How to Avoid Writing (Almost) Your Entire Life

Florence Ma. The Writer's Cage. Grade 12, Age 17. 2012 Gold Medal, Drawing

Florence Ma. The Writer’s Cage. Grade 12, Age 17. 2012 Gold Medal, Drawing

Michael Gruber says that if writing taught him anything, it was how to get used to failure.

The first book this writer published under his own name was at the age of 61. He says he avoided writing due to “a simple lack of confidence.” In the following interview (see below), Gruber explains his personal background and the forces that shaped him as a novelist. The key is that he didn’t identify himself as a writer, nor did he believe he was capable of being a “real” writer.

In other words, this man speaks to everything I’ve been studying for the hundred or so years I’ve worked on the underlying reasons for profound writer’s block, the kind that prevents you from writing for more than 45 years. I know from experience that this man’s perceptions and feelings are not unique, having listened to this story from writers at every step of the process. That’s why I so fervently believe these fears can be overcome, with the right kind of help, because why would you want to struggle with this alone? 

This interview comes via Author magazine, a publication of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (of which I am a member).

The Passionately Curious Reader and The Writer of Great Imagination

The curious reader has the kind of imagination to see your writing not as it is now, but as it might be.

Writers have great imaginations, but virtually every writer has, at some point, had difficulty imagining his or her audience.

I propose that this is partially a side effect of the expectation that writers should isolate ourselves. If we therefore spend a lot of time in our heads, creating and imagining, the person we’re writing to might not exist in reality. Since we’re isolated and alone, we’re not likely to meet this person, either.

Therefore, it’s in our best interest, as writers, to collaborate with other writers or creative types, people who understand our inner world because they appreciate it, believe in it, or somehow speak its ‘language.’ You know who that person is: s/he is someone you feel comfortable enough sharing your writing with, someone who focuses less on errors and fixing your writing, and more on what you’re trying to say or accomplish with your story. This ideal reader, like Albert Einstein, could say “I have no special abilities; I am only passionately curious.” 

How do we access this ‘passionately curious’ reader if we don’t yet have a trusted writing partner, someone we can share our writing with? This reader is not what I would call a critique partner. I’ve had those. Even the writing partners who mean well, offering valuable advice that improves your writing skills, might not be the reader you really need, who sympathizes with you and the story you’re trying to tell.

In my experience, most critique happens long before your story has sufficient structure and purpose, and may end up doing more harm than good. Critique often stands in for copy-editing, and instead of allowing the writer to develop his or her thoughts and form a solid direction, nips incipient creativity in the bud far too early.

The helping hand of inspiration

There’s often a gap between the writing we produce and the writing we’ve got in our heart or mind’s eye. The difficulty will be finding the person who cares less about mistakes and more about what’s preventing you from telling the story you could tell if you had the right inspiration.

As writers, we share a fundamental hope. Somewhere deep inside we hope that our thoughts and feelings will be of interest to our readers. It’s this hope we nurture when we begin to write.

However, if, like me, you were trained by society to suppress your feelings, to forget your experiences and never speak of them, is it any surprise that when we sit down to write a story or essay that tells the truth, we stop ourselves with negative messages?

This is an insidious and debilitating process: I want to write, but I can’t let myself. We end up abandoning ourselves. We really need someone’s permission to say what needs to be said, yet we can’t allow ourselves to be that vulnerable. How, then, can we get past this fear and reconnect with our deep desire to write—complete with the conviction that our words are valuable?

One way is to make use of the powerful imagination writers have.

Sit in a comfortable chair. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, let the tension leave your body as you exhale. For a few minutes, sit quietly and pay attention to your breathing. Try not to think about much of anything. The goal is to relax your mind, release self-judgement, and allow self-acceptance.

Visualize your friendly, curious reader sitting across from you. This person accepts you no matter what you do, and is interested in everything you say. Remember the last conversation you had with this person, how openly you shared your ideas and feelings, realizing their significance as you spoke, knowing they would be received with understanding.

See his or her receptive, caring face and simply begin to tell your story. Open your eyes, pick up a pen and write to that friend. And now you’ve found your audience, for the time being at least. You’ve imagined what it feels like to have the ideal reader.

The next step is to find that friend in the real world, and share your imagination with him or her. This is the purpose of the Collaborative Writer forum; it exists with the intention of connecting writers who, hopefully, will end up trusting each other enough to share their writing with each other in a collaborative, not competitive, environment.

Why It’s Important To Take Your Reader Into Account

As you compose, consider your reader's needs too

Eventually, if you want to develop as a writer, you must share your work with someone.

Ideally, this should be someone independently interested in your topic or your genre, who already reads the type of writing you’re working on. Audience awareness implies taking your reader’s perspective into account, but at first, you might not have any idea who your actual reader is likely to be.

With impeccable timing, since I was writing about this topic anyway, just this morning Author Magazine shared the story of a writer who ignored her audience, and learned to change her perspective:

“Before Laura Munson published her breakout bestselling memoir, This is Not the Story You Think it Is, she wrote for herself.

With novel after novel getting rejected, who else was there for her to write for?

Now that her work has found an audience, now that readers are telling her how much her books have meant to them, she cannot help but “Consider the Reader.”

Strangely, it is this understanding—that her words will in fact impact others—that helped grant her the authority she needs to speak most honestly for herself.

Now, your ideal reader is not one who exists to critique your writing, looking specifically for flaws, nor is she there to tell you that it’s ‘great,’ without giving you useful feedback. A negative belief many beginning writers have is that if they dare show their work to someone, it will (or should) be critiqued—meaning: picked apart and changed.

Your best reader will be someone who likes your subject matter and already reads the type of writing you’re producing, and can give you a well-thought-out response. S/he is not interested in ego games, but sincerely wants to read a good piece of writing, and is willing to help you find the words to communicate what you’re trying to convey.

There are two basic types of writing situations: one in which you write for yourself exclusively, and one in which you intend for someone else to read what you’ve written. An important step in your development as a writer is when you become aware of what your reader is likely to think or feel in response to your writing.

While most of the guidance or advice you receive focuses on what’s going on inside of you and your approach to the writing itself (in terms of developing skills or talents), becoming aware of your audience requires that you pull your attention away from the act of writing, instead focusing on the effect your writing has on others.

n his truly excellent writer’s guide The Daily Writer: 366 Meditations to Cultivate a Productive and Meaningful Writing Life, English professor Fred White reminds writers to “envision individuals reading and responding to your work” rather than having them be a “vague abstraction.” He says that “how you envision your readers can influence the way you write” (188).

Envisioning your reader has a positive and a negative implication, though; if you are too concerned with what your reader thinks, you run the risk of compromising your own vision and style. If you are oblivious to your potential reader, though, you risk losing your reader through ignorance (being unaware of your reader’s potential hot-button issues, let’s say) or arrogance (thinking it won’t matter what you say or how you say it, you’re going to write whatever you feel like writing).

Once you make the decision to write with the eventual goal of sharing your writing, your focus should change from paying attention only to your feelings about your writing. At some point, perhaps during a rewrite of a draft, you will begin to wonder: What will someone else think of what I’m saying?

Remember letter writing? Writing a letter forced you to keep your reader firmly in mind; an excellent habit for writers to employ, no matter the genre.

A realistic audience for your writing could be one or more of any of the following:

  • One trusted reader (preferably not a family member or someone you’re so close to they won’t be able to give honest, effective feedback)
  • A writing group or other writing organization (online or in your area)
  • Potentially, when you feel ready, an agent

It’s easiest to define your audience when you’re writing within a genre, and if you are committed to getting published, you should already be reading or have read a great deal of the genre you hope to become published in. Until you define your audience, however, you will have trouble imagining what they’d want to read or the most effective ways to communicate with them.

No matter what you write, there are rules and conventions attached to the type of writing that you will be required to follow, and knowing those rules ahead of time will save you a lot of rewriting later on. Key to audience awareness is research into who already reads what you’re interested in writing about; where does this type of writing get published; does this type of writing have an established audience (is there a market for the writing you’re interested in doing)?

If you’re used to writing for yourself (an audience of one) it can be difficult making the shift to thinking about your audience’s needs. The first thing I know any audience will require from you is coherent writing, correctly spelled and edited for error, so let’s take that as a given, that Rule #1 of writing for others is to make your writing easy to read and easy to understand.

The rest of the rules do not follow quite so easily in any kind of order, however, and this is where I’d like you to brainstorm ideas.

Imagine your perfect reader, and try to see her or him as clearly as possible. For example, the perfect reader for the historical mystery I’m writing is fairly well-educated, older (over 40, perhaps), interested in history, specifically Ancient Athens, and already reads historical fiction (preferably murder mysteries).

If you had the luxury of having your perfect reader in front of you, what questions would you ask him or her? Make a list of things you want to know about your ideal reader. Interview your reader (in your imagination and then on paper) to discover what other books they’ve read? Where do they live? What do they do for a living? What are their hobbies?

Then turn the ‘conversation’ around, and think about the passages of your writing you’d most want your reader to see and comment on. Tell your reader very specifically (write this down!) what kind of help you’re looking for, what kind of comments you need from them; what kind of help you want with your grammar, or style, or vocabulary—whatever you have been thinking, write it all down.

These notes will be very important when you finally do have a reader, because it will help focus your mind, and it will help keep you and your reader away from useless, vacuous comments about how much they “liked” the action on page 15. All well and good, but we want your reader to be specific. What did they like? What didn’t work for them?

Most importantly, be sure to ask your reader, not what they liked, but what they understood or didn’t understand. The easiest mistake for any writer, experienced or not, to make, is to assume their reader understands what they’re trying to say. We think this, as writers, because we have no idea what our reader actually thinks until we ask them. This information is more important, and will ultimately make you a better writer, than asking if your writing is “any good,” or if the reader “liked it.” 

I may not like it when my reader says my writing can use a lot of work, but I will be grateful if he shows me what specifically is not working for him, since I trust my reader’s judgement. Every writer needs one serious reader whose judgement they respect.

A good reader is one who tells you what about your writing was effective, what worked, rather than discussing what they “liked.” Having someone tell you they liked or disliked your writing is too vague, and doesn’t help you grow as a writer. Having your reader show you precisely what worked or didn’t work is helpful. Without this feedback, your writing won’t improve. However, there is no excuse for any reader to criticize unfairly or harshly. It is never necessary, and it puts off many beginning writers.