I usually know when I’m trying too hard. The first sign is quiet giggling to myself at my puns and murmuring approval at 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 ascendant.
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, 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 the bestseller in a similar breezy, flippant, and pseudo-deep style. Gilbert realized what she was doing and admitted to junking the whole new manuscript. Then, no longer trying to duplicate that success, she wrote a completely different and honest book (Committed), successful in its own right.
Like Gilbert in her post E-P-L foray, when we try, 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 and dazzle. Stop trying to replicate your just-success. All this cuts off your talent and expressive truth. Especially, all this chokes off your honesty as a writer.
For more on this subject see “Step Away from the Cleverness” by Joan Frank: https://authormagazineonline.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/step-away-from-the-cleverness/
Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne writes fiction and nonfiction, having published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Writer’s Digest, The Writer, ReadLearnWrite, Women on Writing, Transformation Magazine, 11.11, and Unity booklets. Her monthly column, “Bloom Where You’re Writing,” appears in Coffeehouse for Writers. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has helped doctoral candidates complete their dissertations (finally), with a practical-psychological-spiritual handbook in progress. In her book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books; one of ten best 2011 ebooks), she draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. With Trust Your Life, Noelle appears in the Unity Books 2013 “Summer of Self-Discovery.” Discussions appear on Goodreads: http://www.unity.org/publications/unity-books/summer-reading-series, Her webinar on the book of June 26, 2013, can be heard and seen on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?V=95EeqllONIQ.