Wrestling Grendel by Rachel Hartman

Rachel Hartman is the author of the New York Times bestselling fantasy novel Seraphina. The novel takes place in a world where dragons and humans collide, and received eight starred reviews. Maggie Stiefvater raved, “Teens and adults alike will love to creep down the magical streets of Seraphina’s city. I certainly did.”

Rachel’s latest novel, Shadow Scale, is a sequel to Seraphina and continues the epic tale. Join us on June 1st and ask Rachel your questions in her Figment Chat!


Wrestling Grendel — Rachel Hartman, for Figment

The hardest part of being a writer, for me, is that there’s a monster in my head.

You know who I mean. The odds are good he pesters you, too, whispering in your ear 9780375866579while you’re trying to write. This sucks, he says. Readers are going to laugh. What makes you think you have anything worth saying? You’re a failure, doomed to die unpublished and alone.

I named my monster voice Grendel, after the famous creature from Beowulf, but he has many names. Personal Demon. The Little Critic. The Inner Editor. (I don’t like this name, though, because I’ve never met an editor who wants to stop writers from writing. Quite the opposite.) Sometimes the beast is only nipping at your heels, keeping you anxious, but the attacks can be devastating. Nobody knows how to hurt you like Grendel. Nobody else is that mean.

If you’ve heard that voice, you’re not alone. Everybody has a Grendel, even the people who seem totally confident and together. Maybe especially those people. I’m a bestselling author, and I still hear the whispers: You suck, you suck, you suck.

One thing to remember is that Grendel lies. He targets your weak spots, injecting just enough realism to make it sound like truth, but close questioning will show that his arguments are hollow. One of my favorite strategies is to ask the monster, So what? So what if I suck? People will laugh at you, says Grendel. So what if people laugh? It will hurt your feelings, says Grendel. So what if my feelings get hurt? Getting hurt . . . uh . . . hurts! says Grendel.

9780375866227Getting hurt hurts? Glad we cleared that up. You see how quickly he becomes absurd.

In Beowulf, Grendel can’t be harmed with weapons. Beowulf fights with his bare hands and surprises the monster by pulling off its arm. I think this is a great analogy for how to treat your Little Critic. Be imaginative and resourceful like Beowulf: if weapons aren’t making a dent, it’s time to yank his arm off or make an end run around him.

Some things that have worked for me are: singing, biking, lunch with friends, going out in nature. Tamora Pierce, one of my favorite fantasy writers, has a tattoo of a horrifying face on her forearm, called Mr. Fear, and any time he gets too loud, she leans on that arm and grinds him right into the table. That’s a pretty creative solution right there. I bet you can come up with a good one, and if it’s slightly silly, all the better. Laughter, I’ve observed, defangs the monster faster than anything else.

We have all felt his fetid breath on the backs of our necks. You are not alone. If Grendel is roaring so loudly that you can’t write, tell somebody. Talking shines a light on him and is the first step toward driving him back to his swamp. And you know what else helps, strangely enough? Writing. Spite him by loving what you do; nothing else gives him the finger so effectively. He’ll insist you don’t deserve to be happy. Eh. So what?


Rachel was born in Kentucky, but has lived a variety of places including Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, England, and Japan. She has a BA in Comparative Literature, although she insists it should have been a BS because her undergraduate thesis was called “Paradox and Parody in Don Quixote and the satires of Lucian.” She eschewed graduate school in favor of drawing comic books. She now lives in Vancouver, BC, with her family, their whippet, and a talking frog and salamander.

Rachel Hartman is the recipient of the 2013 William C. Morris YA Debut Award, which honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.

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