I try not to read my writing at night because I discovered years ago that if I do, I’ll hate it. Always. When I’m tired, every word I’ve ever written sounds like shit, and if I make the mistake of reading it too late, I’ll go to sleep feeling like a fraud.
At the other end of the spectrum, in the morning I usually like what I’ve written. And if I’m drinking coffee, I love it. Caffeine does for my writing what pot used to do for my philosophical discussions in adolescence–it lifts it to a level of brilliant insight (which, sadly, rarely survives the chemical letdown afterwards.)
This daily vacillation, while painful, is at least familiar. I know it, I deal with it. I’ve learned how to milk the creative juices that come in the morning and sidestep the mental desert of night.
But I experienced a different kind of downswing this week that caught me unprepared. The Idaho Writer’s Guild here in town sponsored a talk by Lori Wasulchek, an award winning, documentary photographer who just published a moving, exquisite book about the hospice program in Angola State Penitentiary, Louisiana, called Grace Before Dying. (I won’t review it here because the self-critic in my head has informed me I’m not good enough. Just use the link. Pete Brook does it justice.)
She was inspiring. Dedicated. Brilliant and unbelievably hard working. She walked through fire to bring her book to print because she believes in the value of Angola’s hospice program and what it’s doing for the countless men who are living and dying in there. She not only created an uplifting work of art that reaffirmed everything best in us, she touched a lot of lives and helped a lot of people along the way. I left the meeting with her book cradled in my arms, my faith in humanity renewed. I was high as a kite, energized. Hopeful for a better future for us all.
And then, about three hours later (as evening rolled around) my trusty, fragile, writer’s ego collapsed and I crashed. Hard. The inevitable comparisons began and I spent the next twelve, sleepless hours questioning every word I’ve ever written, everything I’ve ever done, and (while I was at it) my entire reason for being. I took the earlier post I’d written about Grace Before Dying down off the blog before anyone besides the spammers who never read anything anyway could find it, and then seriously questioned about whether to just take the whole blog down, too.
God. What a horrible night. My emotions were painfully, ridiculously extreme. The good news is they were so extreme I knew I should wait until morning before doing anything I might regret.
Sure enough, dawn eventually came and, with the help of a little sunlight and caffeine, I regained a more moderate perspective. (Although even coffee couldn’t completely dispel the angst.) After a rational look at my reaction I learned a couple of important things about myself that I need to keep in mind going forward:
1) I’ve secretly wanted to single handedly save the world from its fear of dying.
2) I need to come up with a more realistic goal. (And admit it to myself this time.)
3) I’m not a journalist and it’s counter-productive to compare myself to one, especially one that’s award-winning. I’m a creative writer, and I need to embrace that aptitude and craft my ideas accordingly.
4) I need to stop being such a hermit and spend more time around other writers for the inspiration, insights, and ego-workout I so clearly need.
I think the last one is probably the most important. Writers have to spend so much time alone anyway, and when you couple that with my natural tendency to hole up and hide from the world, I can wind up being pretty isolated. It’s not good for me and it’s certainly not good for my writing. One of the hardest things for me to do…every single time…is accept a good critique and apply its lessons, even though doing so has always done more to improve the quality of my work than anything but the simple discipline of writing every day.
Spending more time with writers (especially those writing on my topic) would also provide excellent practice for dealing with the I Love It/I Hate It pendulum swings created by comparing my work to that of others. I really don’t want to be taken off guard again the way I was this week. I can’t afford it. It’s painful, it’s hazardous to the work I’ve already written, and in all honesty it’s just not the kind of person I want to be. The number of talented, hard working, dedicated writers out there is huge, and I’d really rather learn to harness their achievements as a source of inspiration than seeing them as a reason to quit.
copyright Dia Osborn 2011