Monday, November 1, 2010

You are not your writing

I was in a couple of really good meetings last week. The kind that inspire you, making you feel like the work you do is important and exciting.

That doesn’t happen all the time in teaching.

In one meeting I was so thrilled I caught myself doodling “I LOVE IDEAS” on the side of my paper. That is pushing the boundaries of nerd-dom, even for me.

Another meeting was all about infusing writing into the curricula of all classes, taught by a really cool professor from our rhetoric and professional writing department. We all want our students to be better writers. By making them write more (in my political science class, and other classes) we hope they will accrue some knowledge about writing in general.

This professor made the point during his presentation that “you are not your writing”. He used as an illustrative story a student who turned something in, and received a harsh critique. The student approached him and apologized profusely. He was worried the professor wouldn’t “like him” anymore because he’d made a horrible grade. This professor said, “listen, YOU ARE NOT YOUR WRITING. There are plenty of students who make straight A’s, that I wouldn’t want to hang out with. There are just as many in the D-F range that I think are pretty cool people”.

That resonated with me. It made me pause, because I think we are so likely to equate ourselves with our writing. That’s the reason critiques hurt, right? That’s why rejection stings. If we didn’t associate the two, we’d be able to coldly, clinically, say “Well, thanks agent/teacher/editor/reader for that helpful insight” without ever feeling a twinge of hurt feelings.

My perspective is sort of the other side of the argument for a TED talk I watched recently in which Elizabeth Gilbert discussed genius.

Roll your eyes, okay, get it over with.

I know Elizabeth Gilbert is SO 2008.

I waited a long time to read her book. I have an instant wariness about any book that is tremendously popular. It came out in 2007, and I waited until this March to read it. I was pleasantly surprised to discover such a charming and funny writer; an insightful and interesting person. I didn’t want to like her, but I really did.

The point is, in this TED talk she discusses the idea of genius, and in essence gives all credit to “the muse”. She says if you do something and it’s an overwhelming success, you can’t take credit for it—in the same way that if you do something and it’s an epic failure, you cannot take all the blame.

I like this idea, not because I imagine I will be either enormously successful or a huge failure, but because I think YOU ARE NOT YOUR WRITING.

Yes, your writing comes from you, but I also think we all need a little distance from what we put on the page.

Maybe the distance from the shame and hurt will allow us to take that harsh critique and use it, really use it, to craft something better.

If you are an American and you don't VOTE tomorrow I will be sad, so please vote. Read my entire post about it here.

Also, enter my contest for the MOST ADORABLE cards in the world, like this squee-worthy example:


  1. This is so refreshing--what great advice, and so well written. Thank you so much! This is exactly what I need to remember some days.

  2. thanks Amie. It was such a good idea, I wanted to spread it.

  3. Great advice and another great post! KO, you're wonderful!!

    Adademy award winner Joanne Woodward (and widow of Paul Newman) flunked acting at LSU!

    I'm off to vote!

  4. Great point! Once I start distancing myself from my manuscript, it was easier to revise it. Plus, I started getting more full requests. :)

  5. This is a great post... so well written. And, I'm gonna vote. And I wanna win the SUPER cute cards. I already entered!

  6. thanks Kittie- I love Joanne Woodward. Great to hear!

    Oh, that's very cool Pam. Nice to see there might be tangible results!

    Erin- thanks. I hope you are feeling better, and am glad you entered the contest. :0)

  7. In my current WIP, I am writing my first cast of characters which don't include a "me-character." I am definitely not my writing this toss. :)

    Thanks for this.

  8. @Claire-- I hear you. I still always have a sort-of "me" character...

    I read an interview of Diana Gabaldon once.She said she met with a group of fans and they were all talking about how despicable one of her characters was. She said she thought to herself, "don't you know he's standing in the room with you?"

    I thought that was interesting.


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