At the Writer UnBoxed UnConference last week, I led a session in which we explored emotional strategies that would keep writers in good stead for the long haul. Of the many we discussed, the necessity of embracing paradox struck a fresh chord with those present, so I thought I’d expand on that in today’s post.
To embrace paradox means to hold diametrically opposed concepts as equally true. Wisdom literature is rife with paradox, suggesting that we receive through giving, gain through losing, and live through dying. “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it,” said Mahatma Ghandi. Experienced writers have personal experience with this truth. Comedians make use of the inherent absurdity of paradox all the time, from Ellen DeGeneres’s “Procrastinate now. Don’t put it off,” to George Carlin’s “If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?”
As a literary device, a paradox asks the reader to puzzle through a challenging concept. Consider these examples:
“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” This statement from George Orwell’s Animal Farm certainly has the sting of political truth about it.
“The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb,” from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, makes us think about the way nature both gives and takes away life.
“Child is the father of the man”—this phrase from William Wordsworth is a concise way of saying that all childhood experiences lay the groundwork for our future lives; in that way our childhoods “father” us as adults.
As a reader, does encountering paradox excite you or make you toss your literary cookies and run for the hills? As a career writer, you’d best make friends with it, because the writer’s life is full of paradox. A few for your consideration:
Writers must have intense focus but breadth of perception.
Writers must believe in their salability even as they receive rejection after rejection.
Published writers must believe in their worth, yet few will receive life-sustaining paychecks.
Fiction writers make things up to seek the truth.
Authors must invest fully in creating and promoting their product while detaching from its commercial and critical success.
Sound crazymaking? It’s the way of paradox. Yet creatives are well suited to its challenges; we are used to being both “this and that.” In any one writing session we might be both mother and child, healer and destroyer. A powerful wizard or a humble shoemaker.
If this much paradox feels overwhelming, start with the basics.
Start with these crucial paradoxes
As concerns the inner wars of a writer, two seem universal.
1) The ongoing fight for dominance between your creative innocence and your inner critic.
Because our need for creativity is self-evident, our poor inner critics have been demonized to the point that many speak of switching off this valuable creative partner while drafting. I only suggest doing so if you are truly stuck in the mire of perfectionism. Without the influence of your inner critic, you might amass plenty of black marks on previously white pages, but did any of them create words that point you into the depths of your story? Despite our need to quantify progress and slap something down on the page, word count is not our ultimate goal. Story is.
Have you ever thought of what would happen if you gave your inner critic a permanent boot? Your ego would be a runaway train. Improving your work would be impossible because it was perfect to begin with! Even if you got a publishing deal, you’d be unable to work with your editor to mold the work into its most marketable shape. Self-publishing would not be a viable fallback position—without a keenly developed inner editor, your efforts would not take you far.
Embrace both. Critical thinking is key to a successful creative career.
2) The second ongoing fight is waged between your inner artist and your inner businessperson.
I’d be surprised if your inner creative wasn’t your favorite child. Yet if we writers have the capacity to embody all characters while bringing any one scene to the page, why in real life are we always trying to give our inner businessperson the hook—especially when she might be the one holding the key to commercial success?
Writing is an art and publishing is a business, and your happiness (and perhaps your sanity) depends on embracing both. Accepting this challenge is freeing. Think of this the next time an editor tells you, “We honor your process and want to give you all the time you need, of course, but if you could turn those edits around in a week that would be great.”
By pursuing publication you are choosing to move into new digs, and they are located right on the corner of Bohemia and Wall Street. When you look down at the intersection from your second-story writing room, will you see only traffic crashes and bloody casualties, or the flow of opportunity that now surrounds you? The choice is yours.
A writer’s need for emotional balance comes to the fore while bearing down on deadlines, slogging through submission, and worrying over launches, when stress convinces us that only a high-wire act can keep us from falling into a pit of anxiety. Embracing paradox can switch up that metaphor. You aren’t on a high wire after all—you’re on the ground, with one foot planted in a necessarily self-critical territory and the other planted in creative hope. This is a position of strength.
While embracing paradox will help you stay centered, publishing can be a tough arena in which to practice. We work in a “hurry up and wait” industry, and when pushed into either extreme, it can feel like you’re back up on that wire. At such times, when your balance feels wobbly, try your best to embrace this most basic paradoxical truth:
Setbacks and reversals are manna for the creative mind and have their own rewards.
There is a Buddhist saying: “A moment of stress only holds on as long as the heart does not let go.”
Ah, paradox. Our ability to embrace it is a mad skill, and it will hold us in good stead as we navigate the highs and lows of the writing life.
Which of the listed paradoxes do you find most challenging? Can you find a way to love that challenge? Share the love in the comments.
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