I recently shared a passage from George Saunders’ delightful writing book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain with my Non-fiction Mastermind and I want to share it with you too.
Saunders explains how as writers (or any kind of creators!) we may have romantic dreams of what kind of writer (creator) we want to be–Hemingway-esque for Saunders, Tina Fey-esque for me–and then we try to be that kind of writer (creator), we try to imitate another voice, only it doesn’t work. There’s no energy to carry the work.
The writer (creator) we are “is born, it turns out, for better or worse, out of that which we really are: the tendencies we’ve been trying to, all these years, in our writing and maybe even in our lives, to suppress or deny or correct, the parts of ourselves about which we might even feel a little ashamed”, Saunders describes.
He quotes Flannery O’Connor, “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.” We have to be able to make our work live, to pulse with energy and I think, truth.
Turns out that trying to be someone else in our writing/creating, just as in life, falls flat. And feels like crap too.
Why do we do it then? Why don’t we write (create) about the subject matter we want in the voice that is our own?
Because, as Saunders reveals, at least in the beginning, “it is less, less that we wanted it to be, and yet it’s more too-it’s small and it’s a bit pathetic, judged against the works of the great masters, but there it is, all ours.”
When we create from the truth, fullness and weirdness of who we are, we let ourselves be seen as we are. We show up just as we are.
And we have to be patient enough to grow our way of seeing and expressing over time.
At first, it’s incredibly awkward. And slow. A turtle without its shell crawling through the burning desert kind of slow and awkward.
Meanwhile, everyone else appears to be creating successfully and so originally. Which by the way, can make us doubt ourselves more and flip back to imitating or stop bothering to make stuff entirely.
Even after 30 years of creating, I still struggle with this. My little bitchy inner critic even whispered while I was writing this, “You should be writing this more like George Saunders.” Ha!
It helps to get this kind of stinky thinking into the light maybe with journaling. Try these prompts:
- I sometimes believe if I could just write/create like _______ then I would be ______.
- I think when I write/create ____________ it isn’t ______ enough.
- What do I believe about who I need to be to write/create the way I want?
- What happens to my creative process and voice when I’m believing this?
- What stops me from letting go of this belief and creating the way I want?
And my favorite:
- If creating as myself, in my voice, was the only way I could create, what would I create today?
Finding our subject matter and our voices is rarely fast and never fixed. It’s a constant process of valuing what we are drawn to and listening closely to what it wants to become.
When we are working on bigger projects, like a non-fiction book, we do this “chunk by chunk”, pulling back every week or two to see how it fits with our main point, how it serves our reader, and how it works within the logical structure we have sketched out.
In other words, we can stay fresh and close to what is real for us, what is ours to make, and not get derailed and constantly start a million new projects.
It all comes back to trusting ourselves, listening to ourselves, and valuing our voice, even when it feels like nothing special, nothing grand, nothing beautiful.
Especially when it feels that way.
Because it will become something beautiful and true in time, with our patient attention and waves of self-acceptance.