For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Seeking Legitimacy

'The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.'
Sylvia Plath

For the first few months of writing this blog, the posts came with ease and clarity as if they were a gift. I looked forward to sitting down each week and discovering what I wanted to say. But for the past few weeks I've been struggling to find words, finding myself moving from one idea to the next, not satisfied with anything. Instead of an hour or two, my posts were taking a day of struggle and even then I wasn't certain of the result. I was fretting and irritable and losing confidence, and like a virus, this was spreading into my other writing as well, leaving me unable to settle to my novel or any other project.

My problems were exacerbated when a week ago my new novel, Flight, received a vitriolic review in a major newspaper. At some stage in their publishing career all writers get a bad review, so I knew it had to come. Flight had already received reviews; some excellent, others more measured, weighing the good with the bad, but this was the first time I had experienced anything cruel. I tried to be rational about it, tried to tell myself I was bigger than this, that it didn't matter, that everyone has a right to an opinion, that reading is a subjective enterprise and the reader is bringing themselves to the process, along with their own baggage. But no matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn't move on from the cruelty of it. Instead I fretted and felt sorry for myself and in the end my back went into spasm and I caught a cold, sure signs that time out was needed for me to take a good long look at myself.

My husband sat me down and told me to stop struggling against it. 'You're worrying about your readers,' he said. 'Stop thinking about their expectations and write from your heart again.' His words hit me with the force of truth. Even before this review, I had begun to worry about disappointing my readers, and I had begun questioning my legitimacy as a writer and even a teacher. This may sound strange to many readers. After all, I can list my credentials: two published novels, many years experience as a teacher of creative writing and as an editor and mentor, as well as a completed PhD exploring the nature and purpose of story. On paper I am highly qualified but for some reason a good CV isn't enough. Nothing is enough because I (like many others), carry such a lot of self doubt, which leaves me prone to concentrating on what I haven't got rather than being grateful for what I have.

This review pressed a number of buttons within me, all related to emotional memories of illegitimacy. For the past few days, while I have been immobilised with a sore back and a cold, memories of childhood have been bubbling up, snapshots that have been stored as scar tissue. My adoptive father pulling out his account book yet again to show me the column of numbers in red ink that flowed page after page. 'Expenses,' he'd say. 'This is what you owe me.' At my grandmother's wake, the will being read to a long list of recipients and my ten year old self waiting expectantly for my windfall; a bed perhaps (no, my sister got that), or a set of china, even a lounge chair or a vase. Then the disbelief, the anger and the despair when my name wasn't there. Memory after memory. . . A childhood full of accusations - adopted, illegitimate, bad blood. . . A childhood full of threats - reform school, sickness, hell. . . A childhood full of fear. . . A childhood I thought I had recovered from.

No matter how great our recovery from emotional wounds, scar tissue always remains and we will occasionally stumble into situations that will reopen old wounds. Perhaps the best we can do is recognise this and in so doing, not allow ourselves to place unconscious limitations on our lives. I have met many students who have decided not to publish because they are too sensitive, too afraid of the responses from readers and reviewers. And I have also met many talented would-be writers who have decided not to write again because they have received hurtful criticism. Over the years I have assessed thousands of manuscripts and reviewed a number of published novels. I know that each person whose writing I engage with has put themselves into their work and I know that this makes them vulnerable because their manuscript has become an extension of themselves. When we look at and comment on the work of another we have a great deal of influence and should approach it with a sense of responsibility. For an editor or reviewer, the distinction between reaction and assessment is crucial, as is the balance between flattery and constructive criticism. Many writers suffer from this process of sharing because the reader is dismissive, cruel, or simply without the skills to articulate their thoughts clearly.

So, how can we share our writing with others and emerge unscathed? Perhaps we can't. Perhaps we have to take that risk because we need to remain open to constructive criticism. It's vital to be honest enough with our work and with ourselves to see where improvement is required or where we have gone wrong, otherwise we simply stagnate. If we write to please, then we won't write from our hearts and consequently we will have lost something of great value. In a sense this review was a gift because it forced me to see an area in my life where I was still reacting and gave me the opportunity to explore my own issues around legitimacy. Hopefully next time I will be able to stand my ground and not react so dramatically to the cutting words of another. I have understood that if we seek legitimacy outside of ourselves we will not find it, because we leave ourselves vulnerable and in fear, at the mercy of the indifference or cruelty of individuals or even of society, which validates some while denigrating others. No matter how hard we struggle we cannot control the reactions of others but with work we can control our own reactions. So we have to look inside for our sense of self worth, a sturdy sense that will keep us grounded through the ups and downs of life. It's not easy but if we try, then our lives will be richer for it. As Ernest Hemingway once said (along these lines): 'If you believe them when they tell you you're great then you've got to believe them when they tell you you're crap.'

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:


  1. Negative reviews hurt, but they are the opinion of only one person. I have had a couple and tell myself--if the reviewer was a woman, which is usually the case with children's books--that she was likely suffering from PMS, or had a fight with her husband, or her children are driving her nuts. So, for what it's worth, to paraphrase Hemingway: If you believe them when they tell you you're crap, then you've got to believe me when I tell you you're great!

    1. Thanks Karen, you're right, the whole thing is terribly subjective. Best to stay steady through the ups and the downs.

  2. I don't believe in crictism that is destructive, I think it often given by people who have never tried to write or written a book. I think that review (didn't read it ) from the way it made you feel was destructive not constructive. Like many writers, I too a accept crictism but it should be constructive even if negative.
    I hope that you can keep believing

    1. Thanks for your comments Tavonga. Yes, I agree, constructive criticism is much more useful. I'll keep believing.

  3. Rosie I'd like to see both the good and the bad reviews of your writing. Those reviews have nothing to do with the truth of your story-stories, only with the subjective opinion of an other person. We may judge them critically too. I think m...any of us have emotively driven childhoods similar to yours and I think we write best when we write from our central core, that place of the gift that is born with us and shaped by the experiences we were fortunate to have as children. Experiences that enable us to see the 'good' parent as flawed, and pained, and hopeful as we all are. I see the times when it is difficult to write as creative spaces, gathering from the past through the wisdom of the body, getting ready for the tide to change and bring forth the fruit of new understanding. I look forward to many more of your blogs.

  4. Thanks Bernel, you've said it beautifully.