Long ago (it must be 25 years – help!), when I was writing my PhD thesis, one of my supervisors gave me a piece of advice I will never forget. Not because it was full of timeless wisdom (it may have been, but if so it passed me by) but because I didn’t understand it and it gave me the heebie-jeebies. She advised me to ‘Rewrite Chapter 3 from the inside out’. As though writing Chapter 3 hadn’t been difficult enough, in the conventional ‘start-at-the-beginning-define-your-terms-adduce-your-evidence-express-your-arguments-draw-your-conclusions’ kind of way. But no, apparently that wasn’t good enough, and my much-sweated-over chapter now had to be turned inside out like a grimy t-shirt having to be worn a second day because you lost your luggage. Partly, I feared that the turning inside out would expose all the messy loose ends I hadn’t tied off quite as neatly as I should have. Perhaps that was the idea? Or maybe my supervisor simply thought my chapter needed some restructuring and would benefit from a thorough teasing out and reordering of its various strands.
The idea of rewriting from the inside out has stuck with me ever since. Whenever I revise a piece of work, I think of it, and give thanks that no one is asking me to do it. It may sometimes be useful advice – others may find it helpful, but not me. If I write something, I like to feel it’s already the right way out. It may need a lot of revision – every single word in it may change at least twice – but no way am I ripping off my literary clothes and getting dressed again from scratch.
There’s another sense to the phrase, however, especially if we change it to ‘Writing from the inside out’. This no longer suggests restructuring, but something even more fundamental, primal and uncomfortable. It’s more like ‘writing your heart out’, which has become a bit of a hackneyed phrase but more or less says what I mean. Putting your insides on the table, maybe. Revealing your inner self for all to see.
Some believe this is the only kind of writing worth doing, certainly where fiction is concerned. The quotation ‘Writing is easy. You just sit down at your desk, open a vein and bleed’ has been attributed in various forms to several writers, including Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe (see here for further discussion. Maybe they all said it, in one way or another). Richard Yates, one of my favourite writers, said similar things and certainly seems to have suffered a great deal in his life and work. (Yates wrote ‘Revolutionary Road’ and a number of other novels, many of them semi-autobiographical. Details in the excellent biography by Blake Bailey here.) Natalie Goldberg’s very popular books on writing as a way of life (e.g. ‘Writing Down the Bones’) also embody this idea, of using writing as a way of exploring your deepest self, and connecting with your readers through a revelation of those murky depths.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about all this. I know that writing as therapy can be an incredibly helpful and comforting thing to do and that it can lead to all kinds of insights and breakthroughs, both literary and life-changing. I also know from experience that it can produce rubbish as well as, occasionally, better stuff. It’s become unfashionable these days to think of creative people as ‘suffering for their art’. These days we are shown examples of ‘successful’ people in all walks of life, including bestselling and prizewinning authors. We are encouraged to pursue our dreams but not often told that the road can be a painful one, and not just because of average author earnings being so low (though that’s part of it, of course). Perhaps any kind of writing, or any kind that you share with others, involves the kind of self-exposure that can really hurt if readers don’t like it (or even if they do). This could apply to a children’s picture book or a cosy crime novel, as well as to a piece of literary fiction that probes the depths of your childhood trauma. Though I do suspect that one generally has to dig deeper to produce the more serious, literary stuff. And I realise too that some children’s picture books probably come from a very deep place. Maurice Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, perhaps? You can’t get much deeper than a childhood nightmare, I suspect.
There’s also the much-needed reminder in today’s world to ‘take care of ourselves’. I’ve sometimes written something that I’ve felt afterwards has gone too deep for my own comfort, whatever anyone else may make of it. Digging deep into our psyches may be good for us sometimes, but we need, I believe, to be careful. Writers and other creative people can be prone to depression and other mental illnesses. It’s perhaps impossible to disentangle cause and effect here, but probing one’s past can provoke all kinds of uncomfortable feelings, sometimes involving self-judgment, shame and guilt. At the very least, it needs to be done in a spirit of kindness towards oneself. That’s what I’m currently learning, I believe, and some of the lessons are painful.
Of course, this kind of work can also offer huge release and healing, and I’m certainly not trying to discourage it. Just be kind to ourselves as writers is what I’m saying, and don’t let our analytical brains rip our self-respect to shreds (Rosalie, are you listening to this?).
Life is a risky game and many forms of earning a living are much more dangerous than sitting at a desk with a pen and paper or a laptop. It’s good to remember how fortunate many of us are, to have the liberty and opportunity to write. I’d draw back from describing any of my writing travails as ‘suffering’, put in the context of what others in this world undergo. But writing, nevertheless, can be painful, when you really get down to digging out the inside of yourself.
Finally I’d like to draw attention to that sense you get occasionally as a reader, that you’ve hit gold. Something sparkles – a nugget of truth? I suspect that often, when this happens, the gem in question is one that’s been dug up by an author who wasn’t content to scratch the surface and perhaps risked something to dig down, retrieve and share it. I suppose that’s why, as writers, we sometimes like to go deep – in the hope that every now and then we’ll bring something to the surface that a reader may recognise as ‘true’.
Happy reading and writing!
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