Thursday, August 21, 2008

Muzzling Your Inner Editor

DaveD writes:
"You either need to write, and do so...."

Here's my question about that. Before I ever read a book or article on "How To Write Fiction" I LOVED to write. I was almost always writing some story or another. People generally enjoyed reading my writing so I was doubly happy.

Then I "learned' how to write. This effectively killed my joy of writing. Now it is a rare time when I can sit down and pound out a story without being paralyzed by self-editing to make sure I'm following all the rules that are the ways you "HAVE" to write. It simply sucks all the enjoyment and escapism out of the task.

Don't get me wrong. I still have ideas. I still flesh them out and even do research. I have at least a half dozen stories ready to go right now. I just get caught up in the "How to Write" checklist and get bogged down.

Any cure for this?
Most of us have a tiny inner editor who lives somewhere in the back of our head. This editor's job is simple: he's there to make certain our interior monologue remains interior, and that every stupid random thought that pops into our mind does not immediately pop right out of our mouth.

I've known people who had no inner editor. They can be hilarious to be around when they decide the lunchtime conversation needs to be livened up by describing the wonderful new anal beads their boyfriend has just bought for their birthday; terrifying to be around when the local representatives of MS-13 walk into the restaurant and they blurt out, "Hey! Where'd all these f***ing spics come from?"

Part of the process of becoming a better writer is developing an effective working relationship with your inner editor. He needs to be trained. He needs to learn the rules of spelling, punctuation, and grammar and internalize them until they become habits. He needs to be recognized, released, empowered, and unchained.

The problem is, your inner editor, like most outer editors, is probably, deep in his tiny, rock-like heart, a martinet, a perfectionist, a tyrant, and a real prick. Once let off the leash, he will in time completely stop up all output. Nothing you write is ever good enough. Everything you write needs to be analyzed, cross-examined, and second-guessed — and third-guessed, and fourth-guessed, and so on, and so on — until ultimately, nothing you write is ever sufficiently perfect to be declared finished and released to make its own way in the world.

As a result, you end up in a condition commonly called "writer's block," but the reality is much worse than the name suggests. In truth, you're locked into a Sisyphean diagnostic loop that is slowly decreasing with each iteration, in which you are condemned to continually rewrite the same story — then chapter, then scene, and then paragraph — until it is absolutely perfect. But since true perfection is unattainable in this world, of course, what you ultimately end up doing is rewriting the same sentence over and over, each time either inserting or taking out the same damned comma.

Don't laugh. This has happened to me.

"But," you say, citing one famous name or another. (Let's say Dickens. He's dead. He can't sue.) "Dickens obviously didn't suffer from that problem. Would that he had, but he didn't. How did he beat his inner editor into submission?"

Fortunately, since these are writers we're talking about, we have ample recorded evidence of the methods they used to successfully control their inner editors. And while it is not true that you can look up "writer" in the thesaurus and find that it's a synonym for "alcoholic," many of the more popular methods do involve ingesting copious quantities of drugs and/or alcohol. In fact, my current belief is that that is why so many famous writers did eventually become alcoholics. It was no intrinsic weakness or character flaw on their part. They were simply trying to drown their inner editor in booze so that he would shut up and they could get back to work.

This is the common thread that runs through the whole length of the Western literary tradition. The ancient Greek and Roman poets and playwrights favored wine; lots of red wine. If ergot was not a hallucinogen, the entire body of Medieval mystic literature probably would not exist. Absinthe had its period in vogue. If beer was not a depressant, the Germans probably would never have come up with existentialism. And don't even get me started on the intimate relationship between vodka and Russian literature.

Even today, this experiment continues. Larry Niven recommends starting out each writing day with a cup of black coffee sweetened with a generous dollop of peppermint schnapps; if this fails to get the creative juices flowing, repeat as necessary. There is an entire sub-genre of contemporary mainstream fiction that future literary historians will someday declare the New York Coke-Head school of writing. And I myself conducted extensive experiments back in the early 1970s with the intent of determining whether, like a beehive or a wasp nest, my inner editor could be smoked out by the use of certain burning herbal products. To some extent, it worked. My inner editor was quieted, and I wrote a lot. Admittedly, it was a lot of utter crap, but I was most pleased with myself while writing it.

Thankfully, I survived that period of experimentation without lasting harm and left it behind more than three decades ago, and have since developed some successful, effective, and non-toxic strategies for keeping my inner editor safely dozing in his kennel until needed. be concluded...