‘Just be yourself’ is about the worst advice anyone can give. It’s the “just” that does it. The perceived thing changes: if you’re self-conscious, you’re not the same as when you’re unobserved. You’re also different with every friend, pet and family member in your life. Every personality has facets, every life has eras and everybody has good and bad days. Still, these sides and eras are united in an essential self. When feeling confident, engaged and safe, that self can be accessed more fully. That’s the goal, on the page or off. It’s difficult to eliminate stress factors, self-doubt and self-consciousness. Being yourself is anything but a “just”.
Writing to please yourself is the best way to learn about your own identity as a writer. Your voice and ideas aren’t compromised; you’re free to experiment and explore. Each Green Ink Writers’ Gym warm-up begins with one rule: no editing or self-criticism. This licensed self-exploration makes the blank page more fun. Pleasing yourself isn’t a sin – whatever your grandmother or the Catholic church might think – but is an important part of a process. It’s where you learn most about yourself. But it isn’t the end product. As joyous and exciting as artistic discovery is, redrafting for a reader means being challenged to up your game, to learn to communicate in other ways what worked immediately for you on your own. If you’re up for that challenge, the result will be even more fulfilling.
Self-consciousness is style over substance. It’s often spotted in over-elaborate vocabulary, when the word or phrase – however beautiful – doesn’t communicate the meaning as clearly as something simpler. Equally, there are authors and playwrights who hope repeating ‘fuck’ enough times will make their script edgy and shocking (repetitive is the opposite of edgy and shocking). Style conveys meaning; it doesn’t replace it. Stop trying to write like a writer and you’ll start trying to write like you, trying to communicate.
There is a place for self-consciousness. It’s called editing. But rather than try to edit what you haven’t read and lose all sense of message and all sense of fun, freeing your writing at the early stage allows your identity to come through. My sessions drip-feed technique, theory and feedback in with the creative exercises. The cart is not designed to pull the horse: your voice, your vision, your imagination and your experience are what your reader is buying.
‘Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’ ‘Anthem’, from The Future by Leonard Cohen
Perfect isn’t going to happen. Accepting that is your best chance of finishing a draft. Embrace the quirks and snipes and all the things too weird or intense or incomprehensible not to be edited in daily life and see what they communicate. At first draft stage – or any draft stage – you must explore the ideas as fully as possible to make the next edit meaningful. The blank page is a safe space. Don’t be afraid of flaws showing up. Perfect isn’t on the menu.
'This above all: to thine own self be true / And it must follow, as the night the day / Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ Polonius, King Lear by William Shakespeare
Like the occasional student writer who thinks learning all the technique first will mean that their novel writes itself, this well-meaning, learned old is so caught up in the theory that the practise falls apart around him. Had he followed his own advice, he might have kept eyes and mind open to the truth around him in the world. If you keep your eyes and mind open, you can respond authentically to stimulus and technique as tools to help your voice communicate clearly.
'Always speak the truth—think before you speak—and write it down afterwards.' The Red Queen, Alice Through the Looking Glass
In a world that is often backwards and upside down, where slowing down means moving faster and moving fast means slowing down, Alice keeps an open mind and looks for the lesson in everyone she meets. Not holding their raving lunacy against them, she is able to receive the wisdom along with it. She keeps her identity, her own voice and world vision, while still taking on board everything she learns.
‘I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.’ Ernest Hemingway
I sometimes meet with writers who think ‘truest thing’ means autobiography. Avoid this mistake like the Black Death. Even a memoir prioritises the literary shape of things, not out of arrogance or tradition but because stories are how human beings understand the world. Truth is better reached in fiction than in repetition of events; my background in liberal Judaism means I don’t necessarily have to believe a literal bloke called Abraham argued with a literal God, but I believe in the importance of the story of arguing with God. It means you respect authority and are not blinded by it. As heroes of our own stories, we expect happy endings to come through some action on our own part and not just because the universe thinks we’re jolly nice and hands us stuff. Elizabeth argues Darcy from self-importance to self-knowledge, allowing herself to experience the same in return. Hemingway’s truest moments don’t star Hemingway, but we know they do – him and all of us. Write the truest thing you know, authentically. Then be willing to rewrite. And edit. Have fun.
Rachel Knightley is a freelance writer, director and teacher. She runs Green Ink Writers’ Gym, resident at Waterstones Piccadilly, for writers of all genres and levels of experience. As Green Ink Theatre, she produces an annual Sponsored Write and new writing showcase, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support. She teaches Creative Writing, Speech and Drama from home and in theatres, schools and universities. Visit her website here.