‘Fess Up Friday

A little while back the magnificent Lit Kitten invited us all to confess the truth about our writing week when we had finally staggered to the end of it. This week I find myself in need of a little blogging absolution as it’s been a tough one. I wish I had a pound for the number of times I’ve been told that I sound confident; I’m sure I do sound it, for the alternative would be the kind of endless whining that would be as welcome to those around me as the whine of a mosquito when you turn the lights out. In reality I am regularly wracked by self-doubt and have to put up with a constantly nagging inner voice that doubts my worth and competence. But to look on the bright side, it’s been a very motivational sort of doubt: I would never have done half the things I’ve done if I hadn’t been so unsure whether or not I could do them. And I think it’s good for research never to lose sight of uncertainty; thinking you are right can lead to all sorts of false assumptions and errors of judgement. But just sometimes the balance tips and it’s hard to live with. The inner battle is wearying and it leaves scars. ‘I just wish I had faith in myself,’ I moaned to my husband. ‘Oh come now,’ he said kindly. ‘You’d be unbearable to live with. A monster would be born.’

So there I was, making good progress with my chapters when a number of spanners hit the wheels. First, I caught a nuisance bug that made me feel groggy and dull-witted. What comes first, I wonder, the illness or the lowering of spirits that reduces immunity? Either way, the result was the same. Then I was writing about losing children, which turned out to be far harder than I’d imagined. Now you might say this was naïve of me (and you would be right), but I think it was also about misjudging the gap between academia and general non-fiction. Across my academic career I’ve written about terrible things – trauma, madness, child abuse, breakdown, despair, this is the stuff that literature is compelled to consider and like other literary critics, my job has been to trawl its chaotic wake. If academic writing sounds stilted and impersonal, it’s partly because it offers a highly regulated way to approach the really upsetting issues. Analysis holds any unpleasant material at arm’s length and the stern erasure of the writer’s subjectivity means you never have to get tangled up in it. Suddenly I found myself dealing with a terrible subject wearing none of my usual armour. I sat looking at the computer screen sifting words in my head; how could I possibly talk about the experience of losing a child in a way that would be truthful but still retain a reader’s interest? That wouldn’t be sentimental or manipulative or brutal or cold? That might even be surprising, or intriguing? Were such things possible? Nothing seemed right and in the end I fell back on the old formula of telling stories, but whether they are the right stories remains to be seen. Unsurprisingly, I have my doubts.

And then I had a couple of conversations with women friends that made me worry about the whole project. I was trying to explain what it was about (this sounds like it ought to be simple, indeed essential, but at the beginning of a new project it’s really hard to do) and gave as an example the question of yummy mummies that I’ve been writing about. I was a bit shocked by the virulence in their responses to the notion (of the yummy mummy, mostly, but also of my own ideas of approaching the topic of motherhood) and I was reminded, yet again, that mothers are a pretty ferocious bunch when you run up against their dislikes and disapproval. Their day is spent, after all, being the arbiter of right and wrong, of enforcing the rules, of declaring what has value and what is ‘silly’. It’s no surprise that every mother has a clear idea of what motherhood is and a conviction of her own rightness, otherwise her life would be unbearable. Even I, swimming in my ocean of doubt, have one of those. But of course everyone sees the issues differently, the variety of approaches is enormous, there will be no pleasing people, no matter what I say. And I’ll let you into a big trade secret: I like to tell people things they don’t want to hear. It’s my general modus operandi, but the trick is to do it so gently that it comes across instead as something interesting. The academic I’m-not-here writing style is also very good for this as it provides marvelous self-protection. But here I am trying to tell mothers that yummy mummies don’t as such exist: they are media creations that mess with the fantasies and the frustrations in the head of the average mother, inviting her to evacuate her negativity about all she has to do onto the image of someone she doesn’t know. I’m telling them that the chances of a child being abducted by a stranger are infinitesimal compared to the chance it will get fed up with its parents and run away. Up to 2.8 million American children run away each year to escape abuse, violence and family breakdown, compared to the hundred or so who are ‘stereotypically kidnapped.’ This kind of thing is not going to go down well. At low points in the week I had visions of a slow-moving caravan of angry mothers with pushchairs wending their way to my doorstep to put me in time out for the next decade.

And there are other questions that loom large in my mind. How can I be true to the huge variety of experiences out there when I am a white, educated, middle-class mother? What right do I have to speak for other groups of which I have no personal experience? All of which leads me to wonder who it is I think I’m speaking to? And what response do I really want to provoke in the reader? Okay so this kind of thing is potentially endless. It’s a slippery slope of pertinent worries that can lead to turning the computer off and not being able to turn it on again. But I do find that no matter how troubled I feel in one part of my mind, there’s a sort of hamster on the wheel that keeps me going. Once I’ve begun on a project I find myself compelled to keep plugging away at it. Partly I know that I can’t produce a second draft until I’ve written the first one, partly it’s just plain stubbornness, and partly those anxieties meet up with words on the margins of my mind and keep on suggesting alternatives, possible sentences, other stories, other arguments and it’s quieter to write them down than have to keep listening to them. Once I’ve finished moaning here, I know I’ll go back to it and start picking all over again. Just because it’s depressing doesn’t mean I can leave it alone. I am, however, behind on my blog reading, due to illness, low spirits and being fed up of staring at a computer screen. I will catch up. If that lynch mob of mothers should arrive to tear me limb from limb, never forget, dear blogging friends, that I loved you very well.

Oh and something I’ve been meaning to link to for ages: I found these wonderful creative writing exercises online. So many writing suggestions seem tedious or obvious, but these I really liked.


26 thoughts on “‘Fess Up Friday

  1. Oh, I know that inner self-down, and how it likes so much to flirt with paranoia, very well. And it loves to climb into bed with you and whisper horrible thing in your ear when you’re feeling sick. I won’t tell you to ignore it, because I know that’s impossible, but I’m sure once you’re feeling better, it will go back into its little corner, and you’ll be able to return to the writing. Also, I think the fact that people are shocked by what you’re writing is a very good sign. It means you’re getting them to think, and I imagine it means the book will be wildly debated. My advice: drink lots of tea and eat lots of comfort food and take a break from all that mother literature to re-read I CAPTURE THE CASTLE (no mother there to distract you) or THREE MEN IN A BOAT (for uncontrollable giggling, which I find always helps), and then forge on once you’re feeling better.

  2. Oh, you should probably take a break and reinforce your immunity (both against the nasty bug and the tough material you’re reading). I agree with Emily, maybe you should alternate with hopeful and funny books so that you can take things lightly. And remember that even if you’re a mother too, your subject is not personal!

  3. First, this passage is beautifully written – that should say something about your abilities. Secondly, your brazen honestly here is gorgeous. It is that doubt that drives us and nearly destroys us as people who create, and it’s usually – at least for me – when that doubt is the strongest that people feel the need to critique. At those moments, I remind myself that they are pettily trying to protect their own worlds and that, as you said, part of my role is to disrupt that world a bit. That’s what great writing does – it disrupts.
    Keep at it. . . Do what you need to take care of yourself . . . and keep writing. . . because that, too, is healing.

  4. I know the self-doubt is horrible, but do you think, in some way it makes you a better writer? Being in doubt of your abilities and what you’ve written and if you’ve said it just right, keeps you off balance and always searching for a better way to say something. If you were so confident that everything you wrote was right and perfect, you’d never see where it could be improved. The first draft is incredibly hard, just wait until the second draft. You’ll feel much better 🙂 In the meantime perhaps a little rest while you get better from the bug you caught and some reading that has nothing to do with motherhood will give your brain a break and your spirit a rest.

  5. All right, and next time you’re doubting yourself, just take a look at that comment of mine: look at all the typos from someone who calls herself an editor!

  6. Pingback: ‘Fess Up Friday « BlogLily

  7. I think I know some of those thoughts / feelings: I’m actually not really good enough for this, I’m a fraud, I’m going to be laughed at, shouted at etc. It sounds like it’s your job with this book to provoke debate, get people thinking. I’d like to think there’s place for doubt as well. But if you’re anything like me (which is probably unlikely) then the revision will always be a bit easier than the writing itself. Good luck and happy writing. Your other bloggers can wait.

  8. Emily – what a sweetheart you are! A break sounds like a very good idea – I will think of completely different things all weekend, and you are right that I Capture the Castle is a wonderful comfort read. And I must get hold of a copy of Three Men in a Boat, which I have never read. Feeling better would definitely lift my spirits. And I never noticed a single typo, really! Smithereens – what a good thought to bear in mind! And I love the way you talk about immunity – that’s delightful, and very perceptive. Andi – I loved this comment. Just thank you so much. It’s true that writing puts me in a good place as often as it lands me in a bad one, and if I keep going, gently, then the chances are it will all come good. Stefanie – how wise you are. Yes, I do think that doubt is useful and helpful. You’ve reminded me of an academic colleague of mine who used to have a wonderfully technicolour way of describing how awful the first draft always was. I’m going to have a lovely peaceful weekend and then, refreshed, think about that second draft on Monday. Bluepete – I often think I ought to have reached an age where I should have the courage of my convictions and less interest in what other people think of me! My appetite for revision is entirely dependent on the kind of revision to be done. Chopping I love, rewriting is about pulling the stuffing out of a piece and then trying to stitch it together again – not so much fun. But it is still quicker than writing the first draft. Thank you for the good luck wishes – I’ll need them 😉

  9. Frankly, the self-doubt is pretty much necessary. Just when the project is most uncomfortable, you are about to burst on through with something fantastic. I know the feeling well, and I know what it harbingers.

  10. It’s a complex and multifarious thing – life. I see you are aware of that and it is a source of doubt. That doubt is the heart beat of the soul. It avoids fanaticism, arrogance, destruction, war, so many terrible things. It won’t allow you to become master of the universe. It makes you worry that you cannot be all things to all people. In that it tells the truth. If we all could find the single truth, live the ideal life, not be different from each other, then we would have achieved that wonderful state of being a robot, a turnip, a bacteria, following a set and inescapable plan. All we can do is our best to understand what we find and support what we think, to give our view as fairly and honestly as we can and accept it will be one answer which will not find favour with everyone. We have all seen your talents, abilities, and good sense and that will be in your book. It will make it interesting, enlightening and enriching to read. It will provoke thought and develop its readers. It won’t solve the problems of the world, so don’t let it diminish you by trying to make it do the impossible. It will help. That’s no small thing. Some people will find this comment pretentious. I hope you won’t. I can only write and see. Have that lovely weekend.

  11. I recognise that self-doubt. Earlier this week I needed to write six lines to go with a rose I had photographed. It only took eight hours and I am still not fully reassured by the words I used. As for Yummy Mummies, while doing the photography memes I am involved in, I have found that the majority of fellow participants are mothers. So many have all the blingish bells and whistles and are filled with babies, toddlers and young schoolies. En masse they are a terrible sight. Good luck with confronting the hordes – when they take time off from blogging. There may be some light relief for you in Satre’s cookbook which I have been lucky enough to find and post.

  12. I agree, writing that wants to come out just nags and nags. Sometimes, putting the details of the plot for an online novel or the idea for a flash fiction deals with it temporarily but often teh story just keeps coming back and itching to be written.

    Fortunately, my self imposed writing programme allows me one flash fiction a day so, as long as it is not the weekend, I’ve time allocated to give in to the writing urge. Getting the idea down as a flash fiction seems to deal with it generally, even when it’s an idea for a novel or novella. (I tend to regard each flash as possible material for a later novel.)

    One thing bothers me more than having an unwritten story nagging at me.

    Not having a story nagging is even worse.

  13. Dear Litlove, you do everything so beautifully. You can’t even moan without making music. I recognize what you’re up to here as an exercise to exorcise your doubt demon. Just past mentioning how the balance tips, you’ve placed the tipping point. “It’s no surprise that every author has a clear idea of what authorship is and a conviction of her own rightness, otherwise her life would be unbearable.” Or was that every mother and motherhood? Brilliant as always, Litlove. You may return to work now, refreshed and renewed! I wish I had your gift for making my own life so compellingly readable.

  14. We can always count on your husband for some good lines, can’t we? 🙂 Thanks for sharing all this — it’s fascinating to hear some details of your writing process — and I do think doubting is a part of the process. I bet your writing will be all the stronger for it.

  15. Emily – You give me hope, really you do. Actually you’ve given me so much hope and help this week – you’ve been a star. Thank you so much. Dear Bookboxed – not pretentious at all, in my view, but compassionate, encouraging, and insightful. I was particularly touched by what you put about not being able to solve every problem. That’s a trap I fall into so often and I feel comforted by the thought of its impossibility. TJ – thank you! If I could loan you the hamster, I promise you I would! I do love the way blogging allows me a good moan and the incredible support of my blogging friends. Archie – a line an hour is pretty good going – James Joyce would have been thrilled with that kind of progress 🙂 You do make me laugh, and really, Sartre’s cookbook? Come here and let me cyber hug you. Rob- welcome to the reading room and thank you for your comment. I’ll certainly drop by and read your flash fiction – I’m very impressed at your ability to do one a day. David – how kind of you to drop by and with such a lovely, insightful comment, too. Of course you must be right! But I think we both know that your writing gifts are far superior to mine. Dorothy – he is a reliable source of one-liners! And thank you for your supportive comment. I really do not know what I would do without the good sense and the encouragement of my blogging friends.

  16. I was talking with a writer friend about this self-doubt thing and we came to the conclusion that all of the smartest people and best writers are filled with self-doubt. (This was a self-serving theory, of course). It’s all part of the process.

    Great exercises, BTW — thanks for linking!

  17. As others have already said, I suspect that nothing really worthwhile gets written without some passages through this tough place. Take good care of yourself.

  18. I know exactly what you mean about self-doubt being the driving force behind a number of accomplishments. I’m the same way and consider my own self-doubt a lifesaver when it comes to my academic work and writing in general. Funny how that works, eh? As for fiction, in that department my self-doubt is nearly crippling. I’m clinging to non-fic at the moment as a result.

  19. I think if you write about motherhood you probably do have to be prepared for some virulent responses. Mothers are very, very invested in their parenting choices. I’d like to say I was different but there is a certain sort of mothering style that raises every hackle on my back because at its extreme it is the antithesis of everything I believe in at the deepest personal level. The fact that I am a little bit nervous about signalling what exactly I mean is telling here so I’ll just indicate the general category as home schooling, anti immunisation, militant about homebirth, smug about everything type of parenting–and hasten to qualify it with there’s nothing wrong with homeschooling if done well in a lot of circumstances, as long as children are raised with love it will probably all turn out well, homebirthing can be a wonderful option for a lot of women etc, etc.

  20. Thank you for this very useful and inspiring look at your writing process. I think good writers always tell people things they don’t know (or things they do know but aren’t aware of) — and often the things we don’t know are the very things we don’t want to hear. Which is why, I guess, we didn’t figure them out for ourselves.

    And that thing about the enraged mothers in the pushchairs? Totally cracked me up.

    I want to hear more about the non-existence of the yummy mummy and what that construction tells us about motherhood — and our culture.

  21. I’m afraid self-doubt is part of any creative process. I certainly experience it in spades when it comes to music. No matter how many times I successfully perform something, I’m still sure that my phrasing is off here, or the dynamic is wrong in this section, or I’m using too much pedal there…well, you see how it goes. And when you’re feeling a bit off physically, it’s only worse.

    It’s all a fine line between using these doubts to improve our work, and letting them completely stymie our efforts. I’m quite sure you will find the perfect balance.

    I still laugh everytime you write about “yummy mummies.” Too funny 🙂

  22. I love hearing how other writers process things – your theory on the whole perfect-mother thing sounds right on to me.

    When my oldest was a baby, I ran into so many yummy mummies in the pages of parenting and lifestyle magazines that eventually I had to swear them (the magazines) off. Too disturbing. Maybe the real curse of parenting in first-world societies is that perfection seems too attainable? Anyway, I will not be trying to run you down with a stroller.

  23. I agree that there are some mothers who are confident, judgmental and always ready to impose their ideas of good mothering on other people. But there are at least just as many mothers who feel insecure in their mothering, who feel that their own standards or society’s standards are so high that they are constantly doing a terrible job and drag through their days believing this no matter how loving and nurturing they are. They can nurture their kids perfectly and abuse themselves perfectly at the same time. I’m curious as to the source of your data. Interviews? Literature? Psychological/Sociological research studies? I’m very intrigued and look forward to reading more about it.

  24. Yogamum – I really like that theory – thank you for telling me about it!! I’m adopting it forthwith 😉 Jean – Yes, I know this is true. Having one’s incredibly supportive blog friends to complain to when they occur is so very helpful, I find. Thanks for commenting. Andi – well, I empathise with you there! Non-fiction is great because all you need is an argument. Fiction – my God, by the time you’ve got characters and dialogue and plot and description all to worry about, I don’t know how anyone gets a page down! Ms Make Tea – so probably what you object to is not necessarily the homeschooling per se, but the kind of parenting that makes a virtue out of extreme choices, inflexibly held. I think that’s fair enough. It’s an instinctual reaction to fear for children who are being constrained, however that may be. Bloglily – you have such a way of putting things so they make me feel much better. Thank you!! And beware – I can witter on now about yummies and slummies for hours now! Such are the dangers of a little research… Ravenous reader – It’s always nice to know that other artistic disciplines suffer from the same fault lines – reassuring, really. You’re quite right – finding the middle way is a constant battle, gently enacted. Oh and here, I’ll say it again for you: yummy mummy 🙂 Ella – I loved your comment – it was reassuring and intelligent and entertaining in equal measure. I think you are on to something there with that thought of perfection being held out as possible. I’m going to think more on that, thank you. Writer Reading – yes, I do agree. I was certainly in the insecure camp (still am, really). I set out writing the book with the thought that I wanted to write it for the mother I was when my child was little and I was in the worst depths of confusion. As to source material, yes to all that you mention, although interviews will be less essential to me. There are people I would like to interview for the book, but I have no experience in doing that kind of society-wide survey, and don’t think I should start now. I rely on writers and artists a lot as they usually explain their often complex childhoods so lucidly and intriguingly.

  25. Sorry to hear you’re questioning yourself on your book. In the long run I’m sure you’re going to do wonderfully! Surely all authors must go through this? I have a feeling that when you’re finished far more mothers are going to appreciate your work and tell you how you’ve put into words their concerns and experiences than want to remove any limbs! I hope things are going better now!

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