When you picture a writer, who do you see? Almost all of us have romanticized, pre-conceived notions of who a writer is. Usually, we don’t see ourselves.
The myth of the master writer has long plagued students and teachers alike, limiting our sense of self-confidence and writerly ability. Is it possible to dispel these notions?
Today on the podcast we’re joined by Liz Prather, author of The Confidence to Write: A Guide for Overcoming Fear and Developing Identity as a Writer, and editor and author Tom Newkirk, who has written the foreword to Liz’s book. In The Confidence to Write, Liz challenges long held beliefs of what makes a writer a writer, and provides methods for moving past anxieties and into the social-emotional resilience needed to write.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Tom: Okay. I'm here with Liz Prather. Liz, want to congratulate you on your new book, beautifully written. It's beautifully produced. And it was certainly a pleasure to work with you on it. And I'd like to start with something you say early in the book. You say that one of your intentions is to dismantle the myth of the master writer. And I wonder if we could stay with that for a bit. What needs to be dismantled, do you think?
Liz: That's a great question. I think the myth of the master writer may be different for different people, depending on where you enter into the dance of writing. For most of us, the writing that we have done in our lifetime has been around an academic setting. And so the master writer for you may be a student that you sat next to, or a peer that you sat next to in middle school or high school that you always thought it just came naturally to them, that it was just so easy for them to get ideas. And it was so easy for them to put their ideas into language and then arrange it in such a way that it made people feel a certain way. And so for many of us, it's that person, this myth that we've created in our minds, that there are people for whom writing is easier.
And if you are a writer who is pursuing a life of letters, maybe the master writer is the writer you see in popular culture. And that is someone who also, it appears as though everything comes naturally. And ideas, they're just brimming with ideas. And they know exactly how to plot their novel. And they know exactly when to execute a line break of a poem. And they know exactly what image will deliver what feeling in the reader's heart and mind. And that too, is a complete myth. So I think we all have these fantasies that somewhere out there, there's someone who can write in a way that's effortless. And the reality is, that's a complete lie. Writing is struggle and writing is difficult.
And if I can dismantle that for my students early on… because they bring with them, to my classroom, a lot of these myths. They bring with them kind of this scene in popular culture, where someone sits down in front of an old-timey typewriter and begins flight-of-the-bumblebee typing, or someone in a garret, someone in an attic flat in Paris, smoking clove cigarettes, and wearing their beret and living the life of a writer. I just wanted to dismantle all of that for them.
Tom: Can you say the second part? How do you dismantle that?
Liz: Well, first of all, we have to address it. And so first of all, we have to kind of look at what are some of the snapshots or pictures that we have as a culture, as an academic culture and also as a culture of literature and language, of who writers are and what writers do. And` this kind of fanciful notion that it's just, you sit down and you open up your brain, or it's a visitation from the muse, or you have to be intoxicated either by alcohol or by some sort of inebriate. And that all has to be addressed, first of all. And we have to say, "Hey," and I say this to my students all the time, "Hey, what are some pictures that you have in your mind about how writers work, and how writers live, and how writers exist in the world and how they do what they do?"
And so they have these ideas that Stephen King sits down and just writes his novels from page one to page, whatever, 67 or 670. And they don't understand just the brute labor, just the absolute toil and frustration that King and every single other writer that's ever lived is actually doing. So to your question, we have to address it first. And then we have to show how... I ask them, "Does this match your experience with writing? Is this how you write? Or does this match your process?" And, of course, the answer is no. So they always internalize it and think it's part of their own damage, that they're just not a good enough writer. And that's why it doesn't come easily for them. And what I want to say, "That's actual evidence that you are a writer. You are now entering into the community of struggle that all writers participate in. So you have arrived. You are now truly a writer."
Tom: That relates to a term you use frequently. And I think it's an important term in your book called, writerly self-regard. I'm wondering if you could say how writerly self-regard may be a way of dealing with this myth.
Liz: Yeah. Writerly self-regard is the ability to respect the movement and agency of your own mind. As a writer it's basically knowing your way around a piece of writing and thinking that I can make decisions that will eventually lead to some sort of solution to the current, either rhetorical, or poetic, or fictional problem I'm looking at. And so for a lot of our students, they don't have any writerly self-regard, because they haven't been allowed to make writerly mistakes. So when you hand a student, which I think graphic organizers have their place, but when you hand a student a certain graphic organizer that becomes a scaffold for them, it cuts them out of all those rich opportunities to make mistakes and to fail and learn from the failure.
And so they don't really have any regard for their own ability to puzzle it out. They don't have any understanding that they could do this thing called, taking it from inspiration to publication, and maybe not die from it. They can do that on their own. And they can do it with an idea and a voice that they can respect. I think that's writerly self-regard. It's like, I can do this. I can do this on my own.
Tom: And I wonder if some of the things that get in the way, whether they're like tricks that our mind plays on us along the way. And Peter Elbow has a great chapter in his book, Writing With Power, called Nausea. And it's about how you get literally sick reading your own writing. I mean, physically. It's that bad. It's that bad. And what he says is it's a trick that we play on ourselves, because we just spent so much time, we need to get away. I wonder if there are these tricks that we have to be aware of that our mind plays on us that we need to get beyond, or need to recognize as tricks.
Liz: I think so. And maybe our brain is, I mean, our brain's job is to keep us alive. Our brain's job evolutionarily is to survive. And so if for some reason you've had a really hard go of it as an academic and as a writer, and there's a lot of pain associated with it, a lot of nausea associated, your brain is going to say, "Stay far away from that activity. Don't do that again," because that was a lot of pain. It was pain. It was fear. It was pain. It was exposure. It was feeling inadequate. Maybe there's shame around this activity. So I think you're right. The nausea that we feel, I think, needs to be accepted as part of the process. So it's not like we're ever going to eradicate the nausea. We're never going to get rid of the anxiety.
I use in my book, an example of an actor who goes on stage has to have a certain amount of anxiety about the role they're portraying or that role will just be flat and tepid and limp on the stage. It's got to have this kind of human energy that gives it life. And I think some of that starts in fear, honestly, because there's so many fears and anxieties that are surrounding this act, that it's this incredible act that we do as humans, which is to write.
Tom: So how do we keep that anxiety in manageable proportions? Because if it becomes overwhelming, it paralyzes us. How do we use it or keep it under control?
Liz: Yeah, that's a great question. We want to write with the fear. We want to write with the anxiety. And just this week I have coached and counseled two incredibly gifted young writers. And they are being held hostage by perfectionism. And so the perfectionism that they feel as though they have to achieve, it not only holds them hostage with this completely unattainable thing and hurt their head, that it's got to be this certain level of this standard, but it also sows an all-or-nothing mentality. And so all of those things have to be recognized. And this is what I kind of asked them, "I want you to talk back to what it is you're telling yourself. The first step is recognizing that I'm telling myself that, 'Unless it is Pulitzer Prize winning material, I'm not going to turn it in for an assignment.'" You recognize that that is illogical.
And then when you recognize you speak back to it. You kind of talk back to it and say, "Writing is a process. Writing is a journey. I'm better today than I was yesterday. And I'll be better tomorrow." It's a continual recalibration of our ego, and our fear, and our writerly self-regard.
Tom: And I wonder too, if you've been to these places multiple times before, it's kind of like when you recognize you're coming down with a cold. If you have these certain symptoms and then you say, "Okay, I recognize this, because I've been here before," if you recognize, if you've been here before, the more you do it, the more you can kind of... It's not like you don't feel it, but you can recognize it for what it is.
Liz: Absolutely. And you can mitigate the things that shut you down. Or you can recognize them from the past and what they did to you in the past. Maybe one of the reasons why COVID is so scary to us, is that it’s not a cold. It's a novel coronavirus. We do not know what to expect with it. So it's the danger of not knowing or the fear of not knowing. It actually creates more anxiety than getting sick itself. And so once my students have multiple low-stakes writing practice and they feel that every single time, they start to come up with things that can mitigate that. And they can write with it a little bit more easily than they have in the past. The key is, of course, to do it often. And so that it doesn't, like you said, "Oh, I'm falling prey to imposter syndrome now," or, "I hear this internal critic. I remember that saboteur before. I've met this saboteur before. And so yeah, I know how to deal with that guy."
Tom: And that leads me to, I think, one of the really great features of your book, which are the metawrites, because it seems to me that the metawrites are a major part of your strategy for doing that. So could you say something about the role of metawrites in your book?
Liz: Yeah. So metawrites are an opportunity for students to write about writing, and to write about themselves as a writer, and to write about their process in a way in which they can hold it up to the light and examine it and analyze it. And there's some really interesting thing that happens when you ask a kid to write about their identity as a writer. They then think, "I must be a writer." They're like, "If I'm writing about my identity as a writer, I must be a writer. And if I have a process, no matter what that process is, that means that I'm actually doing this thing."
So the metawrites have multiple purposes. It's to get them to write, number one. I'm asking them to practice writing. I'm asking them to analyze their identity as a writer and to say something about it, to make a claim about it. But it also has this other really big shift, is that it creates that foundation of writerly self-regard, where you are examining and kind of exalting. Anything you analyze, you have to exalt it a little bit. And so by exalting and examining this thing, it actually becomes real to them. So they have more respect kind of for their own process in that way.
Tom: And that's another term that's really important in this book, which is identity, writerly identity, the identity as a writer. Why is that so important?
Liz: Yeah. Any writing that's worth writing, any writing that is worth the struggle that writing itself presents to you, it has to be worth it. It has to a valuable exercise or it's futile and it's drudgery. And so having an identity as a writer is recognizing that the things I care about, and the things I'm interested in, and the voice that I use, and the language that I use, and the memories that I have, and the concerns, and the positions, and the stances, and all of these things that you and I know, all of us who write know, are absolute requirements for being able to be audacious on the page. They have to have that. They have to be assured that that agency is present.
And a lot of them, they don't have to identify as a writer, per se. They don't have to, because a lot of them, when they identify as a writer, they think, "Oh, she's a writer. She's been published." But they have to recognize that writing is part of who they are, that writing and reading and thinking, that is part of their identity. It's a slice of them that is part of the human experience, that they themselves are participating in.
Tom: And it relates to something Don Murray wrote about, at least I think it does, when he says, "All writing is autobiographical." Not all writing is like a memoir. But all writing comes from something that's personal and something that's part of your own story as a human being so that you can own it, because it comes from that place. That seems to be close to what you're talking about with identity. Am I getting that right?
Liz: Yeah, absolutely. There's something that selects the details that the consciousness that's in control of the writing selects. There's some reason. And it's all kind of born from that student's identity of themselves, and that student's belief system, and their background, and the family they came from, the ethnicity, the race, the gender, the geographical place where they exist, either where they physically exist or one that they live in kind of metaphysically, all of those things converge on the autobiography of a student. And it's through that autobiographical filter, it's through that lens, that a student is going to choose what they write about, and choose how they write about it, and choose the force with which they take a stand, or tell a story, or inform all of those things.
I mean, writing is self. Writing is self. It is the intersection of self and the page. And when you see someone, what they have written, you have seen them as well. So I think in that way, yes, everything is, I agree with him, it's autobiographical.
Tom: And one of the reassuring parts of that, I think, is that we all have these quirks. We all have these odd parts of our personality. And I've always thought in writing, they don't all work for me, but I think that some of them do. In life, they don't always work for me. But in writing, I think I can draw on them. And it's the oddness that kind of helps sometimes, the particularity, the things that may get me in trouble in the rest of my life.
Liz: Right. Well, I love that you used the word particularity, because many writers throughout the years have said that you can only get to the universal through the particular. I think Joyce says, "If I can get Dublin right," for example, "then I can get the whole world." And I'm sure many other writers have said something similar. But if we see the students particularities, if we see those quirks as actual pluses, those are not things that need to be ironed out, or eradicated, or conform to some bland, mainstream kind of writing. Those things should be celebrated as part of their writing persona. But allowing students to recognize that that is part of a persona that they present. It's not the totality of who they are, but they are putting a face on to write this piece of writing in a way that is particular only to them.
I had a couple of kids who were writing about growing up. And they're like, "Oh, I don't want to write about growing up. It's been done to death." But it's not been done by you. It's been done to death, but it's still one of the great narratives, is the coming-of-age story. And it hasn't been done by you. So using that particularity to really make this thing your own, that's a lot of power for a 14, 15 year old kid.
Tom: And it seems to me that one of the things that, I mean, some of these voices that you hear in your writing are cautionary voices. But I think if you have a teacher that's a good responder, what you can do is internalize a different kind of voice. And I'm wondering, when you talk to your students, what kind of voice do you hope that they carry from you that's going to become part of their own head?
Liz: Yeah, that's a good question. One of the things that we talk about a lot is our inner critic. And I'll have a student in a conference. We'll be out so out in the hall having a conference. And they'll just be giving themselves hell. They'll just be beating themselves up. And I will say, "Would you ever say this, what you're saying right now to yourself, to anybody else in our writing community? Would you say this to Evelyn, or to Erica, or Logan? Would you say this?" And they would be horrified say. They say, "No! Oh God, no. I would never say this." So my question is, "Why are you saying this to yourself? Why are you degrading yourself in this way?"
And so one thing is I want them to talk back to that inner critic and reframe what it is they're saying about themselves and their process. If I can get them to reframe it in a way that is less about the perfectionism and more about opportunity, that it's not so much drudgery, but more about exploration, it's discovery, then if they can do that, they can see it in a way that doesn't feel so narrow and confining. And I want to introduce them more to writing as play. And I'm not talking about we don't have rules, and we don't have guidelines, and we don't have form. We have modes, and genres, and all kinds of rhetorical devices that we want to use and poetic devices. But that writing as play is really the spark. That's really the start of where students can do this, I think.
Tom: And it seems to me also that sometimes that inner voice that's negative is a global voice. "You're not good at this," as opposed to, "Okay, here's something specific you can do." It's not a specific voice that's like, "Oh, you're not good at this. This has been done before." It's this global condemnation of yourself. And if you can make it specific, then you can do something about it.
Liz: Yeah. And I say this in the book, but Dr. Brené Brown, who's the shame researcher from Texas, during her research, she interviewed people about areas of shame in their life. And 83% of the people she interviewed had bore some, what she called, creativity scar. Someone told them in school that they weren't a good writer, or they weren't a good dancer, or they weren't a good singer. And so students that have that experience, I'm not a good writer, sometimes they extrapolate that. And so it's like, "I'm not a good writer." And then, "I'm not a good student." And then, "Maybe I'm not a good person." And then, "Maybe I'm just not good." And so then what becomes this small little thing becomes a whole condemnation of who they are completely. And so you can see how that is completely debilitating. You can't start writing that way.
Tom: I've heard that called self-bullying. You become your own bully.
Liz: Yes, exactly. And, Tom, you talk about in your book, Embarrassment, the posture of indifference. And so many students then, when they have that self-bullying, somehow that morph into this posture of indifference so that they are trying to sell the narrative to themselves and the teacher and their class that they don't really care anything about writing anyway. And they don't really care anything about their own ideas, or their own reading, or whatever. But that's protective. That's a defense mechanism. And so that posture of indifference is just one of the many ways in which that can be negatively... It can impact the whole identity of this child, for their entire academic career, unfortunately.
Tom: I think the last question I'd like to address is, for me, one of the most interesting tricks that your mind plays on you, which is the imposter complex. I think you would assume that if somebody has written a lot and say, published a lot, that it would instill in them a kind of confidence that, oh, okay, they're not subject to these things. But it's not true. I mean, maybe for some it is. But I think for most, it's not, so that you don't get that sense of confidence to go ahead, that every time you finish something... I have the feeling somebody else wrote this. And I'm still starting again as a novice. I've lost whatever skill I had when I wrote that book. So you're still an imposter. So I wonder if you could say something about the imposter complex.
Liz: Yeah. That's one of the hardest ones that I deal with, because it comes from a real formative place. And students, there are students that will never kind of get out of feeling they don't belong or their ideas don't belong in the big marketplace of ideas, that they can't step forward and proclaim their truth, because they themselves feel they are in a place that they should never have been in the first place, which is I'm in a school, or I'm in a literary journal, or I got my poem published in the local newspaper. It was just happenstance. It just happened. I got lucky. Or someone felt sorry for me. And that can then just be this self-fulfilling prophecy. So that it doesn't matter, like you said, it doesn't matter if you've written books, upon books, upon books.
If you kind of have this imposter syndrome as kind of the core of who you think you are, that every single time you have a success as a writer, it is because of luck or chance and it's not because of something that you've done that's valuable or that is publishable, then you will never get beyond that. It's one of the most insidious, I think, of all of the kind of problems that I talk about in this book. And I talk about writer's block. I talk about perfectionism and procrastination. And we talk about all that, the inner critic and all this. I think imposter syndrome, it doesn't matter if you've written a dozen books, there are people who still suffer with that still small voice in their head that said, "It's all just a sham. You just got lucky." And that's a real hard one. That's a real hard one to crack.
Tom: Yeah. But you just push on and you do it. And you decide you're still going to do it, even though you hear that voice. But you can't quite silence it.
Liz: Right. And I think that as teachers, we play a real pivotal role in kind of ferreting out for students that that is a lie. That imposter syndrome is a lie that we're telling ourselves. And that a lot of times the shame that we feel around the products that we produce in our class, the writing that we produce in our class, it's not a reflection of the merit of the writing. It's the fact that you're looking at it through those lenses of being an imposter. I had no business to say these things. I don't know what I'm talking about. Who do you think you are? And so I think as a classroom teacher, we have a real pivotal role here to step in and say, "That's a lie. And you need to eradicate that and cut that out of your head, if you can. And reframe that in a way that's more powerful." But I agree with you. I don't know that you're ever going to get rid of that.
Tom: Yeah. And maybe if you know that everybody feels this way, you're just part of the club. It's not like you're the imposter and they're all feeling confident. It's like we're all kind of in this club.
Liz: That's why, Tom, I think it's so important that teachers, as Nancie Atwell said, "We take the top of our heads off." We model struggle. We have to model struggle. And I have to be willing to be vulnerable in the classroom and take in my half-written poems, and my short stories that I'm writing, or even an essay that I'm writing for a local newspaper. And I'll say, "I'm not getting my point across," or, "I can't get the voice in line, or the tone's wrong, or the words aren't coming out," and show them that's really important that we not only model what's good about our process, but also the struggling parts. And so kids don't feel so alone in their own struggle.
That's huge. And especially those students going forward, that are going to have to perform academically on a stage, if they go all the way and get whatever post-secondary degree they might want to get, that's going to be huge for them, if they know that they're in a community of struggle.
Tom: I'd just like to thank you for having this chance to talk with you. And in reading your book, it made me think that unless we talk about these emotions underlying the act of writing, we really can't talk about technique and strategy without kind of addressing these. Maslow talks about the hierarchy of needs, that this is something really basic. And I think that in your writing, your exercises, and your talk about your own process, you've really opened up this really wonderful and important territory. So it's a pleasure to have worked with you on the book and a pleasure to have a chance to talk with you today, Liz.
Liz: Thank you, Tom. It's been a pleasure working with you, as well.
Liz Prather is a writing teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, a gifted arts program at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A classroom teacher with 21years of experience teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level, Liz is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin.
Liz is the author of Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, Story Matters: Teaching Teens to Use the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform, and The Confidence to Write: A Guide for Overcoming Fear and Developing Identity as a Writer.
Thomas Newkirk is the author of numerous Heinemann titles, including Embarrassment, Minds Made for Stories, The Art of Slow Reading, The Performance of Self in Student Writing (winner of the NCTE's David H. Russell Award), and Misreading Masculinity. For almost three decades, Tom taught writing at the University of New Hampshire where he founded the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, a summer program for teachers. In addition to working as a teacher, writer, and editor, he has served as the chair of his local school board.