I Am My Manuscripts

I have on this site a historical catalog of all my book covers. Those of you who scroll to the very bottom of that list will notice that for the first two years of my publishing endeavors, I did not publish under my own name.

This is because I thought myself not good enough. I was worried that no one would like my stories, and that I would be belittled for having the audacity to put my work into the world and presume that anyone would care.

It took a lot of time, but I found more than a few who do care. With time and experience, I came to value my writing and I’m now able to talk about my works’ faults and merits at both length and depth. In other words, I gained the confidence that is justified by experience. As a result, I began putting my own name on writing.

I have touched on bad pieces of writing advice before, but today I want to address a new one. I have heard it discussed in writer’s groups (particularly the bad ones), and I have even seen it promoted by writers at science fiction conventions. The idea is this: You, the author, are not your writing. While this may be literally true, the metaphorical implication is that the author should divorce themselves from their writing so completely as to become capable of absorbing any feedback that might be hurled at them. The individual at the convention suggested going as far as to repeat a mantra of “I am not my manuscript,” then to take a physical copy of one’s writing, put it on the floor, step on it, and then tear it in half, so as physically reinforce the writer’s supposedly appropriate apathy toward their own work.

Such writers, to my mind, have missed two very important elements of writing.

First, because a story is about character first and foremost, writers who focus on their characters must necessarily build those characters from their own life experiences and their interactions with other people.

Second, the principle presumes that there is some kind of “objective truth” about a literary work that the writer needs to be exposed to in order for them to be capable of making it better. I find this one particularly amusing, because it means that the feedback giver is presuming to have access to an objective truth that the poor, naive writer is oblivious too.

The writing group members who have I have heard push this principle have all been, without exception, abusive feedback givers. Your writing does not deserve to be stepped on, torn, or verbally savaged. If it is your unique expression, then, in the most important sense, it is “you,” and just like you, it deserves a modicum of respect.

Good feedback givers will seek to understand what you were trying to express. If they don’t understand something, they will highlight the phrase or sentence in question and ask you what you were trying to express. If they think that the narrative flow is off, they will tell you so, but also ask what you were trying to achieve with your structural choice, and so on with every other conceivable narrative problem. At no point will good feedback givers pretend to have access to an objective truth and tell you what it is, regardless of what you may have been intending.

Writers agonize over how we will be received, because we are transmuting our experiences into words that represent and communicate those experiences without literally being them. Do not let your work be verbally or physically manhandled for the sake of getting better at your craft. That road leads somewhere else entirely.