How to Defeat Shame through Generous Writing
One of the most difficult struggles writers face is what I call “pre-emptive shame.” We encounter shame before there’s even a reason to–before we even put our work out there. Sometimes just thinking something you’d like to put in writing is enough to debilitate us, let alone actually finishing a project and publishing it–or trying to get it published. What if we get a rejection letter? What if our family members or friends or distant readers don’t like it? What if it’s not as good as I think it is or want it to be? What if it’s not perfect? (Hint: of course, it’s not perfect–it never will be. And that’s a good thing. More on that another time.)
Many of us spend most of our writing careers trying (unsuccessfully) to sidestep the black shadow of shame. We’re plagued with impostor syndrome or perfectionism or a self-destructive sense of inadequacy. If you’re like me, these things don’t go away when people compliment us or give us a good review–if anything, it just gets worse because the stakes get higher. If I’m in shame mode, a compliment just raises the hammer waiting to fall higher up before it comes crashing down.
Shame causes us to cower, to contract, to crouch. We attempt to take up as little room in the world as possible so that we are less of a target. Maybe this means writing but never sharing it with others. Maybe this means blogging but never publicizing our work on social media. Maybe this means never writing at all, or writing about something safe rather than scary.
I learned a valuable lesson on the intersection between shame and generosity from my publisher, Ancient Faith Publishing. As part of my contract with them, they stipulated I would have to set up a “launch team.” This group of people–which actually seemed rather large to me–would help get the word out about my book in exchange for review copies. What this forced me to do, from the very beginning of the book-release process, was to be generous with what I was writing. I had to assemble a team of folks whom I would let in on the process of my book so that they could know what was coming their way and when. While I did ask a few friends to be in that group, for the most part, the team ended up consisting of acquaintances or readers I’ve never met–the objective was to cast a wide net so people in more diverse corners heard about my book.
At first, this was kind of nerve-wracking. It put my pre-emptive shame alerts on threat level red. In the end, though, it actually decreased rather than increased my shame. Because I knew about this launch team thing while I was finishing the manuscript, I could imagine them–I began to see my book as a kind of conversation we were having. It began to be less about me and more about a kind of community I hoped to build and support through my work. And as I began to consider the needs of others, my pre-emptive shame became less debilitating. I also think my writing improved because I began writing less into the nebulous void of my own mind and into a focused channel of interest (also known as my intended audience). And that audience consisted of real, flesh-and-blood people who would come to my book from different places and backgrounds. And I was beginning to really care about them, on a human level (not just on a book-promotion level).
This was an important lesson. Since realizing it, I’ve been able to ask myself some new questions when shame begins impeding my writing abilities.
1) Why am I ashamed? What am I ashamed of right now? Sometimes, shame really is just misplaced. Other times, it could be trying to tell us something. Maybe we are saying too much or being more vulnerable than we actually want to be–that’s okay! Or maybe we haven’t researched a particular topic well enough to be writing about it. Perhaps we are overstating our argument and need to recalibrate. I’m not saying that whenever we feel shame, we need to pack up and go home. I’m just pointing out that sometimes there’s a middle ground between debilitation and totally disregarding feelings of shame, and sometimes that needs to be plotted with a bit more nuance and self-discovery before we take our next move.
If #1 doesn’t yield any clear answers, the next few questions might help recenter ourselves and reconnect us with both our purpose as writers and our audience…
2) How can I better serve my audience in what I’m writing? What does my audience need to hear about this topic? What do they not need to hear? Maybe the extended anecdote about your childhood griefs is a bit self-indulgent–maybe your audience needs a shorter anecdote with a bit more explanation of your main point. On the other hand, maybe they need less explanation and more examples. Maybe they want less research and “facts” and more of you–your argument, your ideas, your unique take on the subject. But thinking about all of these questions in terms of “serving” our audience rather than merely “pleasing” them is a good corrective to the shame-inducing people pleasing dynamics writing can foster. Somehow, as soon as you start thinking in terms of love, self-giving, and relationship, the mental dynamics shift to a healthier place.
3) How can I better connect with my audience in what I’m writing? Shame tells us not to share until it’s perfect. But we don’t need to wait until our book is published or our blog post is fully formed to connect with our audience. Post status updates, Instagram photos, or tweet-sized reflections along the way. If you’re stuck or second-guessing, put some of that out there for your people to see–not as therapy (save that for the journal) but just enough to crack the door open on the workshop. Odds are, folks will connect more with your eventual book/ finished project knowing some of the human struggles that went into it. Plus, they may respond with thoughts and comments that push you forward or give you new ideas.
So next time the wave of pre-emptive shame crests, open up the sails rather than batten down the hatches. Let your audience in and make the game less about pleasing them and more about serving and connecting with them.