On the Censor, and Finishing the Damn Book

ghandi01 Gather close, my chickadees. After a long while of not dispensing writing advice (really, most of what I wanted to say is here) I’ve had a question–or a set of related questions–reach critical mass, and will take a shot at answering them at one go.

These are things I have heard recently:

“I don’t think my work is complex enough, and that stops me from writing.”

“I don’t have a theme, and that stops me from writing.”

“My plot’s been done before! And that stops me from writing.”

“I get to the halfway point and then I can’t think of anything else to say, and that stops me from writing.”

“I’m not sure about the quality, and that stops me from writing.”

You get the idea. These are all related to a particularly insidious attempt on the part of what Julia Cameron calls “the Censor”. That’s the asshole inside your head who prefers you to keep everything safe, so there’s no chance of rejection, because rejection fucking well hurts and nobody likes that sort of pain.[1] To do that, the Censor attacks you right in the self-worth–or the perceived worth of your writing/painting/basketweaving/other art. It’s a song of “this isn’t good enough, so why even try?”

Normally I would advise kicking the Censor right where it hurts and taking a chainsaw to it, but: One, it’s an invisible psychological contract; two, it exists for a reason, even if it’s misfiring; and three, I’ve been working on my anger issues lately. So chainsaws are not allowed, for at least the rest of this week.

The Censor exists to keep you from getting hurt, in some twisted fashion. In normal functioning mode, it’s the same mechanism that might stop you from handing your beer to a friend and saying “Hey, Earl, watch this!” before you land in the hospital if you’re lucky and the morgue if you’re not. The trouble is, the Censor can so easily go haywire, and decide the best way to keep you safe is to cripple you before you try anything new or risky at all. Besides, our Censor has a couple of insidious little buddies–Anxiety and Misplaced Economy of Energy. (The latter is the sort of laziness people mistake for efficiency.) Together, they fight…well, you, and your art. (They can fuck up your life in other areas, but that’s–say it with me–another blog post.)

All that being said, the Censor has a point. Unfinished drafts are ugly creatures. This leads us to the solution, and the best way to roll the Censor in broken glass and set it on fire.[2]

Finish it.

Set your kitchen timer, set your wordcount, keep digging into what comes next for as long as it takes. But finish it.

Finish the damn book.

Complexity? Theme? Well, you won’t be able to get away from either of them. Themes will pop up in your work because you’re a human being interested in certain things, and those things will show up in any art you do. You can’t get away from it. But in order to find those themes and layer in complexity of character, plot, or the dinner-party menus your characters are discussing, you need a whole word-corpse on the table. You need to be able to see the arc of the story before you can correct it and trim here, pad there, and paint over that to make it purdy.

Sure, every plot’s been done before. But it hasn’t been done by you, and even if you do revisit a plot time and again (hello, Anne Rice? Charles Dickens? Even yours truly?) each time you do so you are at a different point in your life, and have a different constellation of words and thoughts to bring to bear on the matter. Plot matters, yes. But the point is how you perform the plot, and if you like turning out a certain batch of notes there’s nothing that says you can’t figure out how many variations to play on that theme. Finish the damn book, then start refining.

I’ve talked before about the long slow slough of despond that hits between a third to two-thirds of the way through a book. This is why writing is an endurance test. This is not about sprinting, or about how fast you can vomit up a chunk of text that may or may not be a book. This is about the discipline to sit down regularly (I recommend every day, we’ve already been over that) and keep at it until you’re done. You all know how action movies go, so consider this as the buildup to the big battle near the end. That feeling of having nothing else to say halfway through? That’s the Censor and Misplaced Economy of Energy getting together and desperately pulling out the stops to keep you from their Villainous Fortress of Solitude. Getting you to back down is the Censor’s endgame; that way you can stay in the “comfortable” tar-pit of “well, I just couldn’t finish it.”

That tar-pit is familiar. It’s safe, even if it burns and slows you down. The Censor is trying to tell you that it hurts, burns, and outright batters you less than having other people judge your work and possibly reject it. I’m here to tell you the two pains are about the same, so you might as well go for the one that has a prize attached. There’s no reason to pick the tar-pit over the scorpion-pit of getting reviews. (Especially online reviews.) Or the gladiatorial blood-pit of querying. It’s going to hurt either way, but at least with reviews, queries, and the like, you have a finished book to salve the pain. You have an achievement nobody else can take away–you finished the goddamn thing, which is more than most people who call themselves “writers” have. Once you have finished that marathon, that achievement is all yours. It’s sweet and it’s a goddamn sight better than the tar-pit.

That leaves the ever-popular, ever-famous “I’m not sure about the quality,” which is one of the Censor’s most insidious asshole moves.

Look. 99.9999999% of unfinished drafts are fucking horrible. 99.999% of zero drafts are fucking terrible too, in different ways. Most first drafts aren’t all that great either, but they’re a damn sight better than unfinished ones because you’ve had a go at shaping, trimming, and beautifying the whole corpse instead of just looking at a pile of rotting body parts and throwing up your hands before retreating to the castle cellar to moan at Igor about how hard it all is. It’s work to stitch your monster together, hard work to throw the switch during a lightning storm and attend all those dials and contacts and get the horrifying creature breathing. In the end, though, when it sits up and screams, it is proof of creation itself. All you have to do is apply some makeup and teach it to dance.

Even if your finished book does not see publication, even if it’s the most horrific steaming pile of word-shit that exited the runny bowels of a diseased mind, it is still an achievement. It is a whole book. It means you went the distance, stayed the course, and didn’t let the goddamn Censor keep you in the tar-pit. You get the marathon T-shirt and the knowledge that you can do it–you can make that monster, you can make it breathe, and you can even teach it a waltz. Nobody–not fellow writers, not your parents, not reviewers–can take away the fact that you did what you set out to do, goddammit.

It can help to know the Censor only has a limited bag of tricks, and tends to use the same ones on everyone. (Much like GamerGaters and MRAs all seem to work off the same toxic little playbook.) Fellow wordsmiths, what other insidious little tricks does the Censor use on you?

[1] Even masochists have their limits.
[2] Chainsaws aren’t allowed, but I’m a creative sort.