The Yin-Yang of writing

yin-yang-symbol-largeThis post is about criticism and ego, two forces in the life of a writer.  Both forces are essential to your writing health, but they are opposing forces, and keeping them in balance can be tricky.  It’s writing yin-yang.

Most people would assume the light side is ego, and the dark side is critique.  After all, criticism is bad, right?

Not at all.  For the writer, criticism, whether from the self or from a reader, is a valuable tool.  Even if it appears to be pointless or ill-informed, it provides you with another viewpoint on your story.

Because let’s face it, as writers, we can be blind to the faults of our creations.  There’s that post-creation buzz, where you think the story you’ve written is the best thing since Lord of the Rings (or your favourite book of choice). That’s the ego talking, and that is the dark force, the destroyer of reason, the concealer of truth.  The ego is our child, and it’s favourite word is NO!

When the ego rules, you don’t grow, or learn.  Your child wants to stay a child forever.  The ego doesn’t understand or accept criticism, and is forever writing cliched pap, because it’s safe.  The ego will lash out at criticism with personal attacks.  You don’t know what you’re talking about.  You just don’t ‘get’ it.  You don’t understand the way I write.

We all know writers like that.  The ones with 9 finished novels, bemoaning the fact that ‘no-one gets published these days’.  What they mean is, ‘no-one is publishing ME.’

Pushing back the ego is a conscious act, and can be a struggle, especially for those of us who think we are hot shit.  I am as guilty of that as the next writer, but thankfully there are intelligent, informed writers in my circle who are happy to burst my bubble when it needs bursting.  Not everyone has access to those invaluable writing companions.  The single greatest threat to a writer is constant, undeserved praise.  If the ego takes over completely, you’re done.

But when you do push back the ego, and listen to the criticism, you learn so much.  It’s like a tide of insight washing over you, and that can be just as fulfilling, even more fulfilling, than praise.  Yes, even the criticism that, on first view, looks like it was composed by a writer who can barely string two sentences together.  Not everyone is a skilled writer, but anyone can be a reader.

I’m not going to expand on that point, because it has been very well covered by Patty Jansen’s post Please don’t tell me it’s wonderful.  Click over right now and read it.  But please do come back, because I have a little more to say.

I’ve been denigrating the ego throughout this post, but now let me point out how it is useful.  The ego, the child, is intimately tied to our creativity.  If the ego is bruised or hurt, our creativity suffers and we retreat to a place of safety; the cliche, the old tropes, the boring, safe stories that challenge no-one.  The ego needs to be fed to a certain extent, or we do not have the courage to spread our wings and travel to those strange places, to test our strength on new ideas, unusual angles, concepts alien to our own world views.

How to balance the two?  Well, let’s be honest, the ego needs less work that the critical side.  The ego is easily salved with just a little praise.  Great story.  I really enjoyed that.  Terrific writing! There you go, the ego is out of hand already.

Seeking out criticism is hard, and learning to self-critique harder.  These need to be worked on constantly.  Find a good writing group, invite critical thinkers into your writing village.  Put your work out there, and accept the barbs and stings that come your way.  Look at your stories honestly.  Love them unconditionally for a time, then pick them up again and see them for what they are, warts and all.

Like Patty says; please don’t tell me it’s wonderful.  By all means, tell me if you liked it, but don’t be shy of pointing out where it didn’t work for you.  That comment, for me, is worth more than any praise in terms of my growth as a writer.

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14 thoughts on “The Yin-Yang of writing

  1. Pingback: Letting the Snark Out « The Empty Pen

  2. Pingback: How to Interpret Criticism « Not Enough Words

  3. Time away from the work in question is critical to the successful balance of critic and ego too. That one just hit home when I had to write the third draft of the Faulkner paper. In reality, the professor wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know was weak about the paper but I hadn’t spent enough time away to cushion the blow “start all over again” created.

    As my friend pointed out, draft 2.5 was hysterically funny but wouldn’t help me graduate. However I had to vent–and I recognize it as the whining of the ego–before I could even get to draft three. Glad to know my ego is the comedian in my head.

  4. Pingback: Interpreting criticism « Not Enough Words

  5. Janette, Kait:

    Don’t confuse the ‘inner editor’ with your critical eye. That nasty voice that says we are no good, that what we’ve written is rubbish, is actually part of the ego, the child. It’s the fearful part, the part that (in our past) warned us away from things that were different, and pushed us to seek the safety of the tribe.

    Now, in modern day, it works the same, but tends to be a negative, rather than a positive element. It still pushes us gain approval from others (seek the safety of the tribe), but now the warnings that kept us from patting the nice sabre-tooth tiger tend to be focussed inwards. That voice that says “this is no good” is trying to frighten you away from the activity, because to put your work out there opens you up to being shamed or embarassed (tribal disapproval) which, in our former societal makeup, was a very bad thing.
    It’s the same reason we get stage fright.
    There was an awesome documentary on this a while ago, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called. It was a British study, I think?

  6. I myself am currently at a place where I feel almost too honest with myself. I’m seeing that last finished first draft WIP, warts and all, and…I guess I am questioning whether my ego is strong enough to fix it. And whether I’m talented and creative enough to find a way to fix it within the bounds of the story I’ve created without just going off on a tangent and writing a whole new story with the same characters (I have been known to do this in the past). Undoubtedly sometimes major changes are for the better. No question. But sometimes it’s like writing a sonnet…you need the boundaries imposed so you can be creative within. And I think I’ve gone off on a tangent…

  7. Thanks for the post, Merrilee – thought-provoking stuff on such an applicable topic for all of us writers. Are you writing something new, now that you’re done (for now) with your manuscript?

  8. The “faults of our creation”? Huh? WTF??

    Heheh. Just kidding.

    But I would like to ask, where in the yin-yang construct does the Inner Critic sit? You know, the Voice in the Darkness that says “Oh. My. God. Would somebody just PLEASE take her pen away before the weight of all this DROSS breaks through the planet’s crust and we all die horrible screaming DEATHS”…

    The Inner Critic is completely separate from the knowledgeable self-critiquing adult within. It’s a savage toothy beast and must be controlled before it eats the ego for breakfast.

    I savour critiquing for its juicy ideas and the doors it can open up in my mind. I’ve learned how to examine feedback and to feel for the all-important “ooh, good point” internal response, even when it’s accompanied by “but that means totally rewriting fourteen chapters… waaah!” I know that any comment made by two or more of my trusted readers is ignored at my peril. If two people didn’t get it, then I failed to communicate it.

    But I also know that I have to put the IC into its triple-reinforced concrete and steel underground bunker before I read the critiques. Because once that thing gets hold of a helpful, well-thought-out suggestion for change, it grows an extra set of teeth and gnaws instantaneously through any vestige of creativity left to my poor quivering ego.

  9. Great post! I think I suffer less from the ego thing than from wanting to shoot myself in the foot by not giving myself a chance to learn and improve as much as I could – working on it though! lol

  10. Pingback: Twitted by am_harte

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