“Oh, I’m just starting out with writing.”
“I just wrote 200 words today.”
“I’m just halfway through my story.”
“I’m just small-press/self-published….”
“I just write light fun beach reads; it’s not highbrow literature.”
Do any of these self-effacing comments about your writing sound familiar? Friends, that last one is pretty much a direct quote from me, more than once, about the novels I’ve written under my pen name, Phoebe Fox. Probably more than 50 times, if I’m honest.
I hear authors speak about themselves and their work this way often, and as I confessed, I’m guilty of it too. In some ways I think it comes from good instincts: to stay in beginner’s mind and realize we are always learning—and there is always much to learn about our craft. That attitude is certainly probably more productive than its flipside: overconfidence that can shut us off to being open to improving our writing and growing as artists.
But I think there’s danger in talking about our writing in a diminishing way. Most obviously it sends us the message that our creative work isn’t that important or worthwhile. It’s just a lark, a silly little whim we pursue, but we’re not kidding ourselves that we can stand beside the actual greats of literature.
I wrote a bit about this kind of self-denigration in this post, about pizza. Just because I’m not making Michelin-star gourmet meals, that doesn’t mean my artisanal pizza isn’t delicious. (Also, pizza!)
But I also think we use “just”-ifying to beat anyone else to the punch. It’s a defensive device to insulate us against criticism or disapproval: “You can’t hurt me by telling me my efforts or my writing aren’t good enough, because I trust me, I already know it.” If we’re not trying to reach for the stars, after all, then it can’t hurt to fall to Earth.
But I also think it can do damage to our creative efforts and to us as creators. It makes the one person who should always be our staunch champion—ourselves—into a constant critic. And that’s not an environment conducive to giving ourselves the freedom to do our best work, to learn and expand our skills by trying big, and giving ourselves permission to fail big.
Read more: “Failure IS an Option”
Pride versus Humility
One of the reasons I think we struggle with talking about our own work is the societal stricture against pride, going all the way back to the Bible, where it goeth before a fall. We’re encouraged to be humble, modest, which I don’t think are the same things.
Modesty connotes downplaying skills or talents or positive traits you know you have, whereas humility often evokes the idea of humiliation, abasing yourself and dismissing the idea that you could possibly have any of these positive attributes at all.
But that’s not actually what humility is. Humility isn’t the opposite of pride, as it’s often presented. It’s a facet of it. It’s a realistic, human view of yourself and your own abilities, both your weaknesses and your strengths.
Rather than being opposites, pride versus humility, what if we were to think of them as both being important traits for nurturing our creativity—pride and humility (with all due respect to Jane Austen’s perspective)?
That means having a clear-eyed view of your work and where there may be room for improvement and growth, while also allowing yourself to be proud of its merits and strengths. Without that how can we hope to improve as artists, any more than a child who is given nothing but criticism and disapproval can develop a healthy self-image and flourish? We have to create a safe space for ourselves as artists where we have permission to fail, permission to grow.
Read more: “Forgiving Your Failure”
“Just”-ifying also creates an external framework for how we evaluate our work, holding ourselves and our creative efforts up against others rather than evaluating them for what they are and how well they have expressed our vision. It judges them for what they are not, rather than what they are.
Read more: “Whose Standards Are You Judging Yourself By?”
Replace Your Messaging
It’s our internal judgment of our creative efforts that results in harmful “just”-ifying—the negative messages about it that we give ourselves. (Which, regular readers may know, I write about a lot).
But what if we replace those negative judgments with more positive interpretations?
- Instead of, “Oh, I’m just trying my hand at writing,” what if you approach it as embarking on the first steps of a new artistic pursuit—how marvelous!
- Instead of “just” writing 200 or whatever word count you were aiming for, you brought 200 new words into existence that weren’t on the page yesterday—isn’t that extraordinary?
- I don’t “just” write light fiction, I give readers a fun escape—how delightful!
We can allow ourselves to take pride in our work, openly and genuinely, while maintaining the humility that allows us to continue to improve it. One doesn’t rule out the other; they work together to keep us pursuing the excellence we crave.
Read more: “A Rational Antidote for Emotional Thinking”
Over to you, authors. Do you “just”-ify your own writing? How, if you do? How does it impact your creativity? Do you have techniques for spotting when you’re doing it, and addressing those negative internal messages?