GETTING THE WRITER OUT OF THE WAY

24 Oct 2017

IF WRITING IS ANYTHING, IT IS A PERFORMANCE. The writer is the lone figure on the stage. A world may watch, judge, applaud, hiss, throw things, or speak his name softly, but he alone stands under the lights.

 

The seasoned performer feels at home on stage. He feels that way because he has been on that stage or one like it many times. The stage itself is no longer the impediment it once was, the creature to be tamed.

 

It wasn't always that way. At one time the stage was this large, imposing, terrifying place that made the knees weak, that altered our breathing. The stage itself was the issue. The performance often suffered. With continual practice, however, all that changed. In time, the artist was able to focus on the performance alone, on the subtleties of the craft. The stage held no more terror, nor did it get in the way any longer.

 

Many of the hesitations a writer suffers reflect sheer performance anxiety. Think of it as a kind of stage fright.

 

One of the more insidious, if not oddest impediments to good writing is the presence of THE WRITER. I know how that must sound, but what I mean is this: for most writers, particularly in the beginning, but truly for any writer at any level of craft, the notion of THE WRITER can be daunting. After all, THE WRITER is smart, savvy. He knows more than you do. Words do wonderful and mysterious things for him. His metaphors smile back at him. His adverbs are weightless. He is a virtuoso, a master of invention. He is Anne Lamott cool. People love him. And he might as well be made of marble or alabaster.

 

The timid writer feels obligated to take their place behind this imposing creature. The writing suffers. The performance suffers. His gaze is misdirected. The gaze of his reader is misdirected. And forward movement is stifled, or at best it drags. It is the child on the diving board crying out "mommy, mommy, watch me!" The child is more concerned with mommy's approval than he is with the art of the dive itself, which comes only with time and seasoning.

 

It may sound like an unfair judgment but many times, even with the advantage of a cool title, I have chosen not to continue reading a novel or a piece of nonfiction simply because in the first few pages the author tried to sell (or oversell) me something he or she just didn't have. In her attempt at the Call-me-Ishmael-It-was-the-best-of-times-it-was-the-worst-of-times opening line, she lost me, lost my confidence in her skill. In essence, she turned me away, hoping I wouldn't notice the con. The text sounded "writerly" [shudder] but I was not convinced. The voice counterfeit, her adverbs awkward and forced, I just didn't trust her ability to give me a satisfying experience that a book is supposed to deliver. Why? Because THE WRITER simply refused to get out of the way. In the attempt to sound writerly, we often sabotage our own text.

 

As strange as this may sound, if the writer can somehow vanish, recede out of the picture, if he or she can commit his or her labors in putting the story out front and not his or her own image, if he or she can write with perspicuity (look it up) and avoid the temptation of being "too" clever and risk both balance and purpose, or a topheaviness in the line; if she can do all that, as a discerning reader I am going to give her my whole heart, because I am convinced she has given me hers. She has done the necessary work to prove it, to work the charm. A writer like that can take me anywhere, make me believe anything. And I will always come back for more. I trust the way she leads me.

 

The great paradox is that love, while making me invisible, tells me who I am, sorts me out, defines me, strips away illusion and pretension and gives me my truest dimensions in a world of pretenders.

—David Teems, TO LOVE IS CHRIST

 

This is a cursory treatment of a very common malady among writers. Much more can be said. But do not despair. There is medication. As suggested above, it will take effort. It will also take time on stage. Perhaps even more, it will demand a shift in perception. I can tame the blank page. But getting ME out of the way? That is, quite literally, a very different story.

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