Psychology of Revising: Fear & Humility 1

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5 Days on Psychology of Revising

For six years, I’ve taught the Novel Revision Retreat across the country and I’ve thought a lot about the psychological issues that writers face as they face the work of revising a novel. It’s interesting that most psychological discussions of writing involve writer’s block. Not much discussion of everyday issues of a working writer. Of course, I’m not a psychologist: these are just my observations. Your experience for any particular novel may vary widely from this!
Hope
Fear and Humility, part 1
Fear and Humility, part 2
Gifted and Talented
Perseverance

Fear

No, don’t tell me what’s wrong with this novel. I don’t want to hear it. Minor problems? OK, I’ll fix those. But major structural, plot or character problems? Don’t tell me.

Cynthia Ozynick says, “Writing is essentially an act of courage.” When I get an honest critique, my courage fails me. I fear the revision needed: I won’t ever be able to “get it right.” Obviously, I thought that I had communicated my intentions well in the first draft, or I would have changed it before you read it. But you say that you don’t understand, or that I’m inconsistent, or that I’m unfocused. How could that be? I see it so clearly. And if my vision of my story is so skewed, then how will I ever get it right?

I fear that you’re right and I’m wrong. But how can I be sure? This is my story and it comes from my psychological leanings, my background, my research. How can you tell me what is right for my story? If the story doesn’t communicate what I want, then, yes, I need to revise. I repeat: Obviously, I thought it did communicate what I wanted, or I would have revised it before you saw it. Do you just have a different vision of the story because of your psychological leanings, your background? Are you trying to envision what I intended, or are you envisioning what you would have written? Where does your ego slam up against my ego? And where does your objective appraisal need to push my ego back into line with what it really wants to do anyway? Perspective is hard to achieve.

I fear that all my hard work, all the months spent thinking and rewriting, will be wasted.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/troyholden/4025623939/As a novelist, time haunts me. To write a novel isn’t the work of a week or a month. It takes many months, a year, a year and a half. More. It’s a long, long process. Your revision notes mean that the time is extended, and that without any guarantee of being finished even then. Meanwhile, that means that I’m a year older, that it’s a year in which I couldn’t write anything new (even if I could find the courage to begin again).

I fear your honesty; I need your approval
(or someone’s approval; if not yours, then whose?). Will it crush me emotionally if you don’t “like” my story? I gloss over the approval part of critiques and agonize over the “needs work” assessment. Is there a way for you to only show approval, yet open my eyes, so that I recognize what needs work? I’d rather recognize it for myself than have it pointed out.

I fear that my standards are too lax.
I want to be finished, I want to have this story out there. I want to have written, but in the throes of writing, I want the end of the process long before the story is really finished. Submission comes too early and then I get rejections. Then, it’s harder than ever to revise. But waiting is excruciating. Typical advice: Put the manuscript in a drawer for three months and then pull it out and read it with a fresh eye. What? Waste three more months? Never. It’s done and ready to send out. (Ok, maybe it isn’t, but I can’t stand looking at it one more time and in three months, my editor could read it and buy it. OK, maybe they won’t buy it until I revise, but three months? Isn’t there any other way?)

Critiques, especially honest and on-target critiques, are fearful things. I know that I need them; but they are painful, emotionally draining, and confidence shaking.

But I need them. OK, can you give me a minute? Let me find my mask of courage. There. I have it on. Now bring on your best critique!

More reading:

Other thoughts on critique of an artist and humility.
Art and Fear: One of my favorite books on the psychology of making art. It deals with fears about our unworthiness, fears of critiques, fears of displaying our art and much more.

Psychology of Revising Series

Hope
Fear and Humility, part 1
Fear and Humility, part 2
Gifted and Talented
Perseverance

1 Comment
  • Fran
    July 20, 2010

    As usual, you get it, the pain of a harsh critique.

    Other than to willingly take suggestions about obvious and tiresome things, perhaps those I had not quite trusted anyway, I rely on my own belief in the work.

    People can be so casual about the words you poured your heart into. I admit, when I read other novels, to skimming over sections that don’t hold me at the time. A re-read can prove them relevant, or not. It’s individual perception, in the end.

    But no editor can decide major changes for me, not if I trust in my words.