Why Can’t I Write When Someone Is Reading My Writing?

It really doesn’t matter what it is. It could be my life’s great opus doing the rounds of literary agencies. It could be some flash fiction entered into a magazine competition. Or my latest chapter submitted for an MA workshop.

Whatever the material, two things seem to happen once I put it out there for someone else to consider.

The first is that I suddenly see it for what it is. The magic sheen fades away and this sublime creature of my imagination morphs into the literary equivalent of a cockroach with bad breath. My peachy prose shrivels like a prune. My intricate plot line suddenly reveals it has more holes than Blackburn, Lancashire. Profundity becomes pretension, originality becomes cliché and ham-fisted similes stand out like ham-fisted similes.

It’s amazing how the very act of popping a jiffy bag into the post box, or clicking on ‘send,’ has such an instantaneous and dramatic effect. It’s like a camera panning out after an extended spell in macro mode. I may have thought I knew the work back to front, inside out and upside down but, take a step back, and it turns out I knew nothing about it at all.

I seek consolation by telling myself this isn’t the best I can do. After all, I wrote it in an awful rush, right? Two thousand words in as many months – that’s nowhere near enough to do myself justice. And all those crazy things that were going on in my life at the time that prevented me from giving of my best: the worry over my children’s Coca Cola habit; days lost in the disorientating vortex of Olympic ticket online applications; Season Two of The Killing.

The second thing that happens once I’ve sent off my work is I go into freeze dried mode. I am simply unable to produce any more until the boiling water of feedback, be it positive or negative, is poured over me.

I procrastinate. I know I should carry on, but I can’t, not until I’ve heard the worst. It’s absurd because, even if the worst is very, very bad indeed, even if it’s a damning critique of a two hundred thousand word epic that has taken me ten years of blood, sweat and neglected children to write, even then, I will carry on writing. I have no choice. It’s simply too late in the day for me to be the next Olga Korbut.

To mix my metaphors, which I was told at school only Shakespeare could get away with, but what the heck, my submitted work is a piece of me floating out there in the ether. I must wait for it to return to the mother ship before I can carry on with my mission.

So, what happens when the work does eventually come back to me?

Well, you’ll get no righteous indignation from me. Quite the opposite. I’m absurdly humble. I pore over every comment, every suggested amendment, and rush to my computer in a blind panic to delete and rewrite. If someone says an eye needs to be supplanted by an ear, I change it. If a mass murderer needs to be replaced by Mother Teresa, so be it. To hell with my own opinion, it’s other people’s opinions that matter. If they say it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

Only when two people proffer conflicting advice do I pause to consider who is right. Then I set my mind to coming up with a solution that will serve to please them both. Mother Teresa stays but is secretly possessed by Myra Hindley.

So I change it and I feel much, much better. There isn’t a part of me missing any more. It’s come home, I’ve improved it and now I am free to move onto the next writing task in hand.

But for how long does this peace last? Usually until I hit a sticking point with the next bit. Then I start to doubt the feedback I received before. How honest was it? How insightful? And what do they really know anyway? Even top agents and publishers can get it wrong. How can I be sure any of their comments, good or bad, is worth listening to?

And so, I’m back where I started; with a bunch of words on the page and not too much of a clue as to how well they hang together.

I’m not someone easily given over to blind faith. I generally need hard evidence to support my beliefs. But in the case of writing, blind faith is sometimes what it takes. Olga may have been subject to rigorous coaching, physical and mental conditioning, but when she stood alone on that beam and prepared to wow the judges with her Korbut Flip, it all came down to self-belief.

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4 Responses to Why Can’t I Write When Someone Is Reading My Writing?

  1. Meg says:

    So, so true, all of it! The moment I send off my latest installment to Matt, I immediately start to freak out about how awful it is, and focus on every single flaw. And I second-guess everything, and roll around in self-doubt, and uuuuugh. It’s hard. Writing is hard. 🙁

  2. claudia says:

    Here’s wishing you some awesome feedback to fire you up again Meg x

  3. Edd says:

    Funny how the idea of someone elses feelings can eclipse your own. I’ve sent work off, had it valued, found wanting and so been cast into a pit of confusion.
    I tend to listen, read over the work and adjust if I can see their point (normally I can). Still, its worth bearing in mind that agents are looking for profit and can turn down books, screenplays and even whole ideas because they simply cant see the appeal.
    Most writers (if not all) were rejected many times before finding that joyous seal of approval (add animal noise at the volume you feel appropriate).
    I’d say keep the faith, write, continue to write and write some more. They are the experts in the market but you are the expert when it comes to your story. From conception to keyboard and back again.
    Keep the faith.

  4. claudia says:

    I suppose Edd, if we didn’t enjoy it in some twisted way, we wouldn’t keep doing it.
    Most people, I believe, are resistant to criticism, even if constructive, whereas I’m possibly the other way – too easily influenced by it.
    Gaining distance is a useful thing which usually means a bit of time not looking at what you’ve written and then assessing it again for yourself.
    And yes, keep on writing. It’s the only way.
    Good luck with yours and thanks for posting.

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