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Writers Shame

March 29, 2008

I have finally got around to reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing: a memoir of the craft’. Not far into it I discovered a rather honest and confronting example of what I call ‘writer’s shame’.

King writes:
“I have spent a good many years … too many, I think – being ashamed about what I write. I kept hearing Miss Hisler asking why I wanted to waste my talent, why I wanted to waste my time, why I wanted to write junk …. I think I was forty before I realised that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.”

By 1987, when King was forty, he had written 17 novels under his own name, another five under the assumed name of Richard Bachman, three collections of short fiction and had collaborated on a number of film adaptations of his novels. The most financially successful horror writer in history, at the height of his career, was still ashamed of his talent. It would be incomprehensible to believe that such an author could feel this way, if we hadn’t experienced the exact same type of shame and doubt ourselves.

We all have them, a Miss Hisler or perhaps a whole crew of her monster archetype, who hang out in the recesses of our memories, on the periphery of our creativity. They load us up with shame about our writing, dishing out their own versions of ‘how could you?’ that block us.

I ousted my Miss Hisler last year, after working through the section on shame and monsters in The Artists Way. He was a Writer in Residence in my first semester of uni – I dont remember his name now. Upon reading my work he told me quite bluntly that I needed to ‘go out and get a life’ – which pretty much devastated any confidence that I had built in my writing through high school. I was 18, impressionable and took his words as gospel. What I heard was that I wasn’t good enough to write – ‘how could I be so naïve?’ So much for all the encouragement and support I had received from my teachers and parents. Only last year did I return to writing, with the passion that I had once had, with enough confidence and sass to make my work public – a good 16 years on.

I don’t feel the need to pay homage to my monster’s legacy any more. And good riddance I say. I’ve let go of the notions that I’m not smart enough, good enough, nor worldly enough to write. I have the audacity to write badly sometimes, and feel OK about it. I have the confidence to try new things and experiment with my boundaries. And I’ve reclaimed the thrill; the pure, unadulterated love of being encapsulated in the fiction I create.

We all have our Miss Hislers. Naming them and sharing the damage that they have caused us, goes a long way to healing the festering wounds left in our self confidence and creativity.

Who are your shame monsters – today is your opportunity to oust them.

What was the shaming charge/s levelled at you? How has it poisoned the way in which you perceive yourself as a writer and your ability create?

Jodi Cleghorn

*an unabridged version of this post can be found on my blog

One Comment
  1. March 29, 2008 1:15 pm

    My shame comes from an ex-boyfriend in high school who was jealous of the approval I was receiving from our writing professor. He would say I don’t get it, your writing’s not even good. I’m reading Stephen King’s On Writing too and really enjoying it.

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