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Monster Hall of Fame

February 16, 2009

“Your historical monsters are the building blocks of your core negative beliefs … It is necessary to acknowledge creative injuries and grieve them.  Otherwise they become creative scar tissue and block your growth.”

Julia Cameron – The Artist’s Way


Stephen King and Julia Cameron both speak, in their own ways, of creative monsters and the havoc they bring to the creative life.  Creative Monsters are the people we let into our lives who shame us about our writing or who seed self doubt that renders us creatively impotent.  If we have more monsters than creative champions in our life, it can be hard to keep writing.

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 age forty King had sold millions of books, best sellers such as It, Pet Sematary and The Stand. It would be incomprehensible to believe that such a popular and successful author had been so susceptible to doubt and shame, if we hadn’t experienced the exact same thing ourselves.

We all have them, a monster or perhaps a whole crew who hang out in the recesses of our memories, on the periphery of our creativity, making us ashamed and doubtful of our talent.

How dare you write that?

You really  think that’s good?

Writer – pft.  Who are you kidding?

I’ve realised the idiom sticks and stones may break my bones ‘cos names will never harm me is a load of bollocks.  Words do hurt and especially for writers (whose creative ‘mud’ is words) they leave an indelible print on our creative psyches. Like Cameron writes, they are injuries and they do need to be healed if we want to reach our potential, or even just begin to explore it. Creative Monsters are  mud slingers and it’s time to take ourselves down to the creative river and wash away the dirt.  I know I love the feeling of cold, crisp water coursing over my body and how you can’t help but feel refreshed afterwards – body and soul!

But how do you do it?  How do you find your way down to the river?

The answer is simple. You need to start by ousting your monsters. To listen to what they have said and to understand how you’ve taken their nasty words and made them part of your creative reality.

I have had a number of creative monsters in my life, but the most influential of them was a Writer in Residence I consulted during my first year at uni.  I was 18, passionate about writing and excited at the prospect that the In-Residence program offered … to grow myself as a writer. We were asked to bring along a piece of our work to the first session, and I took along a story called And Juliet Met Romeo in Hell.  He looked over my work, and then point blank told me that I needed to go out and live in the real world.  I was naïve and people didn’t really act like that out there. And that was it.  I was mortified and shattered. I wonder now if that guy ever watched Underbelly?

I don’t deny that I was naïve – I’d spent almost all of my education in a Catholic high school and I hadn’t been adventurous as a teenager. But I read through his words and heard that I was an imbecile, and that I had had the audacity to write. What’s more, his words were instant creative castration for my vulnerable muse.

From that moment onwards, my passion for writing waxed and waned.  I created projects that could never be completed, boxes and boxes of first chapters that I would never show anyone.  I felt a fraud – I was waiting tables and working crap jobs because the only career I had ever wanted was writing, but I couldn’t turn up to the page.  I focused so long and hard on ‘going out and living in the real world’ that I never made time for writing.  Part of me could never make it a priority in my life.

What I still shudder at was that I was so willing to take his words on board.  Thankfully now I understand how to deconstruct criticism and to know the difference between the constructive criticism of your work and a cheap personal shot. (I encourage all writers to find time to understand how to deconstruct criticism.)

Excavating my creative shame and doubts over the past two years has allowed me oust guys like that Writer In-Residence and to begin to heal the injuries they caused, wash away the mud and the blockages to my will and confidence to write. As a consequence I have become alive and brilliant as a writer for the first time in over a decade.  I’ve let go of the notions that I’m not smart enough, nor worldly enough to write.  I have the audacity to write badly, and feel OK about it.  I have the confidence to try new things.  And I’ve reclaimed the thrill; the pure, unadulterated love of the process of writing.

Who are your creative monsters – today is your opportunity to expose them?  What was the shaming charge levelled at you? What self doubts did they seed? How has it fashioned the way in which you perceive yourself as a writer and your ability create?

Original Artwork “Mind” by Danae Sinclair

  1. February 16, 2009 1:31 am

    King speaks the truth.

    I think my dad is really the only person who doesn’t really support me with writing. Though I doubt he’d support me with anything I do because nothing is ever good enough for him.

  2. February 16, 2009 4:41 am

    Sadly, my creative monster is me – I can’t honestly recall anyone who has ever disparaged or tried to put me off writing. Even the traditional concerned parent comment of “you’ll need to find a real job to support yourself” comments never materialised!

    My parents gave good advice on what to do about pensions, and being self-employed, and they did advise having skills to fall back on if the worst happened, but they never said “you need to get a proper job”.

  3. February 16, 2009 10:11 am

    I agree with Paul. I am my own worst critic and my own worst enemy when it comes to my writing. I think I have internalized a lot of the criticism I received as a high school and an undergraduate, and it was ultimately what let to the bout of writers block that caused me to drop out of the Fiction MFA program I was in. It has taken me years to get back to writing again.

  4. February 16, 2009 4:37 pm

    It sounds Tiffany like the creative monsters you have – are the ones who offered that inappropriate criticism at high school and as an undergraduate. They are the ones that seeded the negative core beliefs and self doubt that your inner critic now thrives on.

    I remember when I first read about creative monsters I honestly had no idea who the hell was mine – considering I had supportive parents and teachers at high school. It takes a bit of fossicking about and it is sometimes painful to go back to the root of the criticism and relive the actual words again. A third going through of the Artist Way has uncovered even more monsters – ones I would never have initially thought of – such as an ex partner who thought ‘reading was a waste of time’ and looked down on me if I had a book … and how he just sucked the creative life out of me because I wasn’t able to be my true self around him and created an alter ego to fit his view of the world.

    And Paul – what of the culture of West Scotland that you talk about and the whole poof/girl approach to being in the arts? Did anyone ever come outright and say that to you or is it something that functions at a more pervasive and subterranean level? I’m not sure if you can demonise/monsterise a whole cultural way of thinking?

  5. February 16, 2009 4:51 pm

    Great post!

    There have been discussions on a writer’s forum I frequent about how some of the younger members weren’t getting any encouragement from their parents. In fact, it was the opposite. Parents would tell these budding writers to get a job and stop wasting their time. I found it pretty sad.

    I guess I got the same from my parents. That success was centered around a ‘career’ and that writing was a hobby distracting me from that. I guess it’s slightly understandable especially in economic times like this and security is so hard to come by, but I do better with having more positive support around me.

  6. February 17, 2009 6:18 am

    As far as I can recall, nobody ever said that to me. But culturally, it is there.

    Boys grow up to play football for Celtic or Rangers. If you don’t want to do that, if you don’t like football, you are not a man, you are effeminate and weak. Reading, writing, painting, acting – the preserve of “poofs and wimmin”. Even if you like action movies, the male actors in there are not weak men – only those getting “uppity” ideas about emulating that kind of success.

    The arts are not for “our kind of people”, and to aspire to them marks you out as thinking you are better (“aye, I used to ken his faither”) or an aberration.

    I believe my brother was accused of being gay because he enjoyed drawing. I was bullied for liking to read books. There is an anti-intelligence and anti-culture streak a mile wide in the West of Scotland, and considering it has produced some amazingly talented actors, singers, authors, painters, playwrights and poets, the fact that it continues is incredible.

  7. February 17, 2009 6:26 am

    Perhaps all those artists you mention are a product of sheer determination combined with talent to succeed that may not have been dngendered in a more conjusive environment to creative endeavours? Makes me think of that whole women doing mens jobs – how they used to (and it probably still applies) say that any woman in a male dominated profession (I’m actually thinking of law here) was three times better than any of her male colleagues because it took more than just talent and intelligence to get there – there was an element of sheer determination to succeed.

    Mind you – it’s still a crap way in which to explore your talents and formulate dreams in which to follow.

  8. February 17, 2009 1:34 pm

    Sometimes I think I’m my own creative monster. I know I’m a good writer, but sometimes I don’t write because I feel like whatever I write won’t be the best that I could write, if that makes any sense.

    I’m getting better about it in recent years. Trying to make myself write, even when I don’t feel like it.

  9. ravenlaw permalink
    February 21, 2009 8:53 am


    My creative monster lives! In fact, she’s probably lurking around here, somewhere, ready to pounce. When I first began writing, the monster said, “Creative writing is a waste of time. You’re going to be a teacher and by the way, why don’t you ever paint fruit? Everyone likes fruit. You’re soooooo good at painting fruit.”
    Later on, it was, “Writing? Okay. But what are you really going to do with your life?”
    More recently, I was published in a small literary magazine and the monster said, “That’s nice. But you need to write about something you know.”
    And finally, upon learning about the different projects I was working on, the monster said, “You need to get out of your head and into the real world.”

    My monster keeps company with dozens of baby monsters. Every morning, before I write, I stomp them to death on the carpet. Unfortunately, they have the power to regenerate, usually during the rewrite process. If I wasn’t such a stubborn person, I’d be hiding under the bed in the company of my monsters.


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