The Seven Stages of Writerly Grief

Writerly Grief By LaurMG. (Frustrated man at a desk.) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By LaurMG. (Frustrated man at a desk.) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
You’ve heard of the seven stages of grief, but did you know that writers go through those seven stages of writerly grief when they receive feedback on their work? Well they do. Here’s how it happens (and how to survive it).

We all know how important beta feedback is to the writing process. And we’ve all heard that getting “thicker skin” is part of writing as well. But what does that look like? When I first started writing, I imagined that I’d build up a thick skin, like the callouses I build on my toes each time I get into a really good running routine. But the reality hasn’t been like that at all. Instead, each time I get feedback, it hurts. The shock, the denial, the anger, the depression–they’re all there each time, stirring up doubt demons and kicking my imposter syndrome into high gear.

Like any other kind of grief, I go through all seven stages. Maybe I’m morning the imperfect way I’ve implemented the story that exists, in all its perfection, in my mind. Or maybe my expectations, which are constantly disappointed by the reality of my output. But no matter what the cause, I do grieve. And my skin doesn’t seem to be getting any thicker. The only thing that has changed is the amount of time it takes me to get from shock to acceptance. And maybe that’s what getting “thicker skin” is really all about.

The Seven Stages in Detail

Still don’t believe me? Here’s the writerly grief that happens the second a marked-up Word doc hits my inbox.

Shock – What do you mean my words are not perfect as is? You must hate my work. You must hate me. I must suck worse than any writer has ever sucked in the history of the written word. *opens wine* *cries*

Denial – No, you’ve got it all wrong. You just don’t understand my genius. Why did I ever ask you to read for me, you graceless, incompetent cave-dweller? *cue righteous indignation*

Anger – NO REALLY, YOU’VE GOT IT ALL WRONG. WRONG. WRONG. And if you weren’t such a big troglodyte, you’d totally see that!

Bargaining – OK, you might have an eensy-weensy point. Sorry I called you  a cave-dweller. Sooooo, if I change items a, b, and c from  your list, that will be enough, won’t it? Then I can just ignore (much harder to implement) fixes d, e, and f? Right? Right? This just needs a spit-shine, not a rewrite!

Depression – I really do suck more than any other writer has ever sucked. How could I possibly think I could do this? How could I have sent my words out into the world without seeing this OBVIOUS GLARING ENORMOUS error. I quit. *pours wine* *eats chocolate* *cries*

Reflection – What’s that glimmer on the horizon of my grief-stricken chocolate-addled writerly mind? A solution? Sure, the feedback was wrong about how to fix this problem, but there is indeed a problem. I’m almost there. And I’m not going to give up, because I love this work. *eats last of chocolate, but this time for energy, not for depression*

Acceptance – I know what I need to do. I know how to do it. And I’m so, so thankful that I have writing partners with me on this journey! Time to get to work.

Do you suffer from writerly grief? What have you done to thicken up your writerly skin? Share your Jedi mind tricks below!

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7 thoughts on “The Seven Stages of Writerly Grief

  1. Ah, so true, so true. Good stuff to keep in mind as I head off to a writer’s camp at Highlights Foundation. I need to lower my expectations so that the grief won’t be as bad!

  2. Love this! So glad that I’m not the only one who gets the crazies reading a critique! Wish there was a fast-forward button to get to Acceptance and the perfect ms fix more quickly.

  3. Apart from getting big hugs and sympathy from my writer friends, the best thing I’ve ever done is write myself a Socratic dialogue (is that what it’s called?) in which I wrote a comment & response about how desolate I was feeling. I wrote e.g.
    “I’m the worst writer ever.”
    Then I replied, “Well, would you like to get better?”
    “Yes, but, but, I can’t, I have no talent to act on the feedback, now or EVER!”
    “Well, if you feel that way, you probably just aren’t ready to act on it. Give it time.”
    And so on and so on. Sounds insane but god it helped me a lot.

  4. Fun post. For me the most important sentence was:

    Sure, the feedback was wrong about how to fix this problem, but there is indeed a problem.

    If I can remember I am in charge of fixing problems, I don’t have to do what is suggested, it’s much easier. Of course I usually only get there after denial, rage and a few days contemplation.

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