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“It is […] true that creation comes from an overflow, so you have to learn to intake, to imbibe, to receive, to nourish yourself, and not be afraid of fullness. The fullness is like a tidal wave which then carries you, sweeps you into experience and into writing.” Excerpted from a letter that Anais Nin wrote to a young writer[1]

I love these words from Anais Nin. They come from a letter of encouragement that she wrote to a young writer, and I think they show how writing is about so much more than committing ink to paper. They encourage us to be unafraid of what will happen to our work — whether it will be published or well-received, whether it will earn us money, and so forth.  And a confidence consultant for writers, I know that this is often the root of our setbacks — a fear of judgment from the outside world.

That said, when we are taught to look critically at our work, it does become harder to write without self-judgment, and this can bring us to an impasse. The more we learn to be critical of our craft, the more we learn to see our weaknesses — and the more we fear that our writing is flawed, the more we hold ourselves back. But how can we ever improve if we do not receive honest feedback? How can we continue to grow if we do not accept criticism of our craft?

My own revelation on this front came from being an erotic writer. Not only do I write literary fiction as Sue Williams — I also write erotica and sex non-fiction under a pen name. My erotica was hungrily received from the start, when I had published very little literary work. I would write erotic stories and show them to no one, then I’d send them out. As fear surrounded my literary work, I grew more confident in my erotic work because of how often it was accepted for publication. That said, I still dreamed of more critical feedback for my erotic work, and received perhaps too much critical feedback on my literary writings, which, for a while, I gave up. It took time for me to look at my literary work more truly, and see the worth in it.

Fortunately, even before I found Anais Nin, I had worked as a high school teacher in the UK and had also studied Psychology. I knew that in order to more easily grow, those of us who lack self-worth need to be told quite specifically what is working in our work as well as what needs attention. At teaching college, one of our first lecturers had walked into the room and drawn a square on the board. In the middle of the square, he put a single dot. “So,” he said, “what is in the middle of the square?”

“A dot,” someone said. The rest of us nodded.

“Right,” said the lecturer. “And what else?”

When we said that there was nothing else, he smiled. “The first thing you have to learn as a teacher,” he said, “is to see the space as well as the dot. Most people don’t see the space. But the space is there.”

He meant that it is all too easy to look at someone’s work and see the faults or areas for improvement. But what a learner needs — especially if their self-esteem isn’t high — is to be told what they are doing well or correctly. We must be as specific with this feedback as we are with what needs improvement and why. We must teach others to see the space as well as the dot. And then, they will continue to produce the “space” — or the work that they are doing well, but haven’t been able to appreciate.

The truth is that in order to “be unafraid of fullness” and let the writing flow onto the page, we need to know that we are good writers. When I give feedback to my writing clients, I tell them, quite specifically, what is working for me and why, as well as noting the particular areas where I suggest improvement. Under these circumstances, many clients find that their writing flows more easily. They become more prolific, or at least more able to commit.

This is why we must learn to do this for ourselves. You don’t necessarily need a consultant or instructor to see how and why your work is working. Simply asking for a reader to say, quite specifically, what they like about the piece and why, can be enough to remind ourselves of our worth. Such feedback can help us to accept the kind of criticism that we need in order to develop our work.

Our self-worth, I argue, often comes from a realization that the work we are doing is important. For instance, when Nin’s young student-friend explained that whenever he gave a story away, he felt he had lost a piece of himself, she replied, “It amazes me that you feel that each time you write a story you give away one of your dreams and you feel the poorer for it. But then you have not thought that this dream is planted in others, others begin to live it too, it is shared, it is the beginning of friendship and love. How is this world made which you enjoy, the friends around me that you love? They came because I first gave away my stories.” (From ‘A New Center of Gravity’ in A Woman Speaks: The Lectures, Seminars, and Interviews of Anais Nin, ed. Evelyn J. Hinz[2])

This realization that our work can always make a difference is perhaps the most empowering notion that many of us will ever know. When we share our work, even with just one person, and feel our dreams growing in them, suddenly, we uncork ourselves and let the words pour from us.

 


[1] .‘A New Center of Gravity’ in A Woman Speaks: The Lectures, Seminars, and Interviews of Anais Nin, ed. Evelyn J. Hinz

 

[2] .‘A New Center of Gravity’ in A Woman Speaks: The Lectures, Seminars, and Interviews of Anais Nin, ed. Evelyn J. Hinz

 

Sue Williams works as a writing confidence coach and consultant at Here Booky Booky and Grub Street. As well as publishing a novel with Harper Collins under her pen name, she has received awards and recognitions from journals such as Glimmer Train and Pank, and won first place in the 2009 Carolyn A. Clark Flash Fiction Prize. Sue’s literary writings appear in numerous magazines including Salamander, The Yalobusha Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and Narrative where she has also worked as an editor. Find out more about her at her website, grubstreet.org, or by emailing her at hiya (at) herebookybooky.com.