For the last year, through moves and illness, I’ve actually been writing. But something a close friend went through recently made me think that the experience I went through, for 2 years before that, was an actual universal thing. And that some of you might benefit from hearing this.
I don’t know why people are the way they are, so please don’t expect me to explain. I know some people, no matter how they f*ck up, always have excuses and deflections “it wasn’t me.” or “the sun was in my eyes” or “I had a headache” or “they did it!”
And some people, any small falling or lack of perfection is used as flagellants used their whips: to tear out chunks of their own psychological flesh.
And some people who present as the first, are actually the second, and are erecting these non-excuses as a way to forgive themselves.
I found in a short story, long ago “born owing money.” (Of course, we’re all born owing money, thanks to the blue model, but that’s something else.) It sort of aplies, and I’ve used it. But the thing is, it’s not money — though a lot of the people with the self-flagellation mind set are born in strained circumstances, myself and older son very much included — it’s “owing something.” Some of us go to bed every night and frantically search our minds for how we’ve justified our existence during the day.
In retrospect, grandma must have been one of those. Yep, born in strained circumstances, because her dad died six months before she was born. She was born with four teeth (early dentition must run in her family because Robert cut his first tooth at 2 months of age. And yes, I did nurse him another 16 months, and yes, I want a medal.) and apparently the village said it was so she could eat the day-old-bread that was all her mom could afford now.
Maybe it was that. Or maybe that’s just a contributing factor. I know it was a joke in the family that as soon as you crossed grandma’s threshold (particularly in the years of her widowhood when she lived alone, but maybe before too) she recounted her deeds of the day “I scrubbed the flagstones, and I mucked out the chicken house, and I–”
It wasn’t just that she did more than anyone else would in a day — even at 80 — it was that she had a compulsion to tell us about it. And it wasn’t until I caught myself doing it, in the years the kids were little, and I was bringing in next to no money , that I understood the psychological mechanism. It’s a justification: look, I do have right to my bread, my bed. Look, I’m useful, I can justify my existence.
As I said, I don’t know how many people are really like that, as a lot of them masquerade as primadonas and self excusers. But the person they’re excusing themselves too is mostly themselves.
I do know it’s a very difficult way to go through life — ask me how I know! or rather don’t. You’re not stupid — and a particularly difficult way to be a writer.
Recently I’ve been going over the manuscript of Sword and Blood — musketeers, vampires, and very mild b & d woman on top (which in the next book becomes less mild and man on top. BUT that’s a long story) — and I accidentally printed the one with the comments of when this was printed by a medium press.
I knew that edit was attrocious — the second worst I’ve had to date — because it was so bad even I could tell. Look, when you keep insisting the name of the musketeers is the name given in some silent movie, apparently unware that there is a book, when you question things like “why was over thirty too late to have the smallpox? This makes no sense” let alone the fact that it’s a line from Dumas, as she’d have known if she bothered to crack the book, (and why is obvious. In a society where small pox is epidemic, it’s a childhood disease because you only catch it ONCE.) even I can see most of the comments/corrections are out of the water crazy.
But I felt so guilty about rejecting the comments (which I did snark back at the time) that over the years I’ve convinced myself they MIGHT have had SOME validity. I was kind of glad I printed this manuscript, because these many years removed from the book, I can look at those objectively, and yep, they’re crackers. This person apparently also had no clue what copyeditors are supposed to do, as she would change wording (destroying the rhythm of the sentences, which is important in emotional scenes) but leave glaring spelling and grammar mistakes (yeah, I make those, mostly typos. Deal.)
The point here is not to pile on that copyedit, which is now three years in the past, and which mostly I discarded then and will discard more so now.
The point is to say that even as bad as that was, I tried to convince myself that there might be SOME points buried in it. (There aren’t. Not at this distance.)
Which is why many years ago, Kristine Kathryn Rusch told me to stop taking workshops and to let someone else filter editorial letters for me: someone who was not afraid of me and who was strong enough to tell me if I was off my rocker. Not because I don’t take critiques well, but because I take them too well. I accept everything someone says. And if someone tells me a story sucks, I believe them implicitly. Because I don’t believe myself, and because I engage in self-flagellation on a regular basis.
All this is a long way to bring us to the meat of this subject.
Those of us of a self-flagellating disposition tend to ignore illness and impairment, and TRY to fix things we think are laziness or stupidity or– which are really physiological.
A good friend, recently, spent two weeks blaming himself for not writing. He had taken the time from the day job. He had the time to do it. But he couldn’t concentrate and was tired all the time, so it must be all his fault, and he must be lazy/cranky/upset.
Turns out he was hyperglycemic, and has gone full-on diabetic.
In the same way for two years, I blamed myself because I had the entire story in my head, but would sit at the keyboard and SOMEHOW couldn’t type it in. The exact words, the concentration needed to put them in pixels, vanished before me like .. will o the wisps. I could write short stories, but even those were like lifting a HEAVY weight. I felt as though I were in a stone chamber, with only one opening capable of admitting a fortune cookie strip of paper out at a time. Blog posts are short enough I could get them out at a burst of little five word segments, but short stories… were longer. And I had to pass the entire story out that way, in three to five word increments. Novels? Impossible.
I thought I was broken, but mostly I thought I was lazy. I flagellated for a personal failing.
And then I had surgery and we realized the problems I’d been having for 20 years, worsening every year had a very biological/hormonal basis. And then we moved, and moved again. But even through the moves, that feeling that I can’t type in what is playing out in my head is gone. And I can think from a to be with no problems. Which means I can write.
The point of this is: it was all physiological, but the harshest judge, the one in my head, the one that demands I justify my existence, kept accusing me of laziness and gold bricking.
There is a Phil Dick novel (I can’t remember the rest of it, but I remember that part) where he says that every human is given a defender and an accuser. More or less the guardian angel and the devil’s advocate, if you think about it that way. It rang true to me then, and it rings true to me now. In some of us, one or the other –the accuser or the justifier — is stronger.
And if you’re one whose internal judge always listens to the accuser, someone born “owing money”, someone who must plead his reasons for existing to himself every single day, I’m here to tell you to let up.
Your honor, the defendant might be as bad as you say. Or he and she might ill. Consider physiological justifications, particularly if you’re of the sort that drives yourself and pushes yourself. If that changes suddenly, there’s a good chance your body is to blame. And when your body is ill it affects your brain.
Tell the hanging judge to put on a white cap, and even if you’re not sure what can be causing things, and even if doctors are not finding anything wrong (as they didn’t with me for decades) consider that there is something wrong.
This is not a justification to sleep on the job, but to give yourself a little break. Be kind to yourself. You can always bind yourself to the grindstone later.
Right now, have a cup of tea or coffee, read a book, take a walk. Allow yourself to be human. You can always kill the miscreant in the morning.