For a glancing moment, the sun comes out and Scotland glimmers and glitters in the light. The red mare lifts her head, amazed. Then the clouds roll in again and we are back in the brown soup. Despite this, I feel oddly happy. Good work this week, and a lot of action, and even some admin. (I made at least two dreaded telephone calls and sent some put-off emails.)
A Dear Reader asks: ‘Any advice on how to silence the Monologue of Doom?’
I am delighted. I really, really do know the answer to this question. Her query was specifically about writing, her desire to shut off the beastly, destructive, critical voices who say that every sentence is a crashing disaster, but I think that the technique I use can be extrapolated to all areas of life. I suspect that an awful lot of people have a fairly persistent monologue of doom. (I love that phrase, by the way.)
For the writing specifically, the first thing is to give yourself permission to do an absolutely rotten first draft. In fact, you must sternly instruct yourself to write nothing but buggery bollocks. The only important thing is to get the words down. It’s at this stage that you need to get your muscles going and your sinews stretching, almost feeling the process as a physical one. Don’t think too much; get those fingers moving.
This achieves several things. It gives the mean voices nowhere to go, since when they say ‘Well, that’s a ghastly construction,’ you may cheerfully agree. This pisses them off mightily, and they may well decide to leave and go and see if they can wreck another party. It gets you cooking, so that you may pile up many, many words, which is encouraging. The thing grows, and gives you hope. By allowing yourself to be absolutely crappy, you may find that you come up with flashes of brilliance. If you go too carefully to start with, trying to get everything right, your wild inner creative can never fly. You will amaze yourself when you read the thing back to find dazzling thoughts you never knew you had.
However, and this is the stern part, you must know, all the time you are doing this unfettered, crazed writing, that you will go back with your critical hat on. Because you have planned this, you are in charge, and you may select the good critic, not the wrecking ball critic.
The good critic is perfectly lovely and every human has one. The good critic does not deal in shame and hysterical hyperbole. She knows that just because you get something wrong it does not mean that you are wrong. He understands that a mistake does not invalidate you as a human being. The good critic has perspective and is judicious.
The good critic says: right, that part does not work, let’s have a bash at licking it into shape. (In the same situation, the bad critic says: that part does not work, therefore you are an unholy mess of a human and should probably never go out in public again.) The good critic is constructive, and suggests improvements. He is stern and rigorous and will not put up with sloppiness. She is hopeful and galvanic and always believes there is a way through, even if you have to work your arse off to get there.
There is an enchanting idea with horses, which comes out of the old cowboy school of Ray Hunt and the Dorrances. It is this: it is very, very important to allow your horse to make a mistake. Some people desperately hold on to their equines, always preventing them from going near the wrong thing. In this way, the horses grow tense and nervous and never learn anything. The cowboy notion is to let the horse make the mistake, and then show it a better way. You don’t punish it or make it feel stupid. You simply say – if you do this, over here, like this, everything will be much, much easier for you.
I think this works with humans too. I think this is what the good critic knows. Everybody makes mistakes. Even Tolstoy and Jane Austen will have written shoddy first drafts. In the starting stage of a novel, which nobody ever sees, there will be terrible longeurs, and stretches of pointlessness, and glaring over-writing, and characters which do not cohere, and phrases which are worn and banal. The difference between a writer and a good writer is that the good writer REWRITES. I put this in capital letters because it is so important. And I mean rewrites. Over and over again, draft after draft, until some kind editor or agent gently removes the manuscript from crabbed and reaching hands.
I find it quite useful to give my drafts names. At the beginning, there will be narrative drafts, and character drafts, and dialogue drafts. As you get into the weeds, there will be platitude edits, and repetition sweeps, and semi-colon drafts. I am so obsessive that I quite often do a platitude edit and a cliché edit. Which may be threading the needle a little too finely, even for me.
The final thing, which applies I think to life as well as to writing is: give yourself a choice. Do this consciously. You may want to say it out loud or write it down. It’s quite important that it is out in the world.
Say to yourself: well, you can listen to the Monologue of Doom, and convince yourself that you are pointless and useless and feckless and hopeless, and should go into the garden to eat worms. You are perfectly welcome to do that, if that is what you want. Or, you can listen to your sensible, kind, rigorous voices, who tell you that nobody’s perfect, who tell you that with a little graft and application and determination you can get the thing right. You can choose to listen to the useful voice. The mean, destructive voice has no utility. You can pay heed to it if you want, but it won’t get you anywhere, except to make you feel horrid and send you into a defensive crouch. If you want the defensive crouch and the existential angst, for whatever reason, that’s fine. You are a grown-up. It is your decision.
This sounds so stupidly blatant that it’s almost absurd. But it really, really does work.
It’s a psychological trick, I think. It’s an opening up, rather than a closing down. It gives you dignity. By offering yourself a choice instead of merely scolding yourself for hopelessness, you are treating yourself as a sentient human with agency, rather than a captive pawn in a chess game played by unseen hands.
And sometimes too, I think of my kind self. I have a mean self, a judging, carping, lashing self. I generally direct this inwards, although sometimes, sadly, she does escape into the wild. The most salutary reminder, when the Monologue of Doom is raging out of control, is the thought that I would never, ever say to my best beloveds the horrid things I say to myself. If the people I love come to me and tell me that they’ve fucked up and they don’t know what to do, I do not break out my nastiest voices. The kind self lifts her head like a bird dog and reminds the beloveds of all their fine points, their good skills, their fighting hearts. The kind self ruefully tells them that they are not alone, because everyone screws up sometimes, most of all me.
You can choose to build up, or you can choose to tear down. It really is your very own choice.
The light is like a despairing dull beige haze, so no camera today. As I went to the archive, I hit at once on these two pictures, taken by my friend the Horse Talker. Since I have hardly mentioned the red mare, it seems only right that she gets the visuals. In keeping with today’s theme, I laugh ruefully at my absurd riding outfit and my goofy face. I’m never going to look like a posh girl on a horse and that’s all she wrote. I don’t care. I care about the joy, which streams out of these shots and reminds me, as if I need reminding, that this beautiful girl lifts my heart every single damn day, and brings out my better angels, and makes me whole.
I also love her slightly resigned look in these pictures. I was coming home for a good groom and some breakfast, she is clearly thinking, and you expect me to stop and do idiot Posy Posington? Don’t you know who my grandfather was? Isn’t all this poncing about rather beneath my dignity?
PS. It’s been a long week and I’m quite tired. I always fear that when I write a blog on writing I shall include frightful howlers and typos and there shall be pointing and scoffing. But my eyes are crossing too much to do another proof-read. So please forgive my mistakes.