The slush pile gave me writer's block!

Everything was fine until I started reading unsolicited manuscripts.

Published August 20, 2008 10:27AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a writer, though as of yet unpublished. I've written stuff I'm deeply ashamed of (a novel almost 10 years back that was horrid), and I've written stuff I genuinely like. A few years ago I sent a collection of flash fiction stories to a publisher, and although it didn't want to publish them, it replied with a personal letter in which it told me what worked and what didn't. A personal letter is a really big thing, so I was beyond thrilled.

But then I made a huge mistake: I went to work in a small publishing firm, and during my time there became familiar with the slush pile. I should note that we don't use agents in my country, so people submit directly to the publisher. Hence the slush pile is one huge, ugly, throbbing pile of big dreams and bad writing. And these people have no idea how bad they are. Working at the publishing firm I started worrying about my own skills as a writer, and became unable to write anything for the next couple of years.

Thankfully, I've almost conquered the block now. This year I finally finished an old short story, and I've started working on a new novel. You know that old adage that in order to become a good writer you should write write write and read read read? Well, I really enjoy writing up impossible worlds, but I hate fantasy. The people in my stories often have something weird about them (wings, tails, the ability to get published), but they still live in regular cities. The story, setting and plot should be realistic, I think. Problem is, I don't really have any literary role models in this genre, so I fear my writing might end up as fantasy that no one will like. As I'm writing, I keep hearing my imaginary -- but very literary -- reader saying, "This stuff is totally unbelievable!"

My big questions are: How do you believe in your own writing? I don't mean after it's finished, but while you're writing it? Is there a way to work with the imaginary reader instead of fighting with him/her?

Thank you,

The Slusher

Dear Slusher,

OK, so let me say what needs to be said upfront and you will please excuse the deviation from the finely wrought. Because some days I get a late start.

You will learn generosity toward your own work by becoming more generous to others. You have a marvelous opportunity right now. You have the slush pile. In the slush pile are the souls of people. They are perhaps badly dressed. But they are the souls of people, high and low. Honor them.

Yes, I know that much writing one will encounter in the slush pile will lack certain elements of organization and will employ devices that have not been reworked sufficiently to entertain us or do not show the marks of fine craftsmanship and years of study. But why should this bother us? All the author has done is render a work with a skill that we deem insufficient. What business do we have getting angry at such a person, or scoffing, or denouncing? Really, where does that come from? We say, Oh, this person is so intolerably presumptuous as to assume she can produce a work of fine fiction when ...! Oh, this person has no idea how hard it is, how many years it takes! How dare she!


I think that anger comes from a fear of seeing ourselves in that work. We see ourselves as possibly inferior and we protect ourselves from that possibility by puffing up our scorn, huffing and puffing and blowing the house down. It's the bluster of a frightened ego. It has nothing to do with our talent.

I should say this, too, right upfront: The operative question is not how do we believe in ourselves but how do we go forward? If you create this condition that you must believe in yourself to go forward, you might not go forward. You must find a way to go forward without that condition. You do not need to believe in yourself. You just need to find a way to move forward and embrace the activity you are engaged in. You think that believing in yourself will give you the strength to go forward? It may not work that way. It may be that you go forward simply by going forward.

On the other hand, there may be something historical at work. Read on:

OK, this is what happened to me, OK, and it had to do with my dad. So it's about 1993 or 1994, and I'm doing a series of magazine assignments for Details magazine about rock bands. And each time I do a piece, it gets accepted and I get paid but it doesn't run. And I'm maybe four or five years sober, and I'm working a shit job. Not the Chevron job -- that was an OK job. This is a real shit job where they kind of hate me and stick me in a windowless room addressing envelopes by hand all day long. So I'm trying to do the freelancing and I'm having these heart palpitations and panic attacks when I have to call my editor. "My editor." What a phrase. The phrase even sort of freaks me out now. But anyway the one thing about my shit job is it has health insurance and an employee assistance program, so for the first time in my life I go see a therapist. (I'd tried before to get into therapy at the Jung Institute but they looked me over and decided I was a little rough on the edges.) So I go in for this quick session with a great guy who happens to be practicing some version of behavioral cognitive therapy. And at first I break down in tears, like I'm just a wreck, you know, and it all spills out, and I go, Wow, so this is therapy! Whee!

But long and short of it, we get to my problem that I can't pick up the telephone and call my editor. I mean I pace, I fret, I eat, I drink coffee, I read, I walk, I avoid. I can't call my editor. I'm afraid. What am I afraid of? I dunno. So we talk. What it gets around to is my dad. My dad who gave me all these gifts, I think, this ability with words, this vocabulary, this sensibility. So I am thinking that my dad is not a frightening man, that he is, you know, my dad, and he's on my side. So we talk about these little voices in my head that say I can't write. (I've written about this before, so if you've heard this, you can skip this part.) And it turns out that these little voices that say I can't write sound a lot like my dad. Not that it's my dad talking, but that I've interjected my dad's disapproval of anyone who can't write, so that I'm afraid, actually, of being one of those people he would talk about who can't write. I had seen his harsh disapproval and I no way wanted to ever be one of those people so low in his estimation. Being his son, consciously I thought I was immune. I thought I, having standards and ability, was immune to the fear that I might not measure up. Big surprise. Because as a child, I didn't know if I had ability or not. I realized I was carrying around this childish fear of not measuring up to my dad's standards, even though consciously I thought everything was fine. I thought I was standing on the victory side, looking down on all those poor suckers who "can't write." And I also had been very mean. I had been an arrogant, mean person, puffed up and dismissive, curt and cutting. I thought that was how I was supposed to be.

But it turned out that I was actually living in fear of the judgment of others and -- more important, since I had internalized this -- actually living in fear of my own judgment! I thought that I was on the judging side of the judgment continuum, but I was actually, simultaneously, on the judgee side. So I think when we judge others harshly we run the risk of internalizing a fear that we ourselves will be judged the same way. Likewise, our harsh judging of others may at times be in reaction to this fear -- it's a vicious circle. The way to stop it is to learn to love the slush pile. Learn to love the sheer production of language, I say! Learn to love the courage with which someone all alone out there in nowhereland gets it into his or her head to write a novel and sits down and does it. Honor that! Let us all honor one another!

We cannot judge harshly without also living in fear of being judged. And it is that creeping fear of being judged ourselves that can prevent us from writing fluidly and with ease and courage. So I say step out there and be really, really bad if you want. Who cares? Step out there and write the worst prose imaginable! So what? There's no law. Do it with gusto. Write the worst possible prose. Write poems that are so bad you can smell them. Do it. Look around. Have you been arrested? Have you been fired? Are you being held up to public ridicule? No. It's safe. It's safe to write whatever you want. And you never know. Some of the most awful stuff might be the best. You don't know. You can't judge your own work or control how others respond to it.

(Oh, and by the way, what actually helped me were the specific things I did in the course of the cognitive therapy, so you might just try that too!)

When we encounter prose we consider to be inferior and we ridicule it, we dig our own grave a little deeper every time. Because inside, the unconscious, I don't think it knows the difference. It's similar to this phenomenon in tennis where if you worry about hitting the ball into the net, you are more likely to hit it into the net. If you think, Don't hit it into the net, your dumb animal brain just seems to hear "in the net," and there it goes. Your animal brain is not registering the modifiers. It just hears "in the net." Because probably what you are doing there, although you are thinking verbally "not in the net," the image in your head is of a ball going into the net. And it is the image that your animal brain picks up on. So likewise, if you are looking at writing that you think is bad, it may not know that you are not a bad writer. It just sees/feels the emotional image of dejection and contempt. It just feels your contempt. If there's bad writing around, it doesn't know whose it is. So it gets all locked up in fear.

Therefore, given this understanding of the motivational structure of the brain: We celebrate writing, all writing! We celebrate it.

Let the taboos against bad writing fall, let the barriers come down, let the sharp-tongued English teachers take their seats and let us do what we do, and let those who would judge us go ahead and judge us -- we don't care. We're going to do it anyway. Let them proclaim us as the dirty unskilled urchins of their nightmares. We are not living to please them.

I used to think I was on top, looking down on all that was awful. Now I feel that I am on the bottom of the sea looking up at everything that is marvelous!

You get where I'm coming from? So let us dance, all of us, together on the bottom of the sea.

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