Confronting the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster

So, before we get to the main subject of this post, let’s do a quick update: my first experience at Necon this past weekend was amazing.  Immediately upon driving down to Rhode Island and entering the doors of the convention center, I was bombarded by a truly astounding amount of friendliness, lively conversation, interesting fiction and remarkable artwork. As far as fiction cons go, Necon truly is one of a kind.

I won’t go into too much detail right now, as another website has asked me to do a write-up about my Necon experience (probably later this week), so I’m going to save most of my thoughts and recollections for that. For now, though, let me just say that Necon truly is an exceptional gathering of creative minds, getting together and openly exchanging thoughts, ideas, ridiculous jokes–and, of course, plenty of coffee and booze.  I’m definitely planning on a return trip.

Photograph taken by Jason Harris.

Photograph from Necon 33, taken by Jason Harris.

Now, since we’re already on the topic of creative writers, writing, fiction and so on (which just goes to prove the unfortunate stereotype about us writers having this exhausting need to talk about that goddamn writing business all the time), let’s take a moment to discuss something that all writers are far too familiar with:

The writing process.

Okay, fellow writers, let’s get honest.  I’m going to make a horrible confession.  I hear a voice in my head.  A (usually) small voice, but a dark, morose, scathing one that pops up from time to time.  Tell me if this sounds familiar:

“Oh, oh, oh!  Hey, you so-called writer!  Let me tell you, dear fellow/madam, this story you’re currently working on, this story you’ve poured your blood, guts and other sensitive organs into…well, it sucks!  Forget all the great things people have told you about your talent, your story is a complete waste of time.  In fact, everything you’ve ever written sucks, and all those ‘amazing’ story ideas in your head…well, you’re simply not capable of writing them.  You might as well give up now.  Now that I, the voice of the truth, have spoken, it’s time to give up on writing and go ahead and get a new job as a desk clerk, a banker or something serious like that, ya old potatah!”

Ideally, one would imagine this voice sounding a great deal like Albert Finney in the classic 1970 version of Scrooge.

Ideally, one would imagine this voice sounding a great deal like Albert Finney’s version of Scrooge. 

I’m betting that we all know that voice, all too well—and not just the writers among us either, but also the artists, musicians and all other creative types.  That voice is the bane of all creative minds, the horrible curse of self-loathing that our muses have bestowed upon us; personally, for the sake of this article, I’m going to name that voice the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster.

The Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster is something that almost all creative minds struggle with, and it’s likely the cause of many, many failed careers; it’s a terrifying demon that has stalled many aspiring writers, breaking them down with anxiety, self-consciousness and/or the dreaded “writer’s block,” to the point where these would-be-creators give up on their dreams.

One of Kurt Vonnegut's many self-portraits.

One of Kurt Vonnegut’s many self-portraits.

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

While people may identity the Creative Monster by a myriad of different names, some more irreverent than others, familiarity with this demon is unanimous.  The topic of how a creative mind can possibly “get rid of” this voice is something that many fellow writers have discussed with me, especially those aspiring beginners who are just now considering writing their first novel.  In regards to that question, my answer is this:

No, you’ll never be free of your inner self-cannibal. But, with a little willpower, you can make it quiet down and mind its own business.

If not Scrooge, it's entirely possible that  your Creative Monster might more closely resemble this guy.

If not Scrooge, it’s entirely possible that your Creative Monster might have a closer resemblance to this guy.

That’s right.  There is no miracle cure.  The dreaded autocannibal will always be there, and it will always try to torture you; you can’t get rid of it.  But if you push forward anyway – if you block out the Creative Monster and refuse to listen to its mocking cries—you do, through sheer force of will, learn methods to deal with it, and you can overcome its influence.

First of all, in order to neutralize the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster’s power, we need to recognize that it’s not useful.  Now that we’ve identified that horrible voice in our head with a name, here’s the important thing to realize about that voice; even though our intuitive tendency is to believe that this voice is here to “help us,” or that it’s the “voice of reason” and that it exists only to make us better creators, that belief is in fact a complete misconception.  Yes, looking at one’s own work with a hard, critical eye is good, important and healthy…but in contrast, brutally decimating one’s own ego is NOT.  When we find ourselves doing the latter, it’s important that we recognize that this, right here, is the voice of the Creative Monster – and it’s even more important that we firmly recognize the fact that this monster never says anything worthwhile.  Nothing.  Nada.  In fact, its mocking voice really should be completely ignored, altogether.

This raises a dilemma, which we’ll now return to: isn’t self-criticism useful?  And how can we tell the difference between positive self-criticism and negative self-cannibalism? After all, if we, as writers (though again, this applies to any creative field) just thought everything we wrote was amazing and utterly flawless, we’d be delusional – and it’d make for some terrible terrible writing. We’d never improve our skills, never sharpen our tools, and never actually push ourselves to achieve the great writing we’re capable of.

Isn’t it important to see the flaws in one’s own work?   The answer is yes, but there’s an important difference here; positive self-criticism is constructive.  Unlike negative self-cannibalism, positive self-criticism builds towards improvement; it looks at the foundation of a work, takes what works, throws out the rest and then confidently seeks to improve what was there before.  Negative self-cannibalism, on the other hand, is deconstructive.  This self-cannibalism is like a person who simply blows up the entire building and then despairs over his or her supposed inability to ever create quality work.  Here, let me highlight the difference:

  • Negative self-cannibalism: “Okay, this isn’t working.  This piece has problems here, here…God, and here too! Damn it! I’ve totally failed at what I was trying to do.  It’s fucking terrible.  I need to give up, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to write this correctly.”
  • Positive self-criticism: “Okay, this piece isn’t working, it has too many problems, and I know I can do so, so much better.  I’m going to take another look at this, throw out the bad parts and further develop what DOES work. I need to refocus, reorient and keep trying until this piece really shines.”
That's the spirit!

That’s the spirit!

One of these voices is ambitious – but also quite honest.  It’s the voice of someone who’s not afraid to criticize his/her own work, but is determined to make it better.  In contrast, the other voice is ridiculously defeatist.  Both voices recognize the flaws in the writer’s work, but one of these is actually helping, and the other voice is simply a bully, kicking the writer when he/she is already down.

So really, the solution is as simple as this: as creators, we should ignore the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster.  It has nothing worthwhile to say, and nothing it ever does will actually help us.  Its only purpose is to destroy the creator’s hopes and dreams; it has no interest in making us better creators. Instead, we should passionately believe in our dreams, and we should use that passion to reconstruct our flawed works until they become as perfect as humanly possible.

Yes, one should be aware enough to see the flaws in one’s work, but one should also be honest enough to see the good qualities, as well.

Be ambitious enough to push through those flaws, correct them and move on.  Believe in the message of your story – believe in your ability to tell that story – because if you don’t believe in it, no one else will.

DSCF4866

Now, the reason I’ve named the entity/voice/demon described in this blog, the reason I’ve referred to it by a silly moniker like the “Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster,” is because doing so allows me to externalize that voice.  It allows me to think of that voice as a separate entity from myself, instead of deceptively believing that it’s “the real me,” or the “voice of truth.”  By doing this – by seeing the self-cannibalistic voice as another person – it allows one to see how ridiculous and unlikable the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster really is.  Really, when it comes down to it, the Creative Monster is a very small, solipsistic and irritating character; he’s certainly not someone I’d ever want to have a beer with.  I’m going to close here with a quote by Mark Twain – a quote that, once we’ve externalized the self-cannibalistic voice and decided to view it as a separate person, really gets to the heart of the matter:

marksam

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great ones make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

-Mark Twain

And now, with that said, I’m going to finish this blog, drink another cup of steaming hot coffee and get to work on some damn writing.  And if the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster doesn’t like it, well…too bad.

-Nicholas Conley

Voiceless Statement

DISCLAIMER: “Voiceless Statement” is a work of fiction that I wrote a few years back. It’s not quite a story, really; more of an emotional deliberation than anything else.  However, the subject that this piece deals with was in my thoughts several times today, so I decided to post it here.

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“Hey.  We haven’t talked in a while, huh?”

That’s how I start.  That’s what I say.  My strained words dangle in the cool air like little fishhooks in a caliginous ocean.   It’s a lost cause.  Within moments, these hopeful little words have faded away — a testament to the crippling insufficiency of verbal language.

Of course — as one would expect — there’s no response.  Crematoriums don’t talk back.  But I try, anyway.  I try because in this case, there’s no grave.  No tomb.  Nothing but a newspaper clipping and memories.

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There’s no place quite so dismal as the crematorium where a loved one was once incinerated.  It’s a location that chokes you up in emotion–then immediately stifles that emotion, grabbing you by the throat and shaking it out of you until you forget why you even visited.  I haven’t been here since the funeral.

I’m standing outside the building like, well…like someone who’s afraid to go inside.  I stand there, looking, looking, looking…I look away.  I turn my back.  I shake my head, discouraged.

Again, I have to remind myself that crematoriums don’t talk back.  Of course they don’t talk back.  What am I, stupid?  A charmingly cold New England breeze ripples through me; I zip up my jacket, pretending to be warmer than I am.  I’m exceedingly distraught.  Confused.  Again, I’m utterly unsure of why I even came here.   I walk around for a bit, debating my next action.  After a few minutes, I return to my previous position; despite all of my walking, despite all of my wandering about and debating the possibilities, I still seem to always come back to where I was in the beginning.  A circle isn’t truly a circle if it breaks.

But am I a circle?  Or has the circle been broken?

“Okay, okay,” I say, forcing a smile.  “I’m here.  I’m here, and I’m going to say hello.  Hello.

Hello?  I re-examine the open door of the crematorium.  I meant to bring flowers, but I forgot.  No, that’s a lie.  A complete lie.  I’m pretending to myself that I forgot flowers, flowers which I actually didn’t get because the idea of bringing them felt silly.  Who am I trying to fool?  Myself?

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“I’m sorry.”  I shake my head.  “I don’t know what to say.”

I stare at the building.  It stares back at me.  I childishly dig my foot into the ground, resisting the urge to walk away.  I turn to face the overcast skies above, with another forced smile.

“Nasty weather, huh?” I say, wistfully. “You’d hate it if you could see it.”

My heart yearns to blabber, but my mouth doesn’t want to find the words.  I can’t find the words.

I sit down on the wet grass, crossing my legs.  The water soaks right into my jeans, but it’s too late to fix that; once you’re wet, you’re wet.  You can’t magically become dry.

Childhood seems so far away, so distant, so remote. I spent so many years anticipating the plunge into adulthood that I forgot to hold my breath.  Now it’s just…surreal.  In my mind, I’m secretly still eight years old, you know?  I’m just pulling a big hoax on everybody, anxiously waiting for the moment when everyone finds out I’m really just a little kid wearing an oversized tuxedo.

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That’s what death does to a kid.  It rushes everything.  Death slams you, all at once, with the maturity and strength you normally would’ve developed over many years, at an incomparably harsh price.

I take a deep breath.  I came here to say something, didn’t I?   I came here to make a point.  To spill my guts. It’s time to spill my guts.

“I still miss you.” I say. “And I…I love you.  I love you.”

It’s been over a year — and yet, my tear ducts never seem to quite dry up.  But you know what?  No matter what, I still smile.  I still laugh at the memories.  I still grin at the photo albums.  But I’m not the same person I was before.  I can never be the same person again.

They say that time heals all wounds.  Okay, sure.  Fair enough.  No matter what pain a person experiences, happiness will return.  So yes, the wounds heal.  They do.  They really do.

But whoever created that phrase forgot to mention one part – one very important part.  Even when the wounds finally heal, the scars remain forever.  But you know what?  Maybe…

Maybe that’s okay.

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-Nicholas Conley