard.

And finally #10 The Temptation to Be Angry: Writers might be tempted to get mad at readers who fail to follow and promote their writing ministry; or who email complaining because they've taken a slightly different road than they took writing their last book/story/article. Every writer desires to grow and success's double-edged sword is that it can pigeon-hole a writer. There are writers who complain if we don’t write fast enough to suit them yet want their books highly and skillfully wrought. A writer might get angry when caught between the cultural gap of readers who want books that portray a sanitized ideal and those who want their fiction kept real—its hard to please both types of readers. We have to choose and live with our choice--and our integrity. The writer might get angry when he or she quits a job to stay home and write and then runs out of advance money before the book is finished.

Henri Nouwen said, “This is not an open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart.”

Allow the generosity of sharing your stories with the world to multiply into a mountain of rich ore. Keep your thoughts elevated and your feet on the high road. Your words will show it.

Patricia Hickman