The Bully in Your Brain

May 27, 2012 § 7 Comments

A writer is the worst kind of bully.

Not because we bully fictional characters. No, writers bully real, living people.

Bullies suck. I was bullied in high school, just like most nerds. The guys that bullied me thought it hilarious to gang up on a sickly, weird-looking, 98-pound geek and terrorize him every chance they got. I guess it made those teenage boys feel like big men, beating me down like that.

But even they weren’t as bad as writers.

See, they could only torture me for a few minutes a day. In study hall, or after school, or in the locker room after gym class, they found five or ten minutes to push me around and make me feel worthless. The rest of the day, however, I was free of them.

Writers, however–well, they’re a lot worse. Writers bully themselves, and they do it all day, every day.

You’re probably doing it right now. Maybe you came to this blog trying to get away from the bully in your brain. You sat down to write, and suddenly that thug inside your head started tearing you down, beating you up, saying things like, “Who do you think you are, Steve King? You ain’t no Steve King. Steve King writes good stories. Your stories suck. You suck.”

It’s the age-old game of “Why Are You Hitting Yourself?” that bullies love to play, with the twist that you really are hitting yourself.

That’s right, writers are the worst bullies because they bully themselves, and they do it constantly. There is no escape from the goon that lives in our head, feeding on our insecurities.

Why do we tell ourselves we can’t do it when we should be the Little Engine That Could? Why are we our own worst bully?

In a word, fear.

They say all bullies are afraid, deep down. It’s definitely true of writers. We’re afraid our work isn’t good enough. We’re afraid it’ll be rejected if we send it out. We’re afraid that the beautiful, funny, sad, epic story we have in our head will turn out to be ugly, dumb, boring, and pathetic if we actually write it down.

Everyone knows President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” You may not know the full quote, however, so I’d like to share it with you.

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

FDR was talking about a nation struggling to cope with the Great Depression, but he could have easily have been talking about writing. Our fears really boil down into one great, big fear. The Fear. And the Fear is that we just. Aren’t. Good enough.

On that, I call bullshit.

The bookstore shelves are full of writers who are no damn good. Terrible books make the bestseller lists every month. Rotten books. Pure garbage. So why are those writers good enough and we fear we’re not?

Because those writers mastered the Fear.

Those writers put their butts in the chair and start typing. They have somehow ignored the thug in their head, or told him to shut up, or kicked him in the nuts. They mastered the Fear not only long enough to finish a book, but also to rewrite the book as many times as it needed, and to send it out to agents and editors. They mastered the Fear even when rejection after rejection fed into everything the thug had been telling them. And finally, through sheer force of will, they got that crappy, sucktastic book published.

That’s how it’s done.

And I’ll tell you a secret: even the great writers know the Fear. They, too, mastered it. They locked the bully up, and they don’t listen to his taunts…much.

Author Maureen McHugh, who wrote the fantastic book China Mountain Zhang, was the first writer I ever interviewed for Writer’s Digest Books. I wrote a profile of her for the 1993 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, and when I spoke with her, she delivered what I consider to be the first great writing epiphany I ever had. I opened the article with it, in fact:

“Writing is a skill, like basketball,” Maureen F. McHugh says, “not a body of information, like biology.”

Her point is that you don’t become a good writer by studying writing; you do it by actually writing. You write a lot, you write anything, and you write every day.

Now, almost 20 years later, I realize that a more apt skill to compare it to would be driving. When you first learn to drive, there’s the overwhelming fear that you’ll never be able to do it. I never thought I’d be as cool and as adept behind the wheel as my dad was, and yet after I began driving every day, I got better and better. And now it’s second nature.

All I had to do was get over the Fear, and that’s all we have to do to finish our novels and get them published.

So stop hitting yourself, throw a gag on the bully in your brain, and start writing.

You’re good enough. You might even be great.

Got a tip for mastering The Fear? Leave a comment and let me know!


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