Hello, old demon

It’s always there, as I sit down to write. At the back of my mind, in the dark corner of the room, or, when it’s feeling very brazen, leaning on my shoulder. Its voice is ever-changing, neither male nor female, loud or low, familiar or unearthly. More often than not, when my demon speaks to me, it’s not the how of the words but their content that hits me, a bone-deep awareness of the meaning before I so much as recognize the kind of voice that is speaking.

Oh, procrastinating again.

Not good, these sentences.

How do you expect to ever be a pro if you take so long to deliver? When will you arrive at a point where you are actually producing at a good rate?

I know from my constant reading of writing memoirs and tips and blogs that writers, all writers, struggle with the issue of legitimacy at some point during their lives. There’s a comfort in knowing that, I guess. But what prompted this particular post is the question of what causes all these legitimacy problems. Why is it that we’re afraid of being irrelevant? Why do we all seem to think, regardless of the genre we’re writing in, that we are all hacks and that any day now, we’ll be discovered and publicly humiliated on social media. (What? Just me? Oh.)

Writers doubt themselves. If a writer does not doubt themselves, common wisdom dictates they are not a good writer. But why?

A line from “Still Writing” jumped out at me as I read, where Dani Shapiro notes that we face our demons when writing whether we intend to or not.  Our hidden wounds, our secret shame, or fears and desires, every trauma we’ve ever experienced comes back to haunt us. It’s something that makes us feel vulnerable. It also makes us worry that, after all, we’re not writing about universal subjects, but rather, we’re using our writing as therapy, that we’re being lazy and self-indulgent and pretentious and is that person on Twitter being snide when they wish us good luck with the writing? What is up with that?

Aside from the question of what’s so wrong with using your writing as therapy, I might ask why are we so sure that encountering our demons as we write makes us less of a legitimate writer. Is not “write what you know” one of the main tenants of creative writing courses?

Even in academia, where valid research largely depends on objectivity, reflexivity and positionality are becoming more and more commonplace. Researchers, especially in the social sciences, prefer to state up front the kinds of privileges and traumas they bring to the table, and what measures they are taking to ensure that they don’t interfere with their interpretation of the data. It has come to the point where, when interacting with live subjects, researchers not declaring their demons is akin to smuggling contraband cheese in Russia – it is just not done, and opens you up to getting skewered in peer reviews.

Of course, there is some truth to the fact that exploring our private demons in our writing can become self-indulgent, even repetitive. The originality (or lack thereof) of a subject does not compensate for a lack of skill on anyone’s part. But skill and subject are two different things. And, if you suffer from a particular demon (the nagging voice of the perfectionist, perhaps) you most likely have seen at least half a dozen fiction and non-fiction books dealing with that exact same subject – so, surely you’re not the only one. Surely your individual experience can be translated into a universal story.

That’s not where the legitimacy issue lies, not really. In rejecting our own inner demons as being unworthy of the page, in shying away from the experiences (and the trauma) that make us who we are, we are dismissing ourselves as serious writers. We are telling ourselves that we did not experience anything worth putting on the page. That our stories are not worth telling.

It does tend to put a damper on the whole ‘writing and publishing’ thing.

My perfectionism – that complete intolerance for mediocrity, that refusal to settle, it drives me up the wall. It makes me paranoid and anti-social. Ironically, so are my characters – paranoid and anti-social, I mean. Does this mean they don’t deserve a little love?

More to the point, if we reject the demons and the opportunities they give us to write something we truly know and understand, how can we hope to write a book about anything?

Hello, old demon. Now that you’re here, I guess the work can begin.