When Good Writers Go Bad

Recently I listened to a thought provoking sermon about how to tell when good leaders have gone bad. The lesson was universally applicable because we all have leadership opportunities at some point in our lives. Whether it is leading a major corporation, mentoring a student or babysitting, we are providing guidance. As writers, we have an incredible opportunity to lead others. Here is my spin on that lesson, exploring several traits that indicate a writer may have gone to the Dark Side:

A Big Ego

Being an author means creating a platform, and selling yourself and your product. At some point, you may begin to believe your own press. The praise feels great and after a while, you get used to it. Then, when it does not come readily, we wonder why. Although some of the most acclaimed writers of all time had healthy egos (Steinbeck, anyone?), focusing on how the writing might benefit others is much more inspiring to readers. Someone asked me this week, “Do you write to feel powerful and  make the characters do whatever you want?” I told her my writing stems from a desire to entertain. She looked baffled and said she would probably become addicted to the control over the story and other readers. It’s easy to see how authors could get wrapped up in the ‘power’ aspect of writing, if they were so inclined–but that’s not what inspires people.

Isolation

Alone time is a necessity for many writers who can’t focus with others anywhere in their vicinity. However, the more time we spend alone, the more we rely on our own judgement. The feedback from trusted advisors is invaluable, but if one is operating in a silo, that may not seem necessary. Excessive isolation can be dangerous, it keeps writers from being in touch with their audience, as well as with other writers with whom they might partner. Actor Jonah Hill has commented on how much easier it is to write with other comedians. Woody Allen has expressed that people are willing to help a writer in the creative process, as long as the author has put in the time to get a project close to being fully baked. Although there is nothing wrong with self-reliance, no person is an island. If you have it available to you, why not seek wise counsel?

Us/Them Mentality

When fellow authors enjoy success, we can either be happy for them or turn pea green with envy. We may console ourselves with the sentiments that so-and-so is only popular because they write scandalous material, or because they are friends with ‘the guy behind the guy’ at Google. Writing is a tough business to break into, and it’s understandable to feel jealous of our successful colleagues–but why not leverage them instead, and even adopt their principles for success? Author communities (i.e. WordServe Water Cooler) are committed to the prosperity of all. In this and similar organizations, writers help each other with social media support, comments on postings and general assistance in spreading the word around. It’s a huge relief when others help take up our causes. Disinterest in helping others only results in hurting oneself.

If you see yourself in any of these traits, don’t despair.  We’ve all been there at one point or another to some extent. The idea is to identify our symptoms and course correct to ensure we are keeping ourselves honest. As writers, we need to lead our followers somewhere worthwhile.

Have you ever experienced any of the above? How do you think the writing journey might change an author over time?

Writing Giants

Surf the web and you will see that the subject of writing is well-charted territory. No matter what your goal, a how-to manual is there to support it. Need to write grant proposals, company newsletters, technical manuals, instructional design or academic materials? Industry experts abound to provide a sea of knowledge about any aspect of writing imaginable. For advice on how to create fiction, it seems logical to consult some of the successful authors and writing giants among us.

As I began researching books on writing by authors, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft kept appearing on the horizon. I extrapolated all that I could from that book and have started recommending it to other writers. Some of his tips include writing the first draft of a manuscript with door closed, consulting an ‘ideal reader’ that represents the audience, writing consistently each day (1,000 words or more), and writing about what the writer really knows, because that is what makes a writer unique. I’ve been applying King’s techniques into my writing regimen whenever possible. With over fifty worldwide bestsellers in his wake, clearly he knows what he’s doing.

Another writing giant willing to share his techniques is Ray Bradbury, who still cuts quite a swath. The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine and his other stories will forever swim in the waters of literature.  Bradbury’s book for aspiring writers Zen in the Art of Writing is full of sage advice. He suggests that people write about what they love or what they hate because that conviction and passion is crucial to the story. He advises authors to run after life with fervent gusto, to pursue their interests, and write about the things that make them happy.

Starting out, even surfing small literary waves can feel like riding giants. I’m getting more comfortable with what lies beneath (although it’s harder than it looks).  King and Bradbury cared enough to show the rest of us that it’s possible to conquer the sea, and when you do, an ocean of opportunity awaits. Besides, what one person can do, another can do.

Are you ready to paddle out?