“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”
“What Do You Do When the Worst Happens?”
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?
I needed this today! Thank you! Last week I received a full manuscript and proposal request from an agent. Since sending it, I’ve struggled with my work not being enough because it’s light-hearted and fun. I need to shift my view to see it as offering readers an escape. I love this!
On a side note, I felt confident to send it after reading Intuitive Editing and using it as a guide to self-edit. A million thanks!
Congrats, Dawn! That’s wonderful! And nerve-racking, I know. I’m glad the post was well-timed–I can relate to downplaying your own writing in this exact way, but I try to remind myself of just what you said–my stories are escapes, and I write the stories I’d like to read. That’s got to be enough, doesn’t it? Thanks for sharing–and I’m crossing my fingers for you. And thanks for telling me that Intuitive helped with your revisions! That’s its raison d’etre. 🙂
It’s funny – when my friends and family ask about my writing, I have no problem touting my accomplishments. However, at my day job (a procedure writer/editor at a large stuffy bank, yawn), I go into “just”-ify mode whenever anyone mentions that I’m a published author. Next time, I’ll be sure to replace my messaging and see what happens. Thanks for another great post!
I hear that a lot–in fact I just heard a similar story from Amulya Malladi, a multipublished, very successful author who works in marketing, in a recent interview we did together! She’s stopped doing it now, but she said for a long time she didn’t talk about her writing at work or other places. I think it’s not uncommon for creatives…and actually for women.
Thanks for the comment, Barbara–glad the post resonated.
My writing has become, in many ways, my life. I have always talked about my writing…though that doesn’t mean that people were open to what I was doing. But it doesn’t matter what THEY think. It matters what writing means to ME. When deep into a novel, I am living with my characters, writing down notes, thinking about phrasing and plot lines. I believe that is all part of being a writer. I have one small published collection of stories and hope to publish a novel this year. Thanks for your post.
Love that you have always felt that way about your writing, Beth. I think I had to find my way there. (I caught myself saying “earn my way there,” a mindset I’m trying to break myself of.) But I mostly feel that way too now, and it’s lovely–it makes writing such a pure pleasure…even when it’s frustrating. 🙂 I know I will find my way to where I’m going when I’m writing, even if it takes a while, and I trust that. I wonder if that’s how you feel too.
Congrats on the stories, and the novel in progress! I agree with you–what’s it all for if not for us, for how is feeds our souls? Thanks for the perspective.
Thank you for this, and for the jumping-off point:
I love this post you wrote, Craig! I’m still aiming to speak with you for a How Writers Revise as soon as I can schedule it. I will be in touch!
This was excellent! Much needed.
Glad to hear that, Amy. Thanks.