Mind Over Matter: Overcoming Self-Doubt in Those Opening Lines
May 30, 2018 § 9 Comments
By Anita Gill
On a chilly winter day in Oregon, Laura Hendrie, an award-winning fiction writer, gave a craft talk to a room full of graduate students on the topic of crafting the beginning lines of a story. She looked around the room and asked, “What is it about an opening that pulls me in deeper?” Then, she gave an answer: the authority of language.
Authority. Personally, I don’t feel I have authority over anything, let alone narrating my personal narratives in nonfiction. As I write, tension builds between my shoulder blades. I’m filled with worry. How in the world am I going to pull this off? I think to myself. It may seem funny—that I don’t feel I can carry authority when my storytelling involves personal experience, but my biggest concern comes from my faulty memory. I can remember an incident, but only the actual event comes back clearly. The edges are a blur. What color was the sweater my sister wore? What was the landscape out the car window?
When I sit at my desk and start to write, there’s a voice in my head doing everything in her power to stymie my progress. “Are you sure it happened like that?” she asks. “You might be over-exaggerating.” She’s a real pill. After therapy sessions and recommended reading of Embracing Your Inner Critic by Hal Stone and Sidra Stone, I’ve come to understand that she has a name. She’s the inner critic. She’s the part of me that casts doubt, and while it appears to be self-sabotage, she’s actually doing it to protect me from failure. What if I write this essay and no one ever reads it? What if I write this story and take flak from the literary community?
My inner critic tries to rob me of my authority to tell the story in the first place. Her presence is most visible in my first several drafts, where she’s usually successful in impeding my progress. My opening lines are dull and display a lack of confidence in my own words.
But memory is a muscle that requires daily exercise. When I return to an essay to revise, I’m revisiting that memory all over again. And as I make changes day by day, the blurry edges of my memory become vivid. And as I put words to paper, my steady typing drowns out my inner critic. My first several drafts are just drafts, normally going in chronological order. Once I’ve written them down, I’ve fulfilled my research. I know the story. I can tell it to you in a dimly lit bar while nursing my fourth glass of wine.
From there, I like to start from scratch and open a new document. I write the story again, confident in my knowledge, several drafts of proof saved in a file. My inner critic retreats into a corner, giving me the much-appreciated silent treatment. With my blank document, I feel liberated to write my personal narrative again without clunky sentences from my last draft holding me down. Now, I can start the story wherever I want. And the narrator “I” in my first lines is an expert. She carries that authority I’ve hoped for, the kind that Hendrie wants.
Fighting my faulty memory and my inner critic are struggles I face every morning. Even if I’ve figured out one personal narrative, it doesn’t mean the next will be easier. There’s a Sisyphean element to writing. But writing is enticing because of what we discover about ourselves through the daily practice. We have to keep showing up. And in doing so, we gain authority over our stories.
Anita Gill is a teacher and writer in Los Angeles. She holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Pacific University. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She currently leads the Westside LA Chapter of Women Who Submit, an organization that encourages women and non-binary writers to publish in literary journals. Her website is anitagill.ink.