The Monster: A Rumination on Victor Frankenstein and the Horror of the Writing Process

Victor Frankenstein spent "nearly two years" digging through graves and working in his laboratory, collecting perfect pieces of the human body to animate into his superhuman creation.

And when he was done, when he beheld his creature, he was so horrified and disgusted, he ran away and locked himself in his bedroom.

I take a bit of morbid delight in connecting this moment of horror with the writing process. I retell this story often, especially to anxious students about to workshop their essays. "It's okay," I say, "to be terrified at the thought of showing others your rough draft, to feel like what you have printed in front of you is completely disconnected from what you had wanted to say. Mary Shelley's story tells us that a lot of creators feel the same way!"

My students look at me with uncertainty, as I'm sure you would too. Bear with me.

Victor had dreamt that one day he would be credited for the creation of superhumans, that "a new species would bless [him] as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to [him]." It was all going to be amazing. He would be more than a father, like a god.

But when Victor faces the actual creation, his dreams are gone, and he sees only "catastrophe." The creature is a disgusting mess. Victor goes into great detail explaining just how disgusting he is: there is "yellow skin," "dun-white" "watery eyes," a "shriveled complexion," and "black lips." Even the "pearly-white teeth" and "lustrous black hair" only serve to highlight the disturbing decay of the creature's other features.

I feel for Victor. My writing is always perfect in my head, ideas fully formed with evocative imagery, natural and intuitive transitions, one thought building upon the last beautifully. But somehow, when I'm actually writing, the diction is vague, the syntax is awkward, and what I've written has little to do with what I had planned to write. And then of course this ill-defined bit of prose is out there, being shared and reviewed and critiqued, and I can actually feel a physical pain in the pit of my stomach at the thought of someone reading what I had written. I too want to run and hide.

It is the stuff of nightmares.

Anne Lamott describes similar feelings of revulsion and anxiety in "Shitty First Draft":

"The whole thing would be so long and incoherent and hideous that for the rest of the day I'd obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I'd worry that people would read what I'd written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot."

This is my favorite moment in Lamott's piece. She fears a car accident, not because of the accident itself, but because someone may read her terrible draft and think that was all she had to offer.

It is reassuring to know that I am not alone, that if what I have created makes me run screaming in horror, it's okay. There's no reason to be ashamed. I'm not suggesting you chase your murderous creation to the far reaches of the arctic in order to conquer your fears and redeem yourself for past sins. The Frankenstein metaphor can only take you so far.

The point is to accept your draft as potentially monstrous, messy, and disgusting, to overcome the fear and shame associated with sharing it with others. And if facing your flawed creation doesn't horrify you, then maybe you are already way ahead of the rest of us who are still deep within our laboratories, toiling in front of computer screens.

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Many thanks to Project Gutenberg for the e-text of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley's 1818 novel.

"Shitty First Drafts" appears in Anne Lamott's 1994 book Bird by Bird.