Anyone who knows me well also knows I have a long list of pet peeves—often minor issues or preferences that cause a moment of frustration before I move on to more productive things. But there are a handful of items on the list that cause a deeper sort of agitation, especially when I see them everywhere I look. In the realm of writing, self-deprecating humor and complaining are two frequent offenders.
Before I explain my reasoning, I want to define what I mean by those words. Deprecation means to “express earnest disapproval of…to deprecate; belittle.” Self-deprecation, then, simply means to disapprove of or belittle yourself. Complaining means to “express dissatisfaction, pain, uneasiness, censure, resentment, or grief; find fault.” I want to make a distinction between venting and complaining for the purpose of this post: simply expressing that you’re frustrated, angry, depressed, etc. about your writing is not the same as complaining. Complaining is an active choice to remain in those feelings and to pick something apart until only the (sometimes supposed) faults remain. To put it another way, self-depreciation and complaining are the same problem projected in two different directions—self-deprecation is disapproval or belittling aimed at oneself, and complaining is disapproval or belittling aimed outwardly (to a person, place, object, project, etc.).
Why is it so important to avoid self-deprecation and complaining? It’s true that expressing your displeasure with your writing or the writing process isn’t wrong—and, ought to be expressed rather than held inside. Feelings need to be dealt with rather than ignored. It’s also true that joking at the expense of yourself can, in small doses, be okay. The issue arises when these things become habits.
Let me digress for a moment and discuss neurobiology and, specifically, neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the “capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behaviour in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction.” In other words, neural networks are built and maintained or deconstructed and rebuilt depending upon repeated environmental stimuli (a.k.a. habits are formed and visible in the structure of our nervous systems). This is a very simplistic explanation, but it serves to make a point: what we reinforce becomes habit and “natural” in our thinking and, thus, behavior. Sometimes we don’t choose what’s reinforced—if, for example, we’re stuck growing up in a house full of emotionally volatile people—but we’re still able to “reprogram” our brains to form new habits and new perspectives (and this post isn’t meant to address extreme circumstances like the one I mentioned).
Back to my earlier question: why is it so important to avoid self-deprecation and complaining? Because self-deprecation and complaining form neural pathways that create habits and, in essence, turn that sort of thinking and speaking into our “normal” way of viewing the world, ourselves, and our writing. This brings me to the two reasons why we should stop complaining about writing and self-deprecating our writing:
1) Complaining and self-deprecation set you up for failure.
The more we self-deprecate and/or complain, the more we reinforce those words as being true. The more we believe those words—that we aren’t capable writers, that our ideas are unoriginal, that we’re horrible at coming up with plots, that our prose is clunky and ugly, that writing is just such a pain, that there are too many problems to fix—the less likely we are to even consider solutions to whatever true problems emerge as we write, and the less likely we are to write. If you believe that you are fundamentally, innately a poor writer, why bother trying to improve? Why bother writing at all? Always finding fault in your writing is the surest way to drain yourself of creativity, passion, and joy, and the surest way to create poor writing habits. Likewise, if you tell other people how poor your writing is (often as a way to buffer potential criticism), you’re inadvertently preparing them to dislike your story before they can form their own opinion. You do yourself no favors by tearing yourself down before someone else might.
2) Complaining and self-deprecation negatively influence other writers.
We’re social creatures by nature and even the most hermit-like of us pick up on the moods and beliefs of those around us. If all the writers around you are constantly finding fault, or constantly focusing upon the negative aspects of their stories or their writing processes, then you’ll be far more likely to chime in with your own laments and reinforce the pattern of negativity. If you’re feeling good about your writing, you may begin to question and purposely look for problems and imperfections because it appears normal for writers to do. Likewise, if you complain and self-deprecate often, you’re telling other writers that it’s normal—you may be the negative influence, in addition to being negatively influenced. Whether we like it or not, we set examples to peers and those with less experience about what being an author means. If our example is a pile of criticisms and unhappiness, the pattern will continue.
(I want to emphasize again that complaining and self-deprecating are not the same as venting or expressing your feelings. More on that in a bit.)
What’s the alternative, then? I have three potential solutions. First, be realistic—actually realistic. It’s never set right with me that authors discuss how “hard writing is” all of the time while painting moments of success as rare or unexpected. I think that our daily use of language (speaking, texting, creating social media posts, telling stories to our friends) can create an illusion that writing on a larger scale will be just as easy—and I’m certain that those who make that leap may find themselves overwhelmed and confused. In that sense, it’s important to tell new or struggling writers that writing is labor intensive and that it’s not abnormal for them to feel that way. But why do experienced writers reinforce the idea that writing is always difficult, grueling labor? Yes, sometimes it is taxing, but so it any other skill or work that requires effort. Farming is difficult; being an accountant is difficult; painting is difficult; playing basketball is difficult. The difficulties that writers face may be unique to the field, but the feelings are not. And, though it seems that way, constantly talking about the hard parts isn’t realistic or more authentic: writing is also filled with moments of unbridled joy, and passion, and excitement, and success—just like anything else in life. It’s not “real” or “authentic” to focus only on flaws. That’s good advice for both the writer and the writing.
Second, replace bad habits with good ones. We may not be able to control everything but we can control our habits and our thought patterns. If we want to feel and be more successful in our creative endeavors, we have to cultivate healthy neuron pathways. As I said in the previous paragraph, it’s just as realistic to have moments of loving your writing as it is to have moments of dislike it. We can’t always avoid those negative moments (or, stretches of time), but if our modus operandi is established as looking for positive qualities and finding solutions, then we will be better equipped to wrangle with feelings of failure or displeasure or inferiority. To give an old example, it’s the difference between being crippled by perfectionism and using perfectionism as a guide for improvement. If you can improve something—anything—about your writing or your approach, do it. Some measure of improvement is better than nothing.
Lastly, find healthy ways to express inevitable frustrations or feelings of failure. Feeling those things is normal—for a little while. Few adults remain infatuated with their creative endeavors forever. Noticing areas that need improvement is also vital to making your story the best it can possibly be (I’m a firm believer that your first idea is not your best idea 95% of the time). But you have to use those feelings as a way to create solutions, not a way to brood or sulk. If you’re unhappy with a chapter you wrote, or received critiques that felt especially harsh or hurtful, feel unhappy and hurt and then recognize that those emotions are signals that something is amiss with the characters, or plot, or pacing, or whatever it happens to be. Learn to recognizing negative feelings like other physical senses: if your hand hurts, it might mean that you got a paper cut, or burnt it, or broke a bone; if you smell something awful, it might mean that you need to clean out your refrigerator, or give your dog a bath, or check for a natural gas leak in your neighborhood. If you feel inferior to other writers, it might mean that you’re feeling isolated, that you need affirmation (as we all do), or that you have unrecognized ambitions and goals that you need to work toward (comparison is often an inverted sense of aspiring to achieve something new, but feeling as if you can’t). Always ask yourself why you feel a certain way, what caused it, and how you can address it; learn to self-diagnose, and find a person or two who can help you sort through negative feelings. Aim to build other writers up and help them find solutions, too—our attitudes rub off on one another, and extending help is often a way to improve feelings of self-worth and indirectly find solutions to your own writing troubles.