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Writers Talk About Writing

How to Overcome Your Writing Shame

When I was 10 years old, one summer morning I remember standing at my kitchen door, talking to a neighborhood pal of mine. Suddenly, wasps started swarming around us. Terrified (I'd been stung on the lip on the first day of grade 1 — an extraordinarily painful experience), I slammed the door and ran to get my mother. It never even occurred to me to try to rescue my friend.

This incident shames me still. Even though it happened 45 years ago. Even though I was only 10. I'd left my friend on the porch! With all those wasps.

I remembered this story recently, while coaching a client. It was clear she felt a great a deal of shame about her writing and as the word "shame" lingered in the air, the wasp incident popped into my head. Isn't it amazing how we carry around feelings and emotions long after they've outlived their usefulness? It's a bit like finding New Year's Eve party favors in your pocket on May 10th.

While most of the writers I work with don't ever mention the word shame, I think it's a remarkably common feeling. Think of the ways in which this oily little emotion can ooze out of the cracks:

Speed: Does your boss criticize you for how slowly you write? Or, perhaps you criticize yourself — thinking of colleagues who seem to write so much faster and so much more easily.

Content: Do you find yourself frequently fretting about "client confidentiality"? (Many counselors and therapists have this concern.) Similarly, memoir writers often worry about their right to tell their story from their own point of view without getting "permission" from parents or siblings.

Quality: Do you think you write reasonably well? Or are you so embarrassed by the quality of your output that you don't want anyone else to see it?

Genre: Do you write for money in a well-paying genre (say corporate communications) but secretly yearn to be a novelist? Or a poet?

There are many ways in which shame can rear its ugly little head in the writing world. If it's plaguing you, here are five steps to take:

1. Identify the source of your shame. My own writing shame grew out of my job as a senior editor at a large metropolitan daily. I was ashamed that while I was an excellent editor, I couldn't write nearly as quickly as the people who worked for me. 

2. Examine your situation, without regarding the shame. Remove the feeling and take a clear, unemotional look at exactly what's going on. Then, make a plan for dealing with it. In my case, it helped when I realized that the reporters who wrote for me couldn't edit nearly as well as I could. Even though the hierarchy in the typical newsroom implied that the best writers should advance to become editors, the two skills are entirely separate. I realized I needed to learn how to pick up my writing speed. Instead of just feeling awful, I suddenly had a purpose.

3. Imagine someone else in exactly the same situation. What would you think of them? How harshly would you judge them? It's an odd trait of human nature that most of us are much more inclined to be easier on other people than ourselves. Resolve to treat yourself with the same empathy you'd quite willingly extend to a stranger. 

4. Talk to someone else. Most horrible things in our lives involve some degree of hiding. If you feel shame, defuse the feeling by talking to someone else about it — a friend, a colleague, a coach, or even your boss! As they say in hockey, the best defense is a good offense. You will make your shame less powerful if you're prepared to blab about it.

5. Always separate the task of writing from any evaluation of it. While you write, write. Don't do anything else. Don't edit. Don't think. Don't assess. Just write. 

Shame is writing's mortal enemy. If it's harassing you, take some concrete action to stop it in its tracks.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday May 13th 2013, 1:09 PM
Comment by: Brad Boardman (Everett, WA)
Nice piece to chew on, Daphne. Thanks!

While I don't think I often deal with "shame" necessarily, I do love the idea of giving myself permission to write at my own pace. I find that a good part of my writing is actually thinking. Mostly, that takes time.
Tuesday May 14th 2013, 10:03 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
I'm going to read this one again and again. Three years ago I joined 300,000 people in beginning a novel on NaNoWriMo.com. And I've written 50,000 words in the month of November twice. I easily added another 30,000 words to both novels. My problem is getting them edited for publication. But this article spoke to me because every time I talk to a friend about what I'm writing and working on, they respond by saying they'd like to read it. I immediately feel that my novel is inadequate for people to read--a ridiculous feeling, I know, but it comes up without my permission. I have all kinds of disclaimers about its being for a young audience (even though my granddaughter says it isn't) and that it really has no depth and would be boring to an older group (not true says my granddaughter). I'm not sure which of your cures will work for me, but I'm going to see what I can do about this feeling. It's very painful and frustrating. Thanks again for your fine writing.
Tuesday May 14th 2013, 11:06 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi Meredith,

You raise an interesting issue. I'm not sure I would be eager to give a first draft to a friend or colleague. But I would be very eager to launch the editing process. I suggest you do the first edit yourself. Then you might consider hiring a professional. I assume you'd like to try to get at least one of the books published? If so, understand that editing is the logical next step. Showing it to others should come only AFTER that. Hope this helps! Best, -daphne
Friday May 17th 2013, 1:23 PM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
Thanks, Daphne, for your input. I love editing (I was an English teacher) and do plenty of it--over and over again. The first chapter has been revised--though not extensively--ten times, I'm sure. I'm going to publish these novels myself on Create Space. Part of the problem is seeing that it's good enough to let go of for others to read. And I have the feeling that I'm out of touch at my age (72), not to mention the number of great novels out there is intimidating. I need a way to overcome my fear and move forward.

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