Monday, February 10, 2014

Crying and Writing

"I'd try to make you sad somehow
But I can't so I cry instead." —The Beatles, I'll Cry Instead
If you're crying when you're writing, are you doing it right?

In a word, no. Your emotional state when writing is not an indicator of the quality of your work or the emotion that will be evoked in a reader. Your crying does not mean a reader will find your work moving. Your laughing does not mean a reader will find your work funny. Being emotional is not the same as effectively communicating that emotion.

This isn't to say that if you are crying when you're writing, you're doing it wrong. There are several reasons you might be emotional during a project. Maybe you're reliving some difficult experiences, either to record them or borrow from them. Maybe you're just an emotional person and you're trying to really empathize with your characters. This is all especially acceptable during a first draft, when you're just trying to drill into a story and feel it out.

My worry, though, is that writing is not like acting. It's not performance art. No one can see the tears on your keyboard. I've sat through many readings of poetry and short stories in which the writers have forced undeserved emotions onto the reading of their work. If you cannot help but get emotional when you consider your work, of course you won't be able to tell if it's any good. You're too close to it.

In order to judge the quality of your writing, you have to be able to step back and look at what you have done dispassionately, like a passing reader who happened to pluck it from a shelf. Revision. Rewriting. Rethinking. These are the tools of the trade. They are how you learn to write, and how you (eventually) write well. You hammer out your ideas, get some distance on them, and then sit back down, dry eyed, and see if you can make anything of it.

Hopefully you'll find good things in your writing, even if it's just parts of conversation or pieces of description. You'll know these because you've read good books before and recognize competent work. But when you come across less effective sections of your work—too heavy handed, lacking character motivation, overt expositional dialogue, boring, etc—if you can be honest with yourself when you see these flaws and diagnose them, right there! You're doing it right.

As a writer, you're always going to be bias about your own work. You have to learn to compensate for this bias, or at least be aware of it. Everything you write is going to seem that much better to you (or worse, depending on your inclination, or just the time of day) because you wrote it. This is what makes learning to be critical of your own writing, and thus learning to write, so difficult.  

That is why we all need a good editor—another pair of eyes on our work to tell us when we're full of shit, and when we've done something really well. The perspective of a serious reader is invaluable. If you sincerely can't tell what is good and bad in your writing, ask someone with a critical eye to read it for you. Have a friend who thinks the Sherlock finale wasn't so good for reasons 1, 2, and 3, but still enjoyed other parts for reason 4 and 5? They're probably a good place to start.

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