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Zen Peacekeeper.







First, hammer the nails.

Thursday, July 26, 2012 by Marianne Elliott

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Last week a reviewer of Zen Under Fire wrote:

I am disturbed by the lack of dramatic emphasis which a more experienced writer may have been able to create.

Anyone who puts their writing out into the world will understand the particular agony I feel when I read a review of Zen Under Fire in which the critic says exactly what my own inner critic has been telling me. In this case, that a more experienced writer would have done a better job of telling this story.

I’m slowly learning the following:

  • You can’t please everyone, any more than you can write for everyone. This reviewer, for example, found the sections of Zen Under Fire that told the story of my relationship with Joel to be unnecessary and unwelcome intrusions into an otherwise interesting book. Many other readers have told me those same passages were essential to their enjoyment of Zen Under Fire, because they allowed readers to identify with me. 
  • When a criticism of your work echoes your own worst doubts and fears, your inner critic will try to use that ‘evidence’ to convince you to give up completely. Don’t give up. We have a tendency to look for evidence to support our own fears, and overlook evidence that disproves them. What helps me is to remember that everyone (with the possible exception of psychopaths) harbours doubts and fears about their work. What distinguishes great writers is not that they have no doubts, but that they keep writing despite those doubts. And because they keep writing, they get better. 

This week I’m finally beginning the process of making some changes to Zen Under Fire for the US edition. I was supposed to start last week, but I didn’t. I could give you a long list of reasons why I didn’t. But the real reason is that I let my inner critic get hold of that one sentence from that one review and use it to convince me that I really am not a good enough writer.

What changed?

Firstly, I saw what was happening. I understood that this particular line in this particular review was paralysing me because it echoed my own fears about my writing. Just seeing that helped ease it’s grip on me.

Secondly, I decided to use this as a motivation to keep writing, rather than to give up. Although I don’t believe the little voice that tells me I’m not good enough, never will be good enough and might as well give up, I do want to be a better writer and the only way to become a better writer is to keep practicing.

Thirdly, I read this, in ‘On Writing Well‘ by William Zinsser:

First then, hammer the nails, and if what you build is sturdy and serviceable, take satisfaction in its plain strength.

And, to my surprise, I realised I was satisfied. Zen Under Fire may not be perfect. It may even be true that a more experienced writer would have been able to do more with the story. But I hammered the nails of that story pretty straight. What I built is sturdy and serviceable. And I take satisfaction in that.

I’ve been thinking about craft lately: the craft of writing, of teaching, of story-telling. When I think of writing as a craft, it gives me permission to be a beginner, to be an apprentice of the craft. When I was writing Zen Under Fire, I studied the craft of non-fiction writing. I did this by reading a lot of creative non-fiction. I read wonderful memoirs – and tried to work out what made them wonderful. I read memoirs that were not-so-wonderful (in my humble opinion). I read books on writing memoir, and non-fiction – including ‘On Writing Well‘ by William Zinsser.

And I decided that the biggest challenge for me, in writing Zen Under Fire, was going to be cultivating a simplicity and clarity of sentence and style that would allow readers to identify with and care about a topic as potentially complex as Afghanistan, and as potentially melodramatic as my own emotional and psychological meltdown.

I took Zinsser’s words to heart:

The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.

I wrote about difficult and turbulent emotions with as much simplicity and clarity as I could find and I worked to craft simple sentences to describe the ambiguous and often confusing political and social context in Afghanistan.

I hammered my nails as straight as I could. Which was, I decided, the first task of the apprentice memoirist. I took on the challenge of mastering this first level of my craft, and now I can take satisfaction in the plain strength of my book.

Maybe you’re not a writer. Maybe your craft is cooking, or coaching, or website design. Whatever your craft, it’s so easy to compare ourselves to people who have been at it for so much longer. In yoga class we compare ourselves to the teacher. As writers we compare ourselves to our favorite authors. This kind of comparison gets in the way of our ability to recognise, and celebrate, our ability to hammer the nails straight.

First, hammer the nails.

Then take time to stand back and enjoy the plain beauty of your straight nails.





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14 Responses to "First, hammer the nails."

  1. Anne-Marie says:

    Mmmm, I like this metaphor – “hammer your nails straight”. It’s a good way to do anything.

  2. Glad you are working through this- growing, glowing, healing, and loving yourself. This was a great article from Danielle Laporte recently about writing/publishing and reviews.

  3. Mary says:

    I always need this reminder. Thanks, Marianne. xo

  4. asiyah says:

    My first thought was that no one could’ve written this book with so much beauty, nuance and heart as you did, which is why I love it.

  5. Roxanne says:

    Marianne, you are a lesson in courage. Endless love to you.

  6. Diana Stevan says:

    What a beautiful post, and a helpful one, too. I’ve been writing a very long time and have published little. I see it as a journey. As they say, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination. Your experience post-review resonated with me. I recall when I was attempting to get one of my screenplays produced, I took to heart the criticism, and didn’t pay attention to the glowing statements of my work. So instead of soaking up the positives, I soaked up the negatives and rewrote the sucker ad nauseum. Trying to please, but as you say, you can’t please them all. Writing is like art. The reader is as subjective as the viewer.

    So, kudos to you for putting this post out there. If more of us paid attention to the lessons you’ve learned, we’d be better off as writers. It is important to pay attention to criticism, but equally important to weigh it and decide whether it’s valid or not.

  7. What refreshing honesty – and wonderful commitment to the art and the craft – and the story.

    I haven’t (yet) read your book, but there was obviously a really important story that needed to be told. I think, on different levels, many people do, and that the telling of it is actually what matters most.

  8. Paula says:

    I love the simplicity of “hammering the nails”. That’s really what everything we undertake is about, isn’t it? Step by step to completion and if each step “sits”, then the rest will come about by itself.

    On another note, as a reader who lives part time in Europe and part time in the U.S., why were you asked to change your manuscript for the U.S. version? Were you asked to make changes in certain content or in how you tell the story? Now we can get books from anywhere in the world, but it interests me that changes are made in texts like this one for a particular “market” or reading public. Hmmm.

  9. THank you for the inspiration. Sometimes, most times, I am surprised that others feel the same fear that I feel. I’ve convinced myself that it can’t be THAT bad for anyone else…knowing of course that it is, that we all struggle in our own way. I’m sorry it (comment) set you back but look what you did with it. You transformed it. Not only did you decide that you were satisfied with what you wrote you but you are also encouraging us to 1)find out what we can learn by ‘negative’ feedback and also 2) give ourselves permission to say that what we did, who we are/is can be ‘just right’. No need to try to please everyone. But. Ourselves.

  10. Lisa McKay says:

    Great post. Loved the part about criticism hitting particularly hard when it echoes our own fears, and that it’s so worthwhile acknowledging those fears and the fact that all our work is to some extent training ground and work in progress even as it can be a sturdy, simple thing of beauty in it’s own right!

  11. Raymond Duke says:

    This post resonates with a phrase that has been popping into my head more lately. This phrase is “I could have done better.” After asking around what others thought of that phrase, and doing some introspection, I took a similar approach to you and found that a initial feeling of negativity can be reproached to become something positive.

    Great post, here is one of my own I did today:

  12. […] I have so much respect for Marianne Elliott because of her honest writing, such as in this post, First, hammer the nails, in which she talks about taking […]

  13. Renate Frech says:

    Your courage and honesty are inspiring; and they are also much more, it is as if you would light the spark of courage in others, to express the inner thoughts, to pursue the personal ideas and to trust the inner creativity. I admire your clarity, and it helps to take a step – to step out and feel the wind of criticism, feed-back and my own inner ‘enemy’ – my most critical inner voice. I still have to read your book – but it is on the top of my ‘reading list’. Thank you!

  14. […] couple of weeks ago I wrote about ‘hammering the nails’ of my writing, a lesson I learned from William Zinsser in his book ‘On Writing Well‘. I’ve been […]

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