By Noelle Sterne
“Whether you try too hard to fit in or you try too hard to stand out, it is of equal consequence: you exhaust your significance.” ―
Let’s Try for More
Especially after a success or two, I see that sometimes I try too hard in writing. Elated at a recent victory, and believing (finally) I really am a writer, I attempt to duplicate that last glory.
Whether for a new piece, revision of an older one, or last look before sending a piece out, the signs are unmistakable. I giggle to myself at the puns, murmur self-approval at the turns of phrase, and hear imagined readers’ gasps of delight at my ingenuity. Worst of all, a red-yellow warning flare shoots through my brain—Oh, oh, ego ascendant.
If I don’t pay attention to that flare, I know it heralds disaster: I’m trying too hard. The work cannot help reflect this over-conscious effort. The technique, wordplay, and resplendent diction I so admire somehow overpower whatever message I want to convey.
In The Writer’s Book of Wisdom: 101 Rules for Mastering Your Craft, poet, novelist, and professor Stephen Taylor Goldsberry warns us, “Try not to overdo it. . . . Beware of contrived lyrical embellishment and fluffy metaphors.” I would add beware of too eloquent rhetoric, repetition for effect, overly gorgeous similes. And too-intricate expositions. And too-pithy observations.
More caution: novelist, editor, and writing teacher Leonard Bishop in Dare to Be a Great Writer observes that we all know with undeniable certainty that we possess “a talent capable of lyrical flights . . . [we are] able to use prose in a style so grand that [we] can make great poets seem like senile doodlers.”
If we think Bishop is approving, he dispels any such notion: As we become more professional, we work “to control this vanity” (p. 21).
Another rueful example: After I devoured Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, I read a transcript of an interview. Deeper into her next book, she said, she produced 500 pages. Her style was similar to the bestseller—breezy, flippant, and pseudo-deep. Gilbert finally realized what she was doing and knew she had to junk the whole new draft. Then, no longer trying to duplicate the earlier success, she wrote a completely different and honest book, Committed. This book became successful in its own right.
Like Gilbert in her post-E-P-L foray, when we try, even with all our might, we end up failing or at least falling short. I think of a friend’s story about his father, who came from Italy, settled in New Jersey, and founded an automotive products store.
As a twelve-year-old, my friend helped his father after school in the store. One day, his father instructed him to unpack a shipment of tires and stack them in a particular corner for maximum display. The boy answered, “I’ll try.”
In his limited but effective English, his father bellowed, “No try! You do!” My friend did. And never forgot the lesson.
Do . . . Or Don’t
Our writing lesson? We shouldn’t try. We do or don’t. Maybe it means not writing at all for a while, walking away, or actually shelving the project. Or writing a lot of nonsense first, accompanied by that horrid hollow feeling that we know it’s trash.
Or incessantly using the slash/option method. This is one of my favorites/best practices/most helpful methods/greatest techniques for skirting stuckness and continuing to slog. Or going back countless times to excise, refine, replace, restructure, or even, like Gilbert, pitch it all out and start again.
However many drafts we need, however many flailings in the creative mud we dare, our success rests not in trying—but in doing.
Talk to Yourself
When you suspect you’re trying too hard or you’re tempted to do so, remind yourself of a few things, like I must (more often than I like to admit).
Tell yourself you’re not talking to them. We know who they are: the friends and family we so ardently want to show we’re not wasting our time; the editors who dangle acceptance, publication, and even a small check; the agents whom we envision stumbling on this piece and rushing to call or email us with an offer of representation and suggestion to make this essay into a book they’ll sell at auction to the most powerful mega-publisher; the endorsers who will exalt us; the critics who will worship us; the moguls who will magically make our words flesh in the next great Film; the fleets of tweeters and repeaters who will blast our name through the galaxies . . . .
All that trying for all those external outcomes cuts off your talent and expressive truth and especially your honesty as a writer.
Instead, go apart, mentally and physically. Take deep breaths, meditate, stretch, swim, sleep.
Talk only to yourself. As you shut out all that trying and go inside, paradoxically those outside accolades will come more easily. And again and always paradoxically, as you shut out all of them and go deeper alone, you will reach the reader who is the mirror of you.
I am reminded of this truth by Bill Kenower, the excellent writer and editor of Author Magazine: “the quickest route to another person’s heart is through my own. The deeper into my own experiences I dive, the further I go beneath the surface of time and place and circumstance, the more I am able to find those currents flowing endlessly from soul to soul to soul.”
Reach Yourself…Reach Others
Going deeper—dare I say communing—is not at all indulgent. It is why you are here. You will reach your Self, the Self who knows what you really want to write and what gives you the greatest satisfaction. You will reach the Self who knows why you’re here, blessed/cursed with this drive and talent, and who will direct you to flow it out. Believe it. Allow it. Receive it all.
Trust yourself. Trust that mysterious and wholly reliable Voice inside that gives you every answer every time you ask, unencumbered, What do I do next?
Relax your forced and fevered labor. Turn away from trying. Listen to your Creative Soul and just write.
Bio: Dr. Noelle Sterne
She also contributes pieces to other national and international publications, on dissertation issues and writing. In July and August 2018 she was one of six webinar presenters for its “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish.”
Eons ago, she published a children’s book of original (groanworthy) dinosaur riddles, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (What do you get when dinosaurs crash their cars?). Riddles from the book appear in several elementary school language arts texts, and the book wasfeatured on PBS’s Reading Rainbow.
A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume: https://chickensoup.podbean.com/e/tip-tuesday-why-you-should-remove-toxic-people-from-your-life-and-how-to-do-it/_
Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings.
Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and SpiritualStruggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) is an invaluable resource for doctoral candidates.
As part of pursuing her writing dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach theirs and create the lives they truly desire. Taking her own advice (hard as it may be), she is completing her first novel.
Two Drops of Ink: The Home for Collaborative Writing
We are always looking for ways to improve our writing, and just as this post can help you, there are ways that you phrase a how-to that will resonate with others. Not into helpful hints, but poetry? There’s an audience for that as well at Two Drops of Ink. Can’t show us how to improve? Can’t rhyme? Then consider a memoir that writers can relate to and send that in as a submission.