In Jail for Killing My Critique Group Partner: Step Four Example

Step 4: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

So, one night, years ago, way before I was published, I left my critique group and I realized I hated one of the members. Hated her like the Devil hates puppies. This woman would open her mouth and I’d just want to hit her. So that night, around midnight, as I lay there, not sleeping, hating on her, I realized I needed to inventory why she troubled me so much. Because it’s a spiritual axiom; if I’m feeling upset, there is something wrong with me.

Above all, I wanted to be free from the resentment. Hating people is hard work, and I’m a busy guy.

So I got up, went to my computer, and here is a perfect example of using the 4th-Step inventory process to work through a resentment. I changed the name to protect the innocent.

I’m Resentful At:
Betty Smith

The Cause
I am resentful at Betty because her book was terrible, and yet she is so hard on my book, and she knows so little. She thinks she knows all about young adult fiction and how young adults talk and she doesn’t. She’s mean and critical.

How does this resent affect my self-esteem, security, ambitions, personal relation, sex relations? What are my belief systems?
I am… worthless. I can’t write. I should give up.

I want…everyone to like my writing.

I need…to know I’m not wasting my time and that I do have an audience.

Pocketbook…None. Well, my future booksales might be hurt if she is right and that scares me.

A Real Man…should give up if they can’t do things perfectly. A real man wouldn’t embarrass themselves by showing the world subpar work.

A Real Woman…only wants a man who does things perfectly and doesn’t want to see any weakness or imperfection.

Where was I selfish, dishonest, self-seeking, and afraid?
I am selfish because I have talent. Just like my daughter Asha has talents. Like my daughter Ella has talents. When I disregard my talents, it’s like Asha or Ella saying they are bad and wrong. It’s not the truth and it’s selfish and prideful for me to think I’m so awful. Like Dave said, “Quit talking bad about yourself.” It’s self-indulgent.

I am dishonest because I know I’m not worthless and I know I can write. I am the real thing. Like other published writers I’ve read. I’m also being dishonest with myself because deep down I don’t believe real men should do everything perfectly, and I don’t believe that’s all women want.

I am self-seeking because I don’t want to write for an audience. I want to churn stuff out for my own sense of accomplishment, and then not show it to anyone. And it’s self-seeking to want to be the best, above reproach, above critique, so everyone will praise me and tell me how great I am.

I’m afraid that I’ll never get published. And I’m afraid that if I do get published, I won’t have an audience.

* * *

So that was the inventory. Since it was late, I waited until the next day to call a friend of mine. I then read over the inventory and shared what was going on with me and this woman. At the next critique group, I was free of Betty Smith and I could listen to her. She didn’t have to change, I did. Once I could see the triggers, I could let Betty be Betty.

She did me a service, even if she wasn’t very pleasant. I needed to think about an audience, even if it was just one person, and that’s what really got stuck in my craw. It’s an overwhelming idea and I was afraid. But once I worked through it, I felt better.

Over the years, I’ve inventoried my hatred of other writers better than me, the whole writing industry, writing as an art form (lonely–at least being a musician you get to hang out in bars), people not liking my writing enough, feeling cursed by God for being a writer, and the list goes on.

There is no way I could have continued to write with all of the emotional baggage hanging over my head. I had to get to the other side, and for the most part, I did, but nothing is perfect. I relapse into negative thinking all the time and that’s why in 12–Step programs they say, “practicing the steps” or “working the steps.” In a very real sense, we’re never done.

Notice, part of the inventory process is the fifth step, sharing it with another person.

But we’re not done quite yet. Next week, we’ll talk fear. Don’t be afraid. I’ll be right there with you all the way.

When Your Back is Up Against the Wall – Final Step One Post

Step 1 – Admitted we were powerless over our art and our creative lives had become unmanageable.

Previously, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, no wait, that’s not right.  Well, last week I talked about all of my wounds. That was last week, in my last 12-Step post, but this week, well, we start the climb out. Still in step one, but inching closer towards step two, where all the hope is. Let’s catch you up.

Last week, me alone, in the basement, gnashing my teeth in the darkness.  I needed a dental dam.

Then, a light shining in the darkness, I realized I needed help. And I found people who were willing to aid a poor wretch like me.

Let’s start at home. If not for my wife, I never would have ended up in Big Sur at that writers’ workshop. She got books from the library on writing, and we went over them. She pointed out that what I was doing wasn’t working and that I needed to change. And it was a bad year, that year. I was willing to pursue this because I was so miserable. Let me tell you, if life were all cotton candy, kitties, and puppies, not much would get done. I had to be willing, and willingness for me generally comes when my back is up against the wall and my ass is suckin’ plaster. That’s also when my mind opens to other possibilities.

You’ll hear such things in 12-Step meetings. It’s colorful. And true.

So, finally, after I realized I had my head up my butt, I started to read books on writing. There are a few around. Did I do it in large chunks? Nope, ten minutes a day. It took me months to go through books, but I learned a ton, and it wasn’t the time suck that I had imagined it to be. The few minutes I spent every day were golden.

The books all said to find other artists, and they also suggested reading books on how to improve, take classes, stuff like that. And as a writer, reading successful books is what you do to improve. As Barry Eisler says, you read like a writer, and write like a reader.

I also found a critique group, I found writers conferences, I found people who could help me, and such things exist for all art forms. We don’t have to suffer alone. Suffering with other people is so much more fun. Which is why 12-step programs work. Because in a group, the suffering can turn into something life-giving.

Working in a community of writers, I got to see a variety of writing, good and bad. Analyzing bad writing is just as important as analyzing good writing. I could see where my own writing needed work. And people gave me critiques and that was crucial. Alone, I couldn’t see the whole picture. With other people, I could be far more objective.

The happy, good news is that every artist can improve, and practice is most likely worth more than natural talent. At a Pikes Peak Writers Conference, I heard a speaker talk about the 10,000 hours idea. Basically, to become an expert at anything takes about 10,000 hours, and those who can discipline themselves to do the 10,000 hours get the talent they want. I can guarantee you, Stephen King did the 10,000 hours before he got rich and famous. Some are luckier than others, but the bottom line is that there is a world of information on how to create better ideas on form, style, aesthetics, and if you only rely on your little brain, you are cheating yourself. The way I cheated myself, for years and years.

But I had to be completely willing to do whatever it took to keep on creating, and this is the magic of Step One.

To be in a position of total surrender.

To do anything to move forward, no matter what.

A lot of these belief systems I found that were holding me back I learned in step 4, 5, 6 and 7, but they all put me in a state of powerlessness and unmanageability. When I started down the path, all I needed for a good Step One was the idea that I couldn’t do it alone, that I was out of ideas, that I was stuck. Once I was there, I was ready to move forward.

I entered into a contest with a friend that the first person to reach fifty rejections would owe the other dinner. And I had another friend who was willing to proofread every query letter.

This worked. I won the contest, found a publisher, and one of my books finally found a home outside of my hard drive. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to really look at how my creative life was unmanageable.

Some questions for you to ponder:

How are you powerless over your creativity?

How is your artistic life unmanageable?

Are you willing to do whatever it takes to move forward? Why or why not?

Next week!  We hit Step Two at last.  I hope you’ll come back!  Step two is where the hope is.

Surrender Is Heartbreak, Not Sunshine and Puppies – Step 1 Continued

Step 1 – Admitted we were powerless over our art and our creative lives had become unmanageable.

The bottom line is this: I wanted to write, I couldn’t write, so I had to decide between chopping off my hands or accepting help.  I had to let go of my old ideas that had not worked. When I got rejected by the agent back in 2006, I had been writing for fourteen years, in isolation, in secret. And I had failed. I had to embrace that and surrender.

The first step is all about surrendering and admitting we are broken. It’s not a happy step. Generally, with the people who I have worked with, you don’t leave this step whistling and holding a puppy. But it’s the brokenness that is the magic. The more broken, the better.

I was at rock bottom that day I left the session with the agent. And I re-visit that place every now and again, but it’s never been as bad. Because my writing habit is not a secret that I carry alone any more. I invite others into the madness.

As I’ve said in earlier blog posts, you can’t work the 12 steps alone, which is why the recovery community understands the need to have a sponsor. What I do with the guys I sponsor is to set up weekly appointments with them, just an hour a week, and yes, in our busy lives, an hour is like gold-tinted minutes, but in the end it’s worth it.

With your sponsor, you have to write down where you are powerless over your art, and how your creative life is unmanageable. A lot of these are going to be old ideas that you believe, and we’re going to inventory these old ideas in step 4.

These are some of the ideas I had that kept my writing life unmanageable:

  • I was so afraid of trying to get published that I couldn’t write anything at all. I just couldn’t. I was afraid to succeed. I was afraid to fail.
  • I didn’t think I would succeed, so why even try?
  • Crippling self-doubt. I didn’t think I had any talent.
  • Critical voices paralyzed me. I couldn’t write anything worth reading. Who was I kidding?
  • What I was doing was selfish, and so I needed to spend more time with my family and friends and being of true service to the world.
  • I should wait for inspiration. I didn’t have the big, huge, original idea and if that idea never came, I shouldn’t even bother.
  • The game is fixed and only those on the “inside” have a chance.
  • I was roasted by envy. Other people will get published and not me.
  • If I can’t be a runaway bestseller, if I can’t be the best, I’m not even going to try.

I give a talk called “From Whining to Writing: Courageously Creating and Overcoming the Odds,” and really, it is all about the first step. If I’m powerless over writing and my writing life is unmanageable, I’m stuck right there. But being stuck can be a marvelous thing.

It can bring change.

But for this blog, not yet. Next week, I play the time card. It’s like the race card, but more time-y, less race-y. It basically says, “I’m so busy I can’t write.”

Next week, we’ll see why that’s a lie.