Contending Forces

Contending Forces

The Empowered Writer, Part Four

By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes
Read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three

“Gee! And here I’d thought…”

Rare indeed is the writer who, the next morning, hasn’t cast a quick glance over yesterday’s output, it having gone so wellgone splendidly, in truth, “greatness” seeming at the very tips of the fingers, and… and…

Ouch. Just not.

Such a letdown! The lapses and the flaws, our humiliating gaffes… from yesterday’s efforts they lift like bubbles on a tarred summer road, absolutely glaring at us, the “swarm” of our errors…

And down we crash, “reality” bringing us a fit of dejection in the blink of a keystroke. How could our judgment have been so flawed?

Too well we know it, we who have been there!—especially as younger writers, green and unfledged, not yet wary—wary enough—of the wiles of our discipline and its insidious “volatilities,” which so readily beguile us into paying out our trust to our naive enthusiasms.

What’s going on? What renders us writers such—as we say—labile creatures, so given as we are to radical mood-swings? Are other artistic types (we can’t help but wonder) as skittish and jittery in reviewing their work as we so often are?

The answer is to be found in the rhythms of creativity as they function in our craft, those widely divergent “pulses” that attend the composing process. They make for reconsiderations of a very sharp sort (hence our becoming neurotic so often), and stand among the things that test—at times severely—not only our toughness but our savvy as writers. It’s got to be said: taken at all seriously, our discipline is really not for the faint of heart.

What We Need to be Wary of

 At the end of Part Three, I cautioned us not to trust our “inner critic”—overmuch!

It’s a loaded “overmuch,” as we’re going to see. Of course, yes, we will trust our critical intuition—we won’t in any case ever be able to do without it… but it’s one of our “pulses” that we must learn to be wary of, exactly as we’re wary of our unguarded “enthusiasms.”

Here we descend to the micro level, to the immediacies of writing on a day-to-day basis where the contending forces I refer to in my title enact their dance of intricate trade-offs. This is where our wariness—“squinting” with great care —will be the most needed, lest we get tripped up by a harmful misjudgment that is among the most frequent we writers will make during the act of composing.

Overly trusting our “inner critic.”  When, again, the morning after, as the letdown hits us, and we see with dismay, looking over yesterday’s work, that it’s far from genius-level, much less free of errors, we’ll be much too predisposed to invest complete trust in our critical intuition. We’ll regard it as affording us the needed reality check—the “helpful hurt” of contrition (a medieval notion) which directs us to submit, now, to all the “self-demotions”* that await us in revising.

(*See the discussion on “self-demotions” in Part Three, “Questions of Courage,” January 21, 2024.)

Its potency is such—this inner critic of ours—that it can make us feel foolish, even deeply ashamed, for having been so very gullible, so naively elated over yesterday’s output. In the rear-view mirror, our self-satisfaction may come to appear delusional, so much easier is it to see our “enthusiasms” as being in error than it is our critical sense. And this potent denigration of our free-wheeling creativity can, in the long run, prove even more damaging than our being too enthusiastic about our creative output. Our “inner critic,” then, will need to be tamed, in ways large and small. Here is the crucial error on which our misjudgment rests:

BOTH our creative outbursts AND our “inner critic” constitute obsessional states of subjective involvement in our work-in-progress. Hence, NEITHER can be relied on to afford us a justly balanced, fully dispassionate view of our work.

Where, then, to find the remedy? Let’s consult a map of the “contending forces” of composing.


The Three Essential Phases of the Creative Process

Let’s call them for convenience (a) the romantic phase, (b) the critical phase, and then, finally, (c) the dispassionate phase, the third of these affording the remedy in question. This will be, as well, the sequential order in which we experience these stages, both in large and more narrow ways.

The romantic phase. It’s yesterday’s output—that exuberant “rush” of composition we celebrated in Part Two:

Yet it’s the case for us all who labor at writing fiction that at times the gods
shower us freely with gold, and we write with utter ease—inspired, it could
be, or simply finally ready

Our creative momentum may prove to be “exuberant” in varying degrees, from the calm, confident placement of just the next sentence to a rush of fresh inspiration. At its dazzling extreme, this becomes the artistic coma, the writer composing in a virtual trance, as Flannery O’Connor claimed to have been in while writing “Good Country People,” and Katherine Anne Porter while penning Noon Wine.

 A distinctive trait of this romantic phase at its most intense is the writer’s producing their words almost in passing while hurrying to “keep up” as the action unfolds—the words themselves merely “incidental notations,” being jotted down in haste on the keyboard or notepad while the author’s gaze is fixed on the “world” they are creating. What remains to be seen, then, is whether this creative output has been the real thing or merely a false start, or something in between—something good in potential, but needing and awaiting the “rescue” of careful editing—and, of course, further development as well.

The critical phase.  Then, at its worst, as we’ve seen, the troll beneath our bridge may suddenly and mercilessly feast on our high spirits, and on our self-esteem, too, as our “fault-finding” radar begins its cruel sweep of yesterday’s output.

Might we not well wonder, enduring this assault, at exactly what point this “inner critic” of ours has devolved into being the enemy within—the trigger of a stultifying form of self-hatred that can shut down our creativity altogether? It may “parade,” in such cases, as being a good reality check, but in fact it’s the most virulent form of Robert Pirsig’s “gumption trap,” an excess of bravery turned inside-out, one prompting demoralization and the impulse to give up. Tobias Wolff has offered a pertinent caveat:

 “You may not be able to reach a commanding height [in your writing] without, sometimes, even often, pushing through the brambles of self-distrust and discouragement. How can you tell the difference between those brambles and a real trap? Maybe you can’t. Maybe you have to push on until you either break free, or find yourself gnawing your own leg off.”

And how many fiction writers—we can’t help asking—have moldering in their “trunk” any number of stories or parts of novels in one state or another, just a few pages written or a long draft nearly complete?* Such laid-aside efforts, all instances of the “evil of unfinished business,” might prove indifferently to have been good work-in-progress victimized by exhaustion—the hazard of “work decrement” we explored in Part Three—or, in truth, false starts, as the writer now sees them… though even our “false starts” may have been unduly prejudiced by that “inner critic” of ours. Often, what it rejects as “unsuited for sticking with” is not without promise, its key problem being that there isn’t enough of it yet! It’s still sketchy, underwritten; the writer hasn’t yet spent the necessary words to achieve the desired effects.

(*Ralph Ellison acknowledged to a small group of writers of which I was part that he possessed such a trunk.)

Our “inner critic” again, then, must be suitably tamed to perform its rightful function. This “taming,” as we’ll see, comes in broader and narrower forms.

The dispassionate phase. Here we achieve real detachment about our work, and can fully appreciate how it actually reads—no longer victimized by either our “inner critic” or our undue “enthusiasms.”

For many, this balanced view takes a while to reach (Horace let his work chill for nine years), but we have to be supple and careful about the issue. Writers reach this clear-eyed view in different ways, some truly needing the “refrigerating” phase, others in turn being intuitive enough to know when their work has achieved a “right state” without undue delay.

Still, forgetfulness can be a useful ally in this matter: squirreling a piece of work away until we can no longer recall exactly what we had written will virtually guarantee us a state of detachment! And what we will have detached from is the striving mode we were in while working on the piece, one fraught with the “snares” we’d earlier explored—of determination, of effort, of will, of greed… all subsumed within our craving for success.

This dispassionate phase, then, constitutes “judgment time” in a very real sense. Achieving it secures for us the larger taming of our “inner critic” that is ultimately needed for us to be effective writers. If we’re still concerned, moreover, with the effort we had to “waste” in pursuing our labors, we now get a better view of what waste had proved futile and what proved productive.

 But—and this will carry us forward to the next part of our discussion—there is a smaller sort of taming of that pesky “inner critic” that goes on while we’re composing. We must turn to that now, for, in beginning this craft note, we saw how mood swings that were very extreme—from elation to dismay, from the headiness of productivity to the lurch of self-faulting—are particularly likely to typify our process when we are just embarking on a new writing project, and the field still feels wide open as to whether it has real “possibilities” or not. Once we have begun to settle in on a writing project, our mood-swings will moderate, and the “contending forces” of my title—those divergent “pulses” of our creativity—become more amicable, collaborative opponents in a rough-and-tumble contest.


The writer settles into work

We’ll approach this issue, too, with suppleness and care, so much do writers differ in the way they go about their work. Some writers, as we know, choose to “let the words rip” and come back to edit later; others strive to “get it right” as they move along more slowly. Still, some principles will hold that are worth looking at.

The solitary writer who labors every day will— to the extent that the vagaries of life permit it, and within the limits of their available courage—make a business of their art, knowing that their progressing rests on their having a confident command of their own creative psychology. When it’s time to “go public” and seek success out in the “world,” they’ll invert that principle and make an art of their business—understanding, as well, that what’s involved in doing so, the self-publicizing, the networking and all, however tedious and draining, will make a legitimate claim on their time. (There is also, of course, the heady pleasure of succeeding!)  Discerning that “intelligence” and “effectiveness” differ widely, they will aim to be effective.

Everyday writing and self-criticizing: the intimate interplay. We return to the issue of having to tame our “inner critic.” Reaching the dispassionate phase will achieve this for us in the large way I mentioned, in the sense that dispassion, however we come to it, releases us from the bondage of our obsessive involvement in our work-in-progress, from our remaining “too close” to it and very likely myopic about its virtues and demerits.

But the smaller taming of our “inner critic”—how does that happen? Here we might turn to the poets for help, who, in their wisdom, reinforce that principle we observed in Part Three, where we saw how daily “reps”—the repetitiveness of training—prove so crucial to our “fitness.” We might even label it noble drudgery, as G. M. Hopkins does in “The Windhover”:

….No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah, my dear,
….Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

—cryptic lines at first, but once well-parsed, offer the soul sustaining food. The plough blade, continually dragged through the dirt, will eventually gleam. As Yeats says in “Adam’s Curse,” “a line will take us hours maybe, /But if it does not seem a moment’s thought, /Our stitching and unstitching has been nought.” Then he goes on, “It’s certain there is no fine thing/ Since Adam’s fall but needs much laboring.”

A key benefit, then, of our being “in continuous practice” (Hamlet home from England, staying sharp with his sword!) is that, by virtue of the constant buffeting we experiencebetween our efforts to compose and then revise—we become largely inured to letdown’s adverse effects, toughened up so much and less prone to being bruised by going at it every day that we have tamed our “inner critic,” having cultivated it to serve us as we wish.

Here we come to the true micro-rhythms of creativity: when fully engaged as writers going about our daily business, we waste no time in responding very promptly to the “calls” of our “inner critic,” nor in crafting the next words that will move our work forward! Alacrity is our byword (alacrity being a sub-species of courage). That there may be the least “evil of unfinished business” hanging over our progress, we accept as our motto, “Soonest before me, soonest behind me.” Our romantic pulses we can see as life-giving, pushing fresh shoots up through the soil again and again; our critical sense, in turn, “murdering off small darlings” from moment to moment as we write and revise. Composing thus becomes an intricate dance, a step forward, a step backward, then forward again.

Nor can the “contending forces” of our creative process escape being likened to a football game in progress—rough types competing on both sides of scrimmage, at times quite brutal, the offense pressing forward, the defense pushing back; but the antagonists on both sides wholly integral to the game. What we see, then, finally, is that our capacity for courage—like our bodies, like our minds—undergoes its own training, becoming “fit” through continuous practice. Getting battered, in a way, is the key to being toughened up. It’s in large part what enables us (Buber again) to speak the primary word out of our being to the form which appears (See the end of Part One, November 2, 2023).

Moving forward in this series, we’ll consider a medley of the forces that can variously thwart and nourish a working writer!

Read Richard Wertime’s short fiction, “Soccer,” in WTP, and find his other reflections on craft here

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