Loathing is a Strong Word to Apply to One’s Self

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.

41 Comments on “Loathing is a Strong Word to Apply to One’s Self”

  1. There are writers who struggle with all kinds of personal image, self-esteem, etc. But the Salon article (disclosure: I only skimmed it) appears to deal with an entirely different phenomenon, the one I call “Literary Self-Wankery.”

  2. Brené Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability and shame have a lot to say about this. One key finding I took away from them was the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is saying, “I made a mistake,” while shame is saying, “I am a mistake.” Because writing is a series of decisions, it’s easy to conflate the realization that you made a bad decision with wording or plot or character or any other element of the construction with the idea that you are a bad writer in general. Bad writing is a series of bad decisions on a variety of levels. It’s the wrong choice, made constantly. But a single mistake does not a bad writer make.

  3. The article derailed from self-loathing to false confidence to entitlement. So what was the point? I am not a white writer but I am a man…sooo I should hate myself but still be able to appear confident? Okay, but now I’m just confused. (Maybe confusion is in a writer’s blood?)

  4. The writer of the article may be stretching the point, but there’s some truth to be learned from that sort of anguish. Maybe Van Gogh and David Foster Wallace would have produced better art as well-adjusted people, but I doubt it.

    I just finished Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, and I expected horror (there was little), but not the pain and beauty of the story of a recovering alcoholic. It’s so powerful and true that I read a bit of King’s bio and wasn’t surprised to learn he’d been through it himself. In an interview he tells the story of watching his kid’s little league game when the coach comes up to him and says, “If that’s beer in the bag, you’ll need to leave.” He says that was something he’d never tell anyone else, though of course that’s what AA asked him to do.

    At any rate, there are people who reach the point of self loathing, and some stay there and some recover, and important writing can come from it. Can a writer a who’s never been down that low write the truth of that sort of thing? It would take a Shakespeare.

  5. The feeling that one is no good as a writer (or as a person) can end up keeping you from writing at all. Been there, done that.

    And just because you know something is anything from counterproductive to outright stupid doesn’t necessarily mean you can stop doing it. This, among other reasons, is why Dr. Phil is an asshole.

  6. They say the same thing about visual artists and my brother, who is quite talented and made a career of them, has never had any truck with this argument either. He knows he’s generally okay, even if a particular piece doesn’t work out. And while he enjoys a recreational chemical or three, it’s in his off-hours.

  7. I used to have a problem with self-loathing (being a drunken crack-head will do that to you), but then I got sober and started doing esteemable things. Cleared the problem right up.

  8. It’s statements like Salon’s that lead people to refuse treatment, because they believe that they’ll lose all their creativity if they’re mentally healthy. It’s a terrible, destructive myth, and sadly one that many, many people believe. Shame on them for perpetuating it.

  9. Sure, I go through the “is this really any good” and “is anyone going to want to read this” headspace when I’m writing, especially now that I’m working on a book. But on the whole? I have found myself liking myself a lot better in the years since I started writing seriously.

    Also, the whole thing in the Salon article about the author feeling like a fraud about calling herself a writer because she hasn’t finished a book? I figure that writing is writing. Some people write long better. Some people write short better. Some lucky people do both well. But both are writers, at least in my universe.

    And now, I’ve got to get back to work on the book.

  10. It isn’t loathing. I call it “Quality Assurance.” I am creating a product, a story. My customers—readers—expect and deserve a good product for their hard-earned money. It is part of my job to ensure that readers are getting that quality. That means I have to reread what I wrote and make sure that it is up to snuff. There have been times I thought what I wrote to be absolute genius, only to reread it a few days later and conclude I should have gone to bed rather than continue writing.

    I tell people, one doesn’t write a book so much as one refines a story into a book.

  11. Something or another I read recently introduced me to a wonderful term: “writerer”. This being the species of writer or aspirant writer whose primary concern is talking about what makes one a writer, and what it means to be a writer, and so on, rather than writing. So, y’know, people who want to be writers for the sake of the cultural cachet associated with the term and the sexual perquisites thereof, mainly.

    Self-loathing is nothing in particular to do with being a writer, but everything to do with being a writerer.

  12. I’m with you. Self-loathing is something some people have and need help for. I’ve found, therapy, medication, and a life and death situation got me over most of my self-loathing problems. Self-confidence or feelings about writing at the moment are very different from self-loathing. I’m much more confident in some situations and with some kinds of writing than others.

    Don’t tie your identity up with just one thing. Be more, be human, be a friend, maybe a spouse and/or a parent, have hobbies, don’t just be a writer.

  13. @Janci: Too right, it’s utter bunk that self-loathing and depression are requirements for genius.

    Tim H:
    “Can a writer a who’s never been down that low write the truth of that sort of thing? It would take a Shakespeare.” Or King himself, who found a deep well of empathy for a persecuted teen girl, even though he himself never had pig’s blood dumped on him at a prom, long before he hit rock bottom and recovered. A talented writer can express empathy without having to crawl through the hell of self-doubt and depression first.

  14. John of course you get it exactly right. I think it would actually be much harder to succeed as a self-loathing writer than, say, a self-loathing plumber because (a) plumbers have a lot more career structure and support, and (b) plumbers don’t draw as much from within.

    True self-loathing (as opposed to facile expressions of it) is far more likely to lead to a block than anything.

    The “writing is agony; my life is misery” trope is an example of grandiosity, a perfectionist characteristic. http://www.hillaryrettig.com/perfectionism/ Every time someone promotes this viewpoint, it feeds many writers’ blocks. And when an established, successful writer says it, it’s even worse–both because his/her views are taken more seriously and because it smacks of macho, grandiose posturing and self-indulgence. After all, their successful writers life is one that many people would kill for, and no one’s forcing them to do it. They could go out and get other jobs if they wanted to.

    (I teach writing productivity at The Loft, Grub Street Writers, Mark Twain House, SavvyAuthors.com and many other venues.)

  15. @Tasha Turner: On the other hand, self-loathing is something other people have and richly deserve.

  16. @Mikes75. True. But I do think people who’ve personally plumbed the dirty rotten hell holes of existence might have something unique to tell us. Whether or not they ever manage to climb out.

  17. Janci: Yes, exactly. I labored under that delusion for years. Funny how much more I write now that I’m not depressed. Much less time staring at the screen thinking, “I suck,” and much more time spent typing away. Better living through chemistry!

    Also, plebiscite would be my word of the day if I could figure out how to pronounce it. I must find a way to work it into an email.

  18. I’m currently in treatment to have my self-loathing removed. I’ve recently resumed work on an incomplete novel after a painfully long stuck place. You may draw your own conclusions.

  19. I’ve been living with self-loathing for years (I’m female and fat, society positively encourages me to despise myself). I’m starting to make a slow recovery through use of things like notepads. I have two going at present. In one, each day, I record at least three things which have gone right. This is important, because I’m also depressive as a matter of course, and therefore have no problems with seeing the things which have gone wrong in my day. At least recording the ones which have gone right (no matter how small they are) or the good things about each day helps me to gain a sense of balance about the day.

    The second notebook is one I’ve only started recently. In that one, I record all the things I’ve accomplished throughout the day, no matter how small. I started that one because I’ve been feeling a bit down and useless lately, and as though I’m not actually achieving anything (and what will do that is being unemployed for over six months, combined with the above-mentioned depression). So I decided I’d start recording what I do achieve on a daily basis. I’m also paying myself 10c per item achieved, and allowing myself 1 treat per 5 items, and keeping track of that in a spreadsheet, along with various savings goals. “Treats” in context include things like an hour of gaming time, or a slice of a fancy cake or similar. I’m finding I actually achieve quite a bit each day, and I don’t really credit how much I’m doing until it’s written down.

    So, little steps, baby steps, but I’m starting to chip away at over forty years of thinking of myself as a person who achieves nothing, and who only has bad things happening to them.

    (On the writer thing: I’ve been keeping track of comments I’ve written on various blogs for the year. I may do a quick copy/paste of the lot of ’em into a single document just to get a word count. I’m pretty sure I’ve probably written well over 100,000 words in the year. Not all of them posted, and not all of them particularly relevant, but I reckon it means I count as a writer. Plus there’s the bits of fanfic I’m chipping away at.)

  20. I’ll be the first to admit that I dunno a whole lot about biology, but isn’t the liver and the kidneys what’s supposed to filter out the self-loathing?

  21. Wow, that article is a huge mishmash of conflated and misguided notions about emotions, writing, causation, correlation, and sanity. The first mistake by the author seems to be assuming that everyone else is just like them. If they’re self loathing, then all other authors are self loathing. And then proceeds to mine quotes from other authors that support that idea. it goes downhil from there.

  22. Great art has been made about self-loathing, yes. Great art has also been made about poverty, about cancer, about addiction…suggesting writers “need to” experience any of these harrowing things seems bizarrely cruel and shallow.

    I have battled horrendous self-loathing at the cost of thousands and thousands of dollars over the past thirty-odd years. There is nothing any more enlightening or inspiring about it than about any other grindingly awful life experience.

  23. I very slightly disagree. I think that writing (along with many other forms of art) is subject to an additional sort of pressure that doctors, plumbers, etc don’t get. If you tell people you write they ask what your “real” job is. Writing is often denigrated as “not real work” or “just a hobby” in ways that other non-artistic professions and occupations are not. This sort of presumptive negative judgment can cause artistic/creative types of all sorts, including writers, to internalize the message and turn it into self-loathing.

    I often think of Laurie Anderson’s song “Baby Doll” where she talks about how her brain is really “bossy” and says things like “why don’t you get a real job?” Of course the song is humorous but it has kernels of real truth in it.

  24. Also, about seeing a doctor: if someone had severe psoriatic arthritis, I doubt that they would think, “Oh, good, now I can write something as good as The Singing Detective!” Mental illness is illness; that’s why it’s got “illness” right in the name.

  25. Possibly the best thing that has been said on this topic comes from a New Yorker book review:

    “And throughout there is the crafty narcissism of self-hatred, which permits its adepts to indulge in an unlimited amount of self-regard without risking the accusation of vanity.”

  26. @chaosprime: Awesome quote, thanks for sharing. I’m adding it to my notebook.

    On topic: One of the reasons that I keep a day job, and don’t ever plan to write full time, is the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the work day. I know that I am very good at that work, and–like a plumber–when the work is done, it is *done.*

    My writing is different–it takes months and months to complete, and there’s a toll for the delayed gratification. But I’m also bipolar, so I have coping mechanisms that others may not need.

  27. Sometimes writers make mistakes such as engaging in hyperbole or exaggeration when describing the feeling they mean. One such mistake is to describe as self-loathing the feeling that overcomes you while, in self-critical mode, you correct a bad mistake you just made in that first draft just now.

    Sometimes, if you’re real lucky, such mistakes inspire rants by John Scalzi on his blog.

    As for the salon article, I tried to read it, and it’s much less worthwhile than the rant it inspired. I thought I was being witty until I actually tried to read the whole article, which is not one single exaggeration or hyperbole, but an entire deliberate metaphor, expounded, propounded upon, elaborated, and delivered.

    But there’s a point of sensitivity. I think we all (and I mean anyone who writes more than just a few times, not just pros) understand that if we’re going to write something well, we need to write a first draft while turning our self-critical brains into sleep-mode for just a little bit, and then go back and revise that f**ker like hell. Everyone who writes has met that moment when the “revise that f**cker like hell” mind meets the mistake that was committed by the “turning our self-critical brains into sleep-mode for just a bit” selves. I think that’s the moment that inspired the horribly misguided salon article, and I approve of John Scalzi for tamping that particular overreaction back down where it belongs.

  28. One of the first things they told us, when we were about to become TAs for English classes, was to direct praise to the author and criticism to the essay (e.g. your thesis is great; this essay doesn’t fully support the thesis).

    One of the first ideas I pass along to my freshmen is Anne Lamott’s, that unless one dies suddenly before revision can happen, a first draft needn’t be a final draft, so students shouldn’t think of themselves as “bad writers” based on inadequate first drafts. (Her colourful language helps make the point stick.)

    Also, I see in many students a belief that they “just aren’t good writers.” It’s a belief that seems to be based on how lousy their first drafts are.

    What I’m trying to turn my attention to is the varying distance between oneself and one’s work; am I what I do? Perhaps even more to the point is the distance perceived by others: you are what you do. With writers/writing…both seem more closely affiliated than with other people/labors.

    I get that imaginative/creative production makes (or at least seems to make) a strong identification with its author (I am my work / my work represents me). On the other hand, weren’t the rooms I cleaned just as much my work when I had a summer job as a housekeeper? (For that matter, my own clean home seems like an achievement of mine, at least in the moment when I’ve just finished vacuuming.)

    Or, as Vonnegut wrote, “Do be do be do — Sinatra”

  29. Ursula Vernon has wise words to say about the differences between the what goes into your writing and what the reader experiences.
    It doesn’t directly speak to the problems of self-loathing in writers (which I quite agree affects only a small subset of the group) but I found it very helpful to keep in mind.

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