I’m afraid of writing

I’ve figured out why my writing sucks.

I figured it out because of Harlan Ellison and Hunter S. Thompson and the other famous curmudgeons of literature. Not because they were so great. Whether they were or not depends on you, depends on your mood, depends on a lot of things. “Goodness” is subjective.

They displayed a different quality: hutzpah. It’s a point of debate whether a bold approach improves writing. By itself, hutzpah helps very little. Bulling into a new approach, just to be different, works out as often as the gamble it is. Every now and then, someone with an ounce or two of talent ends up with the glorious misfortune of a short-circuit in whatever instinct for self-preservation causes the rest of us to doubt, and therefore understand happiness. When that happens, we get Harlan Ellison — we get John Lydon — we get Hunter S. Thompson. We get people who run on anger that feels aimed at the rest of the human race, but it’s actually aimed at the dopey way that most of us make doubt-driven decisions.

And THAT is why my writing sucks. It’s fueled by doubt. Most of us feed our writing with doubt, I think. Doubt is a comfortable cushion to fall on if a story — a paragraph — a sentence doesn’t fiddle with someone’s brain how I want. I can console myself in my failures that I predicted it might not work. When it turns out to be true, well, my doubt is vindicated, isn’t it? That strengthens the behavior.

Doubt is an easy habit to embrace. It’s not a wholly bad thing either. Doubt keeps us cautious. Doubt helps with details.

As a motive force, though, it sort of sucks.

Doubt encourages over-explanation. When I doubt people will keep up with what I have to say, I explain too much. But on the one hand it’s arrogant to imagine I’ve come up with something that difficult to follow, and on the other I’m not showing myself much respect to imagine I’m incapable of figuring out a way to say what I think.

Doubt discourages revelation. If I do truly have an idea that will shock people, I should not keep it to myself. Perhaps I ought to give it context, perhaps I ought to talk about it enough. Stories function as testing-grounds for thoughts and feelings, so if I do truly have a shocking idea (unlikely), I almost have an obligation to write about it.

Worst, though, and already mentioned: doubt provides a reason to pull punches. A small cushion of expecting to fail is as good as planning to fail. (Which is far from the same thing as preparing for the contingency of failure, like Batman.)

Life holds little risk for me if I put more effort into failing to offend than I do into being honest.

That’s what it comes to in the end: fear of giving offense. Or fear of risking contradiction. Basic doubt about making a human connection drives most of my decisions.

I used to think it was about politeness. That’s how it felt. Bold expression of feeling offended people, especially certain feelings — anger, aggression, dislike. Certain feelings have reputations for being “bad.”

But now I understand better. They’re not bad. No feelings are “bad.” It’s only moving makes them so. I can make them good if I make good things.

I don’t want to be Harlan Ellison. It looks exhausting. Know what I’d like to be, though? I’d like to be more honest about my anger.

I spend a lot of time angry. My anger is subtle, slow, quiet. I don’t imagine most of the people in my life have noticed it. I don’t have outbursts. I don’t shout or throw things. I don’t rant.

I write novels. I write novels and blogs that connect to other blogs. I listen and learn, and I am patient. I express my anger in lengthy, quiet ways.

But I don’t know that I’ve expressed it honestly for most of my life. I’ve been accustomed to think of it as vulgar. Anger is the failing of the undisciplined mind — that’s been the view that the world wants me to believe, I think.

It’s wrong, though. Anger’s not the problem. Unconstructive outbursts are.

Constructive anger, though: that’s all to the good.

Today, I resolve to start being more honest about my anger. I determine to begin taking little steps (always start with little steps) to destigmatize my bolder feelings. All feelings are good feelings, if I express them honestly.

So I’ll be more like Harlan Ellison.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store