Writer’s Syndrome

I hope you all had a happy bunny day, as my professor used to say to us.

I went to a writer’s conference this weekend. It was a relatively small and cozy affair, with talks and project discussions and lots of people meeting friends they hadn’t seen since last year, and so on.

One distinguishing feature of this conference is the hollywood-esque ‘awards ceremony’ on the last day. Every participant has the option to submit work, and at the end some are shortlisted for a prize, like the Oscars, and the final choice is announced during the ceremony. Prizes include best presentation, best characters, best mechanic, and of course, best piece overall.

This ceremony is intended to inspire people to submit good work, and to encourage people with talent to aspire to even greater heights. Unfortunately, it seems that some people take things waaaay too seriously.

Let’s take the example of my friend Tyler. Tyler wrote something for this conference last year, which was received very well by its audiences and, though the judges didn’t quite know what to do with it, they gave him two awards. Good work, Tyler.

Only now, Tyler thinks he’s the god of Writing.

This year, Tyler wrote a gender-bending piece about love. It was nicely done, it had good mechanics, and in general it was well received. But Tyler didn’t care about this.

Tyler was incensed that it was nominated for only ONE award. And he figured it wouldn’t win. So what did he do? He left the conference early, went home, and wrote an angry blog post about how nobody appreciated him. Sounds like someone has a case of Writer’s Syndrome.

Writer’s Syndrome is a term I came up with a few years ago, after reflecting on some of my own writing behavior and observing disturbingly similar behavior in others. To use myself as a case study: back in high school, I was accepted into a very competitive writing program. I won one of 10 slots, beating 130 other applicants for my space. As it was proven to me that I was good enough to get this competitive slot, it became apparent to me that I was so good that I could dole out advice like some great, benevolent writing fairy and the advice that I so lovingly sprinkled over the work of others ought to be taken with gratitude, because I was so great, right?

Basically, I was told I had a small amount of talent, and I became an arrogant little —- about it. The reality of my ability – that I’m good, but nowhere near perfect, that I have some advice to give but also a lot to get – didn’t come until five years later, when I witnessed a rather harsh – and well deserved – takedown of a story I had submitted anonymously to the university magazine.

Writer’s Syndrome is something I have observed in a number of would-be writers, particularly those who have been told by a higher power that they are talented. Tyler is one good example. Another is a girl I knew during my undergraduate days. When she didn’t think something was well written and I disagreed, her reasoning was, “well, I’m a Creative Writing major.”

This is, I think, what makes it most important for us to have a pool of peers willing to critique us. Of course we need a bit of self confidence, and we deserve to be told when our writing is good. But we need the flip side as well. Some of the writers I know are the most arrogant people on the face of the earth. I used to be among them. I hope to maintain the part where I’m a writer. But I’m trying to ditch the arrogance post-haste. And of course, a lot of writers experience the opposite of Writer’s Syndrome – crippling self-doubt.

Do you guys have experience with arrogant writers? Or maybe just ideas for critiquing someone without making them blow their tops (ahem, Tyler)?

Sorry for the rant. What did you do with your bunny day?

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11 thoughts on “Writer’s Syndrome

  1. I don’t think this is something limited to writers, but it does seem to be a particular problem with our kind.

    I think the most annoying (and likely related) thing I have seen has to do with self-publishing. Now, I have nothing against self-publishing, and know a couple of authors who do it well and love it. Kudos to them! But the mere act of uploading a manuscript to Amazon and publishing it does not make you (general you, not you in particular) a better or more experienced writer, free to distribute your wisdom and look down on us unpublished plebes.

    I don’t mean to imply that if you are self-published you *can’t* have more wisdom or be more experienced, just that being self-published doesn’t magically confer that.

    • forgingshadows says:

      Thank you for commenting. I haven’t had that experience in particular with self-published authors, though some of the people who have acted this way toward me have also been self-published. I guess in reality, there are very few authors who I feel can afford to be arrogant about their work. I even stopped reading Stephen King after I saw an article in which he insulted the intelligence of his audience.

  2. Some writers take offense no matter how nicely you try to critique them. I tend to avoid them or smile and nod until someone with more clout and aggression takes them down a peg. I ran into a lot of them in college. A fellow English major gets an ‘A’ on a writing assignment and they lord it over everyone until they either get a ‘B’ or someone decides to shred their work during a round table discussion. Thinking back, English majors can be rather petty and catty when it comes to criticism.
    I celebrated bunny day by wishing Passover would end, so I could have a pizza. 😉

    • forgingshadows says:

      mmm, pizza.

      When I was in high school, my clever teacher made us get used to negative feedback by making everyone in a round-table critique say one thing they liked about the piece, and one thing they would change. I took that with me to university, where others who hadn’t been trained in that way weren’t so fond of my criticisms (and, to be fair, my criticism wasn’t always that good). That kind of harshness, however, is sometimes necessary. It was exactly what I needed to take me down a peg.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • That was the style that all of my college professors used. To be honest, I hated it at the time and not because of the negative criticism. I didn’t like that I wasn’t allowed to say anything. I know what it was teaching us, but it was agonizing to sit there listening to the class dissect one tiny part of my work that I thought was unimportant. I really wanted to snap and start yelling questions.

        That’s probably the youth thing though. Nowadays, I’d probably set up a tape recorder and take a nap.

      • forgingshadows says:

        Haha, I love it. While it’s true that it’s easier to get stuck on one little thing, for us that was just the verbal part. We also handed back the papers, on which we’d marked up everything we thought was good/bad.

      • The hand-written part was usually spelling, grammar, and constant ‘I don’t understand’ comments. It was always bizarre what people would get stuck on. I wrote a fight between a male and female superhero that were dating. The entire discussion was about their sexual tension and how the guy was probably bad in the sack. I read that scene two times while they talked and I had no idea where they got all of that from. I should have laughed about it, but I actually snapped and yelled that there was no sex in the story. Got sent into the hallway.

  3. I taught students for years how to balance constructive and positive feedback on projects. I thought I was an expert on how to receive it, too. But when a friend of mine gave me feedback on a piece (Hansel and Gretel), I completely skipped over the positive and freaked out about the constructive. After I got myself together, I felt good about the experience as well as my relationship with this fellow writer.
    I would be on the side of self doubt, but not crippling.

    • forgingshadows says:

      Thank you for commenting. That is a great example of why we need constructive criticism, on both sides of the issue.

  4. Starstone says:

    It is like that with most things, isn’t it? The less you know, the more arrogant you get because you feel the need to prove yourself at all times?
    It feels a lot like that in the world of horses at least 😉

    • forgingshadows says:

      That might be – I have never worked in depth with horses. What I have always found is that writers who haven’t gotten praise for their work from a more ‘professional’ quarter are generally less sure of themselves, whereas those who have been praised for their talent (but, like you said, are not so experienced) are often more arrogant. It seems to take that little push from an outside course.

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