Trying too Hard to Write
I usually know when I’m trying too hard. The first sign is quiet giggling to myself at my puns and murmuring admiration of my turns of phrase. The second is imagining readers’ gasps of delight at my ingenuity. The third, and most important, is a warning flare—Oh, oh, ego’s rising.
If I don’t heed that yellow-red flare, I know it heralds disaster. I’m trying too hard. The work cannot help reflect this overconscious effort. Somehow, the technique, wordplay, and resplendent diction overpower whatever message I want to convey.
In The Writer’s Book of Wisdom: 101 Rules for Mastering Your Craft, Stephen Taylor Goldsberry’s Number 36 admonishes, “Try not to overdo it. . . . Beware of contrived lyrical embellishment and fluffy metaphors” (p. 87). And, I would add, of eloquent, balanced rhetoric. And repetition for effect. And overly ripe similes. And too- intricate expositions and too-pithy observations.
After reading Eat Pray Love, I saw a transcript somewhere of an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert. Working on her next book, she said, she produced 500 pages trying to imitate that first bestseller in a similar breezy, flippant, and pseudo-deep style. Gilbert eventually realized what she was doing and admitted to junking—courageously—the whole new manuscript.
Once she no longer overconsciously tried to duplicate that success with all its rhetorical garnishes, she wrote a completely different book. Although Committed was not as successful as Eat Pray Love, its style and Gilbert’s reflections are honest and wholly appropriate to its subject, her misgivings about marriage.
Like Gilbert in her post E-P-L foray, when we try to write impressively, even with all our might, we end up failing or at least falling short. A friend tells about his father, who came from Italy, settled in New Jersey, and founded an automotive products store. As a twelve-year-old, my friend helped after school in the store. One day, his father instructed him to unpack a shipment of tires and stack them in a certain corner for maximum display. The boy answered, “I’ll try.”
In his limited but effective English, his father bellowed, “No try! You do!” And my friend did. And never forgot the lesson.
Our writing lesson? We don’t try. We do, or don’t. Maybe it means not writing at all for a while. Or writing a lot of nonsense first, accompanied by that horrid hollow feeling. Or using the slash/option method incessantly (one of my favorites/best practices/most helpful methods/greatest techniques for skirting stuckness and continuing to slog). Maybe it means going back countless times to excise, refine, replace, restructure, or even, like Gilbert, pitch it all out.
Trying means we’re writing too self-consciously, usually to impress or force. In contrast, doing, like my friend’s immigrant father knew, means total immersion. However many drafts we need, however many dunks in the uncertain creative mud we can dare, our success rests not in trying but doing.
So, I tell myself, Stop trying to be clever and knowing. Stop trying to beat out your writing colleagues. Stop trying to show off your wit. Stop trying to replicate your just-success. All these tryings cut off your talent and expressive truth. Especially, they all choke off your honesty as a writer.
When you let yourself stop trying, watch your writing flow.
Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne publishes writing craft, spiritual articles, and essays in print and online publications. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle assists doctoral candidates to completion of their dissertations (finally). Based on her practice, her new handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties. Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). In Noelle's Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com