Writers are hard on themselves. Female writers in particular seem hard on themselves. This isn’t a new topic, nor is it a fresh revelation, yet I’m constantly surprised when in the presence of women writers (of whatever genre) beating themselves up seems to be the done thing… Of course not all women act like grim, spanking, confidence-crumbling harridans to themselves, just as all men are not supremely confident and self-loving – but it’s time to be gentle with our creativity, to end imposter syndrome and send the crucifying inner critic away.
Easier said than done, of course. I was phenomenally fortunate to work with Augusto Boal for many years, and his notion of ‘the cop in the head’ – that criticising, sabotaging, cruel and snide voice(s) that chunters away, undermining our confidence – instantly changed my world view. It was genuinely a personal revolution, and one that was immensely liberating, to be able to locate and identify these individual ‘voices’ that hissed or bellowed negative things – Who do you think you are? Don’t get too big for your boots. What makes you think you have anything to say of any interest to anyone? – and, in Boal’s parlance, send them back to their barracks. We don’t need thought police, or censors, Boal argued, as we’re constantly policing, censoring, criticising, picking-on and beating ourselves up – limiting how we engage, think, and behave.
This subject came up earlier this week when I was in London leading a workshop for a group of phenomenally talented female dramatists, all with incredible ideas and stories to tell, all moving into that shaky period of completing first drafts… It was a pleasure and real privilege to spend an afternoon with them, primarily talking about structure and dynamic, but also the negative phrases that slip into the language women often use about their work and their ambitions, whether realised or not. I heard myself chirping away like an over-earnest Pollyanna about how we need to embrace positivity, give ourselves time to explore and the necessity of being able to fail (without then torturing ourselves for doing something that can often be the turning point on the road to ‘getting it right’).
So what? We haven’t fulfilled our ambitions or managed to find the allies or outlet for our creative work yet – but that doesn’t mean we won’t. It doesn’t mean we’ve failed forever… We know that the creative industries are shaped by many external forces, that chance, luck and timing are almost equal components to the ‘success’ of a project as the talent and skill displayed…. Maybe it’s not the right time for that experimental creative non-fiction memoir; maybe the market’s saturated with books displaying ‘Girl’ in the title; maybe the socio-political and cultural focus of the day is away from a particular obsession and it’s proving impossible to find a market for it now… But. Who knows what may be possible or attractive in the future? I have a novelist friend who put her book under the bed for several years, who then took it out and threw it into the submission ring again – and found an enthusiastic publisher. She hadn’t reworked the manuscript extensively, but neither had she submitted an overly flawed or still-in-progress ms – she simply gave space and time to a well-developed story and was rewarded in finding a home for what might have previously been considered a ‘failed’ product.
It makes me think about Shakespeare and ‘ripeness is all.’ Perhaps the time isn’t ripe for the work. Perhaps the work needs to mature and ripen through revisions, or perhaps it needs to be rested, left alone, then reassessed, with a fresh eye?
I’m not trying to be ‘magical’ here (another Boal term). I’m not expecting us all to close our eyes and ram our fingers in our ears and la la la about how we’re actually unrecognised geniuses and a prophet is never recognised in her own land, etc etc. I’m not advocating arrogance, self-deceit, or female impersonations of Tony Hancock’s Artist, waxing and waning about how posterity will judge… I simply think writing (or creating, making, insert your own phrase here) is hard – life can be tough – there will always be more than enough people willing and able to criticise and undermine us, without us doing their work for them…
So I’m now on a positive drive. I’m calling for savage inner critics to be subdued, for negative phrases to be returned unused to the dictionary, for self-flagellation to be given a holiday, for us to be understanding and kind to ourselves when in the process of writing or creating or making or thinking or researching or devising or (insert your own phrase here).
JOY I heard myself saying in the workshop. ‘If we’re going to be miserable, or make ourselves miserable, why do this?’ The process is difficult enough as it is, so let’s find and celebrate the pleasure in what we do. We’re hugely fortunate to have this creative life – I’m aware that my working life is something my parents and grandparents could only have dreamt of…. so let’s try and bring more positivity into the process. I’m not suggesting we become lackadaisical in our approach (though that can have its moment), nor that we waft around like immortals, thinking we have forever to make the work. We don’t. Our time is finite, but that doesn’t mean our working lives have to be miserable or gone at furiously and out of focus, like a bull at a gate….
Or so I’ve been musing to myself these past days…
I’ve been reflecting a lot the past two weeks. It’s been a phenomenal time, with a world premiere in Singapore, a national award, news of a September production at Southbank’s Unlimited Festival followed by a UK tour, and auditions for a 2019 production of my play peeling. All these I will expand on in later blogs, but this sudden and unexpected affirmation of my work has of course added to my current state of mind and coloured my response to my fellow female dramatists in that workshop earlier this week….
We need to be disciplined, focused, and willing to dare. We need to have longevity and commitment to projects, but also to understand we won’t get it right the first time (immense congratulations if you do, and savour it, as it’s unlikely to happen again). We need to understand PROCESS – that, in the immortal words of Hemingway, “all first drafts are shit”, but, as Lear said to Cordelia ‘Nothing comes of nothing” – so don’t censor or worry or be too critical, just get something down – words on the page, clay on the potter’s wheel, fingers on keys, insert your own phrase here – as then you’ll have something to work from. And tell that guard at the gates of the mind that Seneca recognised to feck off – it’s not the time to be on duty. Finally, let us try and stop seeing our as yet unrealised projects as failures – redefine what you mean by success. And whatever else happens, be glad to be alive, to be creative. Let’s try and enjoy.
I’m teaching an intensive workshop in writing for performance at Ty Newydd Writers’ Centre. We have places for just eight writers, so please click below for description, and contact Ty Newydd for further details.
Kaite O’Reilly at Ty Newydd Creative Writing Centre, Wales.