Writing as Self-Harm

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has started.  Already, the event has been educational. This post is about what I learned on the first day of November.

I must make begin by making an awkward confession. Looking through an old novel draft helped me understand the strength of my self-loathing.

Writing novels has been intensively painful for the past ten years, despite the previous years of study of the craft. The reason why appears to be in how I latch on to the most difficult stories I can conceptualize–stories that require literary techniques that only the greatest writing masters might use successfully–then tell myself the story should be easy to write.

I was a high jumper way back in high school. If you don’t know the sport, it’s basically sprinting a short distance to jump over backwards over a high bar. Before my time, high jumpers used what’s known as a barrel roll to face the bar during the jump, but people nowadays go over backwards to land on a thick crash mat. The biggest risks of botching a jump are in hitting the bar, usually when it’s too high. Training involves moving the bar an inch higher each time a skill is improved.

The bar could be higher for this jumper.

Writing can be similar to high jumping. For example, the primary skill that NaNoWriMo is meant to develop is working out a routine for quick novel draft writing.

I have won NaNoWriMo before. Pushing out 50,000 words for one project in a month was tiring and frightening at times. However, making a mess with an unusual book I intend to never share in its entirety was fun, overall. That project felt like jumping without any major disabilities over a series of low foam hurdles.

Every novel-length projects intended for publication has been like a bar on top of a wall that’s taller than my head. I’ve slammed against the wall and scrabbled at it, fallen at bad angles and refused help in recovery, all while insisting that anyone who deserves to jump could make it over. I couldn’t see until now that the skills needed for each wall are beyond what even brilliant writers start out with. Talent only gets one over the lower bars.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had much talent, anyway. Innate skill can’t be as easily measured in writing. There’s no actual bar in publishing with a measuring stick of success beside a story. Competition isn’t the same as in sports. Success is too varied; though, on a personal scale, injuries will interfere in almost any activity.

Working on novels has caused me physical harm that I won’t describe at this time. The emotional toll might’ve also cost me a paying career or two. I don’t want to go into what I’ve tried to write, because those are explanations for another time.

I will give a vague but serious warning that throwing yourself into obstacles that are not yet the challenges you’re meant to take on is dangerous. When you’re waking from nightmares with thoughts about how life would be better if you could only figure out the problems in a story, that story was a wrong choice.

Writing, supposedly, is supposed to fun, or it’s fulfilling. Hitting a wall over and over again means you’re facing the wrong direction. It means the wall needs bars as footholds for climbing.

I haven’t been building up for the climb.

What does this new understanding mean for my partially completed novels? I guess that if I were to assume that my advice is good enough that even someone with low self-esteem and weak assessment ability can follow through on it, then I need to focus on building the needed skills one by one.

The walls are for climbing, for play and for work, not for abuse.

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