By: Dr. 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.” ― Criss Jami, Healology
When Ego Enters Your Writing
Especially after a success or two, I become elated and, believing (finally) I really am a writer, attempt to duplicate that last glory.
I giggle to myself at the puns, murmur self-approval at the turns of phrases, and hear imagined readers’ gasps of delight at my ingenuity.
Then, a red-yellow warning flare shoots through my brain before I can heap more accolades on myself—Uh-oh, ego ascendant.
The signs are unmistakable. If I ignore that flare, I know it heralds disaster: I’m trying too hard to write.
The work cannot help reflecting this over conscious effort. 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” (p. 87).
I’d caution you to be aware of the following:
- Too eloquent rhetoric
- Repetition for effect
- Too-intricate expositions
- Overly gorgeous similes
- Too-pithy observations
- Too much self-admiration
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. He admonishes that as we become more professional, we should work “to control this vanity” (p. 21).
Another rueful lesson: After I devoured Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, I read a transcript of an interview with her. In her next book, she produced 500 pages. Her style was similar to the bestseller—breezy, flippant, and pseudo-deep.
Gilbert finally realized what she was doing and that it wouldn’t work. She knew she had to junk the whole new draft. Realizing her mistake, she was no longer trying to duplicate the earlier success and wrote a different and honest book titled, Committed, a success in its own right.
Like Gilbert in her post-E-P-L foray, when we try, even with all our might, we fail or at least fall 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.
When my friend was 12, he helped his father in the store after school. One day, his father instructed him to unpack a shipment of tires and stack them in a specific corner for maximum display. The boy answered, “I’ll try.”
His father bellowed in his limited but effective English, “No try! You do! You do!” My friend did. And never forgot the lesson.
Do . . . Or Don’t
“We think we are being interesting to others when we are really just being interesting to ourselves.” ―
Moral for our writing? 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 when 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 dodging 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.
Trying means we’re writing too self-consciously, usually to impress or force. In contrast, as my friend’s immigrant father knew, doing means total immersion.
However many drafts we need, however much flailing in the creative mud we gasp in, our success rests not in trying—but in doing.
Talk to Yourself
When you suspect you’re trying too hard, like my self-preening compliments, or you’re tempted to do so, remind yourself of a few things (like I do).
You have to stop:
- Trying to be clever and knowing
- Competing with your writing colleagues
- Showing off your wit and dazzle everyone
- Trying to replicate your latest success
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 small checks; the agents whom we envision stumbling on this piece and rushing to call or email us with an offer of representation and suggestion they’ll sell your work 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 which 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, and set your intentions with the current piece. Stretch, walk, swim, sleep.
Talk only to yourself. As you shut out all that trying and go inside, paradoxically, later, those outside accolades will come more easily. Again and always paradoxically, as you shut out all of them and go deeper alone, you’ll talk to the reader; you’ll reach the reader who is your mirror.
I’m reminded of this truth by Bill Kenower, the excellent editor of Author Magazine and author of Fearless Writing: 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, and the more I can find those currents flowing endlessly from soul to soul to soul. (“Indulgent,” February 3, 2017)
Going deeper—dare I say communing—is not at all indulgent. You will reach your Self, the Self who knows what you really want to write, what’s yearning inside you to write, and what gives you the greatest satisfaction.
You will reach the Self who knows why you’re here, blessed/cursed with your 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, What do I do next?
Relax your fevered labor. Turn from your forced effort. Listen to your Creative Soul. Stop trying and just write.
Dr. Noelle Sterne is an author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, spiritual counselor, and gentle nag. Noelle has published over 700 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems.
Other Writing by Dr. Noelle Sterne
Life and Everything After
Live Write Thrive
Pieces have appeared in various anthologies as well as individual publications such as Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul (sixth story November 2021), Journal of Expressive Writing, Life and Everything After, Live Write Thrive, MindBodySpirit, Mused, Pen & Prosper, Romance Writers Report, Ruminate, Sasee, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Coaching (bimonthly), Unity Daily Word, Unity Magazine, WE Magazine for Women, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writing and Wellness, The Writer, Writers Digest.
Monthly Contributor for:
Textbook and Academic Authors Association
Two Drops of Ink Blog
In July and August 2018, Noelle was one of six webinar presenters forTAA’s “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish”, which continues to be offered. She is also one of several coaches in TAA’s program of free one-hour academic coaching to members.
Noelle 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,” which continues to be offered.
Swallowing her own advice (hard as it may be), Noelle is completing her third novel.
I serve writers in all genres through individual, private, customized sessions. I offer coaching, guidance, idea generation, structuring, critiquing, line and developmental editing, and gentle and uncompromising critiques, helping you create and complete your unique work.
Wherever you are stuck—idea stage, molasses beginning, desert-dry middle, deflated end, agonizing final editing—I help you dig out and move forward.
Services include time management; block-conquering; emotional, psychological, and spiritual support; and specific suggestions and examples for continuing and finishing your draft. I am honored to help you complete your work to the highest standards, develop your talents, and reach your dreams.
Noelle’s Published Posts on Two Drops of Ink
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