How to Train Your Writer — Maria and the Trunchbull
Over the holidays, something happened to me that hadn’t happened in nearly three years: I got sick.
When I woke up on December 23rd with a runny nose, I tried to dismiss it. I pride myself on having an iron constitution, and I was determined to nip it in the bud. I took loads of Vitamin C, sprayed the back of my throat with Zicam, drank lots of water, and loaded up on soup. But by Christmas Eve, I found myself in bed — exhausted, defeated, and sneezing up a storm.
Half-heartedly reading between naps, I had my mother-in-law’s copy of “Becoming a Writer” open beside me. The book was written by Dorothea Brande and published in 1934. It’s a small book — only 150 pages or so — and my mother-in-law had loaned it to me for research on my upcoming book for creatives.
Since I spend my life immersed in the writing world, I was expecting more of what I’d already read and heard on the subject of writing. But 20 pages in, I found myself scribbling frantically in my notebook — amazed by insights and ideas that were so old they were new.
Brande describes the writer as having two sides: one side that has a childlike “innocence of eye” and one side that is more adult — “the artisan, the workman, and the critic.” She describes the artistic side as being endlessly enthralled by the world and walking around with a sort of wide-eyed idealism and fascination. The other side — the critic, the manager, the taskmaster — is the one who wants to make sure the writing gets done and that it is perfect.
Of course, this idea that every writer has a sensitive “inner artist” has made its way into Julia Cameron’s body of work. Stephen King talks about the importance of writing the first draft with the door closed and editing with the door open — in other words, giving airtime to both the sensitive artist and the blunt critic. But I feel that some of the practical advice for dealing with these two disparate sides on a day-to-day basis has been lost.
As a working writer, I always assumed that I just had to achieve a balance between these two aspects of my being. (I’d thought of them as two sides of the same coin rather than two different coins.) I thought I had to learn to harness their strengths, beat out their weaknesses, and fuse them together as one cohesive unit to avoid feeling as though I were suffering from some kind of multiple personality disorder.
Brande advocates a different approach — one that I found revolutionary.
She writes, “It is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two.”
I’ll repeat that for emphasis: Teach yourself as though you were not one person, but two.
For elementary-school teachers, this is not all that revolutionary. If you have a classroom filled with different types of learners, you alter your teaching methods to fit their strengths and preferences. Some kids do fine with rote memorization, while others need brightly colored blocks in their hands to understand addition and subtraction.
Why can’t adults teach themselves the same way? Offer your inner artist a big piece of butcher paper and colored markers for brainstorming; offer your taskmaster a crisp Excel spreadsheet to log your daily word count.
I think the reason we don’t normally treat ourselves this way is that for most of us, one persona tends to be a lot more vocal than the other. On a daily basis, I tend to hear “Hurry up!” or “Just 300 more words!” or “You should really be more organized” more than I hear “Wow, that’s interesting!” or “What if I just tried this . . .”
It’s completely natural for one persona to become more dominant over time. In fact, that’s what society tells us a healthy psyche looks like. (We’re after consistency rather than balance here.)
However, writing requires the skill sets of two very different people. If writers try to fuse both aspects of themselves into one (or desert one persona entirely), many will experience feelings of inadequacy, burnout, or simply a lack of performance over the course of their careers.
For years, I let the taskmaster dominate my writing life. I was up at 6:00 every morning pounding the keys. I flogged myself until I hit my word-count goals, and I did not allow myself even a breath to recharge between projects. As one might expect, I got a lot done, but I began to suffer from burnout and a sort of creative panic about three years after my first book was published.
It was not until I recognized that I was suffocating my sensitive artist side that my writing life really began to flourish. The Artist’s Way was almost like a doctor’s note telling me to eat ice cream and pudding after a tonsillectomy. It was permission to do the things I’d only ever guiltily indulged in before. I started giving myself a break between books, going on trips just for fun, going to antique stores, picking up new hobbies, and taking myself to the symphony.
These things may sound frivolous on the surface, but I found them to be absolutely revolutionary for my writing. Once I started nurturing my childlike fascinations, my work became richer, more fulfilling — and, ultimately, more sustainable. Locales I’d visited became rich backdrops for my novels. The antique jewelry I’d learned about became costume pieces for my characters. And I’d emerge from brief sabbaticals feeling refreshed and recharged.
You probably already know which of the two “writer personas” you favor, but if you don’t, I’ve developed a little quiz to help you learn whether you are in balance and, if not, how you can help these two personas reconcile.
One tactic I’ve found helpful is to name your two personas. I don’t mean give them names like Nancy and Esméralda — though that might help. I mean make them into characters. I think of my artist persona as Maria from “The Sound of Music” frolicking in the meadow with her arms spread wide. I think of my critic/taskmaster side as Miss Trunchbull from “Matilda.” (You may like to think of your inner artist as Frankie Bergstein from “Grace and Frankie” and your taskmaster as Grace Hanson.)
The critic/taskmaster doesn’t have to be evil or a stick in the mud. But if you naturally give more airtime to your critic, it may be helpful to use this type of characterization to take him or her down a few pegs.
Once you give these two personas recognition, then you can start to think about how you could coax your dormant persona out of hiding — and keep your dominant persona in check. I might decide to give my Maria ukulele lessons or a funny new hat. Meanwhile, purchasing new bookkeeping software might keep the Trunchbull happy until I get through a rough draft of my novel.
Some days, I wake up feeling as though the world is my meadow, and I need a sharp dose of The Trunch to keep me on task. Other days I need to write, but I’m feeling bogged down by self-doubt and perfectionism. When this happens, I might put on a fun outfit or some really wacky jewelry to embody the artist. Or I might promise myself two hours to do whatever I want if I can hit 3,000 words.
My blanket advice is to do whatever works — no matter how silly or arbitrary it may seem. There is some deep psychological trickery going on, and it doesn’t really matter if you fully understand it. What matters is that you are able to write — and write in a healthy way — for the duration of your life.
What about you? Are you letting Maria or Miss Trunchbull run your life? How do you plan to keep your dominant persona in check while giving life to your dormant persona?