Why Do We Do This To Ourselves?


When you take dictation from the voices in your head, it’s easy to forget that not everything works the way those voices tell you. This might have a little something to do with the way so many writers fall for smooth-talking political hackery (along with the issues that often come along with the whole negotiated relationship with the real world thing) that promises to make things better for everyone.

Hell, despite years of trying to strangle the little monster, I still have a strong idealistic streak that pops up at the most inopportune moments (I’m sure as hell not in SP4 for my benefit. Actually, I should probably admit that I spoke up because I have this horrible tendency to see something that needs to be done and get in there and do it. Then wonder why everyone is pissed off at me for upsetting the status quo. No, not at all idealistic there).

Then of course we writers have this tendency to repeatedly push our own buttons and wind ourselves up into tight little balls of self-perpetuating angst. I’m not going to list examples of when I do it because it’s too damn depressingly long a list, and I’ve seen plenty of other writers do the same thing to themselves. I actually kind of have Sarah’s permission to say that she’s one of them and she’s winding herself up right now and probably somewhere between depression-crash and vibrating with worry over something that probably won’t happen.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Apart from the voices in our head telling us all the interesting stuff that usually just happens to fit nicely into our beliefs (but not always, and sometimes we can’t tell that what we’re hearing inside our skulls doesn’t match what we think we know – compare some of the themes of Harry Potter books 5 through 7 with some of J. K. Rowling’s comments, for instance. I can guarantee that I’ve found a ton of “hey, you! You with the fingers! Listen up before you drive us all off a bloody cliff!” messages when I reread my older stuff. It’s got to be older material because anything too recent I read what I think should be there instead of what actually is there.)

There is a simple answer, of course. And unlike most simple answers, this one is actually more or less correct: we do this to ourselves because we’re human. Being writers, we tend to ramp up the neurotic/creative side of the human spectrum, often to the kind of levels that aren’t normally seen in the wild without something else being severely damped (and being writers, what gets damped tends to be contact with the world outside our skulls, since it’s usually boring and unfulfilling compared to the ones on the inside, as it were). We’re not the only people who do it – who hasn’t heard of or met the co-worker with the… interesting beliefs, or the person who’s so open minded absolutely anything can take up residence in there? We just tend to do it as a career choice.

On the slightly more serious side, one of the reasons this sort of things happen is that when you pair a ridiculously powerful pattern-recognition engine (namely the human brain) with random or uncontrollable events (life in general), you get superstition in all its flavors, complete with the lucky underwear that’s become more hole than fabric but can’t be disposed of because you’ve got to be wearing it when you take an exam or you’ll fail. Or the self-perpetuating belief that you can’t write unless you wrestle three sharks before you start (and win, presumably, since I imagine it would be kind of difficult to write anything from inside a shark).

Or the idea that in order to be worthy you have to be a literary writer – that one is a bit like the self-esteem canard in that it gets cause and effect precisely backwards (for the confused: people with high self-esteem tend to do better in life. They have high self-esteem because they work for what they achieve. Handing people ‘achievements’ in order to boost their self-esteem causes an immense amount of damage, but try telling that to the people who run the schools these days): literature is nothing more than something that speaks to a lot of people over a lengthy time frame. If it’s still popular fifty years after first publication, it’s got a good chance of being literature.

I could go on, but I’m sure everyone here can figure out the principle. After all, most of us have managed to stay on at least civil terms with the world outside our skulls.


  1. I wish I had been younger when I ran into the mentors who kicked me into being a half decent writer. Younger when I got the thick-skinned confidence to finish what I started, not dribble off into “I’m never going to let anyone see this horrible, pointless, juvenile . . .” Younger when KDP opened the gates to all writers.

    Literary? Ask me next century if anyone recognizes my name.

    1. Mentoring works poorly when you’re too young to have the maturity to internalize it and act on it. When I was 28 I was introduced to the writer who became my mentor for the next six or seven years. She was (and is) as brilliant as she was generous with her time. She critiqued my manuscripts, taught me characterization one-on-one, and even collaborated with me on a story that sold into a major market. In spite of all that encouragement and tutoring, I failed to even complete a novel until I was 47. It wasn’t for lack of trying (my trunk is bulging with failed starts) but, I think, simply that I had a lot of deferred growing up to do.

      We all have to follow that road to maturity, irrespective of how twisty and long it turns out to be. I grumble too, but hey: Better late than never!

        1. Yup. The really good news about being old is that *you’re not young anymore.* That’s not a bug. It’s a feature.

  2. Had an interesting discussion with Orson Scott Card last weekend. The subject was books into movies, what can an author expect. Card explained that once a deal is cut and signed the author has zero influence on anything that is not explicitly spelled out in detail in the contract, and even then the production company will likely do their best to get around any such pesky requirements. I of course had to bring up J. K. Rowling as the exception. Orson’s comment was that it wasn’t so much J. K’s influence as the certain knowledge that the fans would have ripped the movie makers limb from limb if they had violated Potter canon. He also remarked that he felt that the last several of her books suffered from her success in that no editor was willing to tell her to trim the fat. Although I did thoroughly enjoy all of the Potter books I can’t say that I didn’t agree with him.

    1. That’s more or less the way I feel about the Harry Potter books from 4 on. And each successive one had more “flab” than the previous one.

      1. It’s weird. Once I really love a bunch of books, I am happy for the flab. I loved Harry Potter, and, with the exception of Hagar’s skimmable voyage to the giants, liked wallowing in the world a little longer.

  3. The voice in my head is stuck on repeat. Allow me to quote:
    “I was doing something. What was it?”

  4. Inside of a shark . . . my favorite cartoon of this past summer was in an Austrian newspaper, full page color, single panel. Showed a Great White, beautifully drawn, the body shading away into the distance. Out of the mouth stuck an arm and a hand gripping a selfie stick. Caption: The Best Vacation Photo Ever!

    1. So now that we know what your favorite cartoon inside of shark is, what’s your favorite cartoon outside of a shark? 😉

  5. “Or the idea that in order to be worthy you have to be a literary writer”

    I sure HOPE not. Literary quality, maybe – as long as it does NOT in any way, shape, or form interfere with the plot, the characters, or what you might be trying to say.

    I aspire to write well, but I know when writing slides into literary – and I don’t want to go there. It bores me, so I would NOT write it well anyway. I love me my classics – but nothing classic I love is literary. Popular then and now, yes. Well-written, and with a huge vocabulary, yes. But not in such a way that the story is slowed down.

      1. And I don’t know how it got so bad. Older classics had a reason for spending time on detailed descriptions – they couldn’t count on their readers knowing these things.

        But I don’t have whatever gene is necessary to not skip over gobs of ‘loving description’ in some modern ‘literary’ books.

        1. They had description in their substance. The current crop of ‘literary’ occasionally has substance in their description but it’s rather scanty.

          1. That’s exactly it. The literary bits in the books people read over and over are doing double and triple and quadruple duty for the story, and the characters, plot, and theme. They are rich with meaning.

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