What Scares Me Out of the Crap

I’m nearing the end of my second semester in the Creative Nonfiction MFA program at Spalding University.  Every three to four weeks, I turn in between 40 and 50 pages of original creative material to be pulled apart, scrutinized, and critiqued by my assigned mentor.

Last semester, I had a mentor who was part Mother Nurture and part cheerleader.  While she dispensed a tremendous amount of insight in her critiques, she was so completely encouraging that I finished the semester thoroughly sure of my brilliance as a writer.

This semester’s mentor, however, has taken me down a notch or three.  Of course, she’s kind and absolutely careful not to stifle my creativity.  But she’s not nearly as convinced of my brilliance as I am (or more precisely, as I used to be).  I find myself gingerly leafing through her critiques, wincing, and then nodding my head in agreement with her assessment.

For example, a recent note she left in a margin read something like this:  “You don’t have to tell your readers how they should feel about what you write.  Give us credit for being smart enough to figure it out.”  In my defense, I’m a preacher’s kid.  Telling people how they should think and feel has been the family business since before I was born.  I got it honestly.  But however I got it, it needs to go.

Being afraid of criticism is also in my DNA.  The old addiction to perfection, the scorpion’s tail over my own back, seems more willing and ready to pounce when I’m writing than at any other time. As I work, putting everything I am into the words on paper, I wonder if what I’m writing is good or if it’s crap that only I think is good.

Still, my mentor says, it’s best to get as much as I can on paper.  Then go back and revise the hell out of it.

Wayne Dyer, the famous author, gave similar advice in his blog this past week.  As a writer, he explains, “Your first job is to write and not to apply a critical eye to your work without first letting it pour forth.”

Katy Perry’s song “Firework” says the same thing a little more poetically, and I find myself listening to it quite a bit in the days after I receive a new critique from my mentor:

You just gotta ignite, the light, and let it shine

Just own the night like the 4th of July

‘Cause baby you’re a firework

Come on, show ’em what you’re worth

Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh”

As you shoot across the sky-y-y

Boom, boom, boom

Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon

It’s always been inside of you, you, you

And now it’s time to let it through-ough-ough

Another reason I love the song is that it reminds me of my nephew, Joe.

A few years ago, when Joe was five, I was invited to a Fourth of July celebration at his grandparents’ lake house.  Just before dark, we piled onto Mr. Phillips’ pontoon boat and made our way to the middle of the lake  to watch the fireworks.  Of course, the bangs and pops and lights and colors were followed by the usual oohs and aahs.  But after one particularly loud blast, everyone fell silent.  And in that moment, Joe yelled out, “Man, that scared me out of the crap!”

I think about that when I sit down to write.  The crap, for me, is the thoughts that I’ll never be good enough, that my writing is just mediocre.

And you know what scares me out of the crap, what gets me out of those dark thoughts and back on course?  It’s the even scarier thought that the fear of failure will keep me from succeeding.

Wayne Dyer and Katy Perry and my mentor are all saying the same thing:  just write, dammit.  At some point, if you just do the work, you’ll cut through the worthless crap, and the writing will get very, very good.

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