The Hydra Syndrome (for Writers)
The following article seemed to hit home with a lot of writers when I sent it to my current subscribers. It was originally called “The Medusa Syndrome” but many learned scholars and professors (yes — they get my newsletters too!) pointed out I’d made a slight ‘myth-take’ when it came to picking a mythological creature for my syndrome. I hope you enjoy it — and please, feel free to leave a comment of your own!
Have you ever noticed how you, as a writer, see-saw? For one heady moment you know you’re brilliant and then, later, with just as much clarity, you know what you do is awful. It’s the writer’s curse.
I’ve noticed this happens at certain times in the writing process.
When the ideas are fresh and you’re starting out on a project, the adrenaline is flowing, the words are spewing on to the page — everything seems so clear, so clever, so you.
And then after, when you look back, the words seem dull, the structure contrived and the talent — well, non-existent. But then… later, it can seem smooth and inspired again… and then, even later… dire.
Hold up! What’s happening here?
I call it The Hydra Syndrome or, for short, THS.
You may remember that the Hydra was a mythological creature with many heads — and each time one was cut off, another sprouted in its place.
And the trouble with being a writer is that we too have many heads. Some are kind and benevolent, some are harsh and critical. And it doesn’t matter how often we try to quash one head’s opinion of what we do, there’s always another that will have the alternate point of view.
It depends on our moods I think. When we’re happy and confident, our words seem to fire all the right neurons on the brain, the synaptic gaps are bridged with ease. There’s more than just the words in our writing — there’s a whole world of meaning implicit.
But then sometimes when we’re tired and listless, our brains are foggy and the words seem empty, unable to quite convey the richness we wanted to invoke.
At other times, we feel nothing. We see the words for what they are — just words: pale shadows of reality with no depth, no power, no meaning.
Whenever I’m suffering from a bout of THS, I have to remind myself that, when reading through a different head, I thought my writing was fine. But then I think, am I deluding myself? Maybe the bad head that hates my writing is the true head? Maybe the happy head is a liar and is secretly chuckling behind my back… oh, the woes of writing!
The other day was a good example.
I’d just finished editing (for about the twentieth time) the first 9500 words of my new novel, intending it for submission. I was pretty darn proud of what I’d done. As well as the words being perfect (or so I thought) there seemed also a profound depth of hidden meaning, subtle interconnectivity and the odd clever nuance that would have my readers in awe, enrapt… and yet…
I gave it to Robyn, my partner, to read. As she did so, I waited, butterflies threatening to burst out of my stomach like the alien in, um, Alien.
At least she read the whole thing in one sitting. I was dreading that she’d put it down and say, “I’ll read the rest tomorrow.” That would have hurt. Big time.
Anyway. At the end she said, “Yeah, it’s excellent.” But, of course, because she didn’t say it’s brilliant, I was disappointed.
“What’s wrong with it?” I cried.
“Nothing. It’s really good.” Really good? What’s that supposed to mean? She must hate it!
Tentatively, I ask, “Anything that might need fixing?”
“Well, there’s a couple of typos.” Typos! Gah — after twenty passes! How could that be? “Nothing major,” she added.
“Well…” Here it comes, I thought. “You’ve got a couple of point of view issues. You tell the story from one guy’s point of view in one chapter and I think you should do it from the hero’s.”
I slumped. Reality check. Thanks, Robyn.
She was right of course. I have to go back and fix it. But now I’m thinking my 9500 words are heavily flawed, and will remain so, until I’ve dealt with the problem. Now I wouldn’t show my submission to another soul because it’s dreadful, awful, until I’ve rewritten at least two large chunks of it. But then, maybe then, it will be perfect! Yay!
And to think, I used to wonder why my mother thought that writing was a silly way to make a living. Maybe she was right. I can find at least one of my Hydra heads that would rush to agree with her.
But I think the real point is that we need to be critical of our writing — at least some of the time. If we thought that what we did was always brilliant, we’d lose objectivity and we wouldn’t want to improve, wouldn’t know how to improve even.
Being hard on our writing sometimes is what makes us better writers.
But at those other, special times, loving what we do is what keeps us doing it!
Creating Better Writers
The Writing Academy