Loathing is a Strong Word to Apply to One’s Self
“Self-loathing is in the writer’s blood.” What? No. http://t.co/3W9SwUeEsG
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) December 17, 2013
I’m a writer and I really don’t have self-loathing in my blood, or in my liver or indeed in any other organ or part of my body (including the brain, which I suspect is ultimately the relevant organ under discussion here). As a result I am more than vaguely annoyed by the declaration above, which comes from a Salon article about “Literary Self Loathing.”
This is not to say that on more than one occasion I have not had doubts or concerns about my writing — the thing that writers do when they’re in the middle of writing a book and they think to themselves okay, honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing and that’s going to be obvious to anyone who reads this thing is something that happens to me, oh, a lot. I have concerns about whether my reach exceeds my grasp, whether what I’m writing compares well to what I’ve written before, and what the response to the work will be. I think this is both normal and probably healthy — the ability to criticize one’s own work is often key to having work that doesn’t entirely suck.
But none of that is about self-loathing. Self-criticism is “what I am writing right now isn’t good, and I need to find a way to make it better.” Self-loathing is “what I am writing right now isn’t good, I suck, I have always sucked and I have neither the talent nor the ability to write this, I should never have tried and why did I ever think I was any good at writing at all.” Even more simply put, it’s the difference between “this writing sucks” and “I suck.” Personally speaking I think one of these is helpful; the other one really is not. It’s also not helpful to confuse the two.
Are there writers who are self loathing? Absolutely, because there are people who are self-loathing, and writers are a subset of people. There are also doctors who are self-loathing, plumbers who are self-loathing, farmers who are self-loathing and so on. There are also writers who are not self-loathing. There are excellent writers who grapple with self-loathing; there are excellent writers who don’t (there are mediocre and terrible writers in each category as well, of course). Trying to typify all writers as self-loathing is as useful as typifying all writers as anything, save the base, practical definition of “someone who writes.”
Speaking personally, I am not a self-loathing writer primarily because I am not a self-loathing sort of person in general. I have my tics and neuroses, and as noted above I have a healthy regard for my fallibility as a writer, in terms of quality of output (I try not to inflict the bad stuff on the rest of the world). But fundamentally I am okay with myself, and I am fortunate that the construction of my brain doesn’t neurochemically incline me toward depression and/or self-loathing.
Also, and this is important, while writing is a very big part of who I am, it is not absolutely central to my idea of myself — which is to say, when I have a stretch of poor or indifferent writing, I don’t see it as an existential plebiscite on who I am as a human being. It just means I’m writing poorly at the moment. Hopefully I will snap out of it.
Finally, with regard to writing, my ability to do so and its relation to me as a worthwhile human being, the fact that I’ve been writing professionally for coming on to a quarter of a century now assures me that this is in fact something I can do pretty well. At this point in time any feelings of impostor syndrome (the neurotic underling of self-loathing) would pretty much be a luxury. All that time also reinforces to me the idea that writing is a learned skill and a trade — which is again separate from who I am as a person.
I think people who are writers and who are also the sort of self-loathe can possibly use that self-loathing as a tool in some way, but personally I suspect if you’re genuinely deep in the throes of self-loathing, as a writer or whomever, your first stop should be a doctor, to see if that’s something that’s treatable. It might be easier to deal with the writing that sucks if you’re not thinking that therefore, you suck.