Apr 14, 2009

On Insecurities, Writers, and Hidden Genius

I have been employed as a writing tutor for about six years, and during that time I have worked with writers from all across the talent spectrum. There are times when I admit I sort of coast through some sessions, especially when I happen to work with four or five students in a row with the exact same paint-by-numbers assignment from a freshman composition course.

By the way - writing centers on college campuses are not necessarily remedial in nature, and some of the best writers on any given campus make use of writing tutors in the same way that golf aficionados seek out course professionals for advice. So, to college students reading this: visit your writing centers and polish your skills.

When I work with advanced undergraduates or graduate students, I generally learn about topics with which I am otherwise unfamiliar. Still, academic writing is generally not the most exciting prose, and it is somewhat rare that I come across a college writer with a flair for the written word that makes for enjoyable reading during a tutoring session.

Even rarer still is a writer like the one I have been working with for a few weeks now, someone who has the sort of talent that jumps off of the page and grabs the reader by the lapels, demanding to be reckoned with and slapping the reader around if his eyes dare to leave the page.

This writer, though, has exactly zero self-confidence, and she is so insecure about her prose that she does not allow me to read aloud her work for fear that someone else in the center would hear. Instead I read silently, pausing to write on paper any suggestions I might have for her work.

These comments, of course, are quite limited in number, and mostly focused on reining in her wildly creative passages - those with ebullient word-play and extraordinarily complex structures - in order to better fit the modest expectations of analytical writing. Imagine that: reminding a writer that her academic audiences might not be able to keep up with her rhetorical gymnastics.

I am not in awe of this writer's considerable talents so much as I am baffled by the crippling insecurity this writer exhibits. Working with this student is akin to rehearsing with someone of the talent level of a Paul McCartney, only to hear the hypothetical Beatle shrug his shoulders and say: "my songs pretty much suck."

I have been working to get across to this student that her writing is not just competent, but rather bordering on the brilliant. However, I see the resistance to my effusive praise, and though she wants to believe the words, deep down it is apparent that her deep rooted self-doubt keeps her from really accepting compliments.

Yet there is only so much that a person like me can do for someone whose wounded psyche hobbles her ability to bring her work to a wider audience. The fear of either failure or rejection can be paralyzing, and external forces like sympathetic tutors pale in comparison with the internal voices that can be the harshest critics.

So, to any other insecure writers reading this post: the surest way to polish your craft is for other people to read it and offer feedback. Hide behind a pseudonym if the worries about criticism terrify you, and seek safe audiences to get used to the process of opening up your work (and your soul) to other people. The more you share your work, the less frightening this experience becomes.

Could there be a sadder fate than to be blessed with creative genius but be cursed with crippling self-doubt?


Tim Higgins said...


Perhaps it is simply that the exercise of writing is like any other workout. The more you exercise, the stronger you get. The stronger you get, the easier it is to look at yourself in the mirror.

(Of course I understand this principle only from a purely academic level.)

Mad Jack said...

Your real questions to this writer should be something along the lines of, "Why don't you believe me when I tell you this is good?" Well, I'll tell you...

the surest way to polish your craft is for other people to read it and offer feedback.Not necessarily true. In fact, it depends on the people. Imagine a mixed group of, say, 5 to 8 unpublished writers, all of whom aspire to become the next Ernest Hemingway, Steven King or (heaven help us all) Sylvia Plath, but who have yet to examine mediocrity in all its gory detail in their own rear view mirror. None of these people is especially bright or talented, but they all write and once each week they all congregate and take turns shredding each others literary efforts with a dull hacksaw.

Now imagine that you are not an older, physically imposing man with a lot of life experience behind you, along with the psychic calluses that survival gives you. Instead, you are small, intelligent and very talented. Your own work isn't all that impressive because you have the innate talent to see the difference between what you write and what Ezra Pound wrote.

So when the talented, sensitive female dares to show her work to this group of ‘writers’, they immediately shed their last vestige of humanity and turn into full blown howler monkeys, merrily throwing new and used food at the new target and setting fire to her latest manuscript. Any argument against the collective opinion is gleefully shouted down and a bull’s eye is drawn on the genitalia of the dissenter in preparation of the next attack.

How am I doing so far?

The worst thing about groups like these is that, unlike Sylvia, they fail to use the oven in a timely manner. Perhaps I’m being a bit coldhearted towards Sylvia’s untimely end, but you take my meaning.

The safest position to take in a group like this is to quietly accept their howls of vexation. Anyone who contradicts their pseudo authority lacks credibility. Like poor HistoryMike, for instance, who might begin to be somewhat frustrated. Have the student submit her work on line, anonymously, and seek comments. Ask her to comment on other, similar work and see what she comes up with.

Molly said...

Seems to me at least half of what's needed to succeed in anything, but especially in creative fields, is confidence. Sad to think of all of the wasted talent out there but unless you're able to put a frame around it and submit it to a gallery, or send it out and risk multiple rejections, or pick up a microphone and take a chance on some boos, the world will never know how great you might have been.
How many success stories are about people who beat the odds, simply because they knew they could do it and never stopped trying?
From a personal perspective, I started off college as an art major. I'd been told all my life I had talent, but didn't especially believe that so even the smallest criticism, or comparing myself to others who seemed way more talented, did me in. I don't think confidence is something others can instill in you. It's something you have to find yourself.

Soozcat said...

I do understand the concerns of your vividly talented writer. Not that I'm up to creating works of staggering genius myself, mind you, but the crippling fear of what will happen when one opens up to share one's innermost thoughts with others... oh, that aspect I know a little too well.

She isn't fishing for compliments. She doesn't know she has that much talent, or that her way of expressing herself is even worthwhile, let alone beautiful. Mad Jack probably nailed it when he said she had past experience with a poisonous critique group--or worse, a parent who constantly undermined her ability.

Are you at all familiar with Eva Cassidy? She sang beautifully, soulfully, but her abilities were all but unrecognized in her short life because she was a perfectionist who suffered from terrible stage fright in front of audiences. She died of melanoma at the age of 33, and has become much better known in death than she ever was in life. But she's not around to enjoy the fame that has finally come her way.

It's been a while since you posted this. I hope since then that your unnamed writer has grown stronger, if not fearless, when it comes to sharing her particular light with others.