Style and Voice
Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "I'm not a romantic soul, but my readers will want romance"

Never apologise?

I'm having singing lessons, purely for fun. And I've made a decision: I'm not, ever, going to apologise for not having practised. Never. These are my lessons, I'm paying for them, how much progress I make is up to me (until my teacher wants to give up on me) and I don't have a parent breathing down my neck*. But it's surprisingly hard to keep my resolution, and not just in my hobby, either. I'm writing a story at the moment to send in for a short fiction workshop with Ali Smith, and I'm already constructing the apologies in my head: I didn't have long; I know the prescribed title doesn't really fit my story; I'm terribly busy; I've had an awful cold... and they're all true. They're just not the point.

For a competition the only thing which matters is how you perform on the day, and I know of teachers of acting and singing who say the same: "You can't say that at an audition, so don't say it here." Of course a writing workshop is a different thing: it's about process, not just product; it's about what you're trying to do as much as what you've done. But when I'm running a workshop, I always say that we'll take it as read that what you're presenting is work in progress: if you didn't know it could be better, you wouldn't have brought it. Besides, apologies use time more usefully spent on that better-getting. And to that end, I say firmly, I will cut short any apologies or explanations of why this piece is rough/not very good/unsatisfactory. (Though it's surprisingly hard to cut people short in practice, partly from my having been brought up to Be Nice, and partly because I'm teaching a subject which is rooted in authentic expression of the self.)

And yet still perhaps half of the students in a class will start by apologising for their work. It seems to me that what's happening is their Inner Critic, rightly or wrongly, has whispered that the work isn't Good Enough. So what they're really trying to do is pre-empt the pain of their work (and so by extension themselves) having been found wanting. They're saying to us one or more of the following:

"Please don't judge me on this. I know it isn't very good;

  • so I'm going to say this isn't very good, before you get the chance to say it."
  • don't worry, I don't believe I'm a Good Writer; I'm not too big for my boots, honest."
  • I really don't believe this is Good Writing; I know more than that, at least."
  • I'm humble really, even if I am daring to take my writing seriously."
  • I know everyone else in this class is better than me, but I do take this writing business seriously."
  • please don't think this is my best, because if you think my best is No Good, then I'm a No Good writer."

In other words, this urge to apologise for your work comes from the friction inside the necessary paradox of being a writer which I explored here: that we must be at once egoistical, and humble. It's cousin, perhaps, to the reluctance of some writers to stamp their work with their own, real name. I'm not suggesting that we should never say anything in a workshop about how our work falls short of what we were trying for, not least because in articulating and exploring that gap you and the others can learn so much about how to narrow all such gaps. But I do think it's worth inspecting this urge to apologise that your writing isn't up to scratch, because it says something about how you feel about your writing self, and why you feel the need to apologise for it.

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*Although one of my mother's proudest parental boasts is that she never, once, said to any of us, "You must practice," or "You must do your homework." It's true, too.

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