Being a writer is a tough job. On some days, you feeling like the world is rooting for you, the stars are aligned, you’re on fire, and nothing can stop you from writing that novel. But on other days, the days that are probably many in number, you feel like you’re going nowhere. The comments are harsh. You keep holding the milk carton upside down, and nothing comes out.
The reason for those latter, dark, stagnant days are varied. But one of them, I’ve found, is, while very personal and individual, a probably common reason among many writers:
It is the moment when words begin to work against you, and you reject self-compassion.
What I Mean By This
I am writer. I have made it a priority in my life to take words very seriously—particularly my own, but also the words of other writers such as those in craft books, or words in a novel I particularly enjoy so that I can understand how they work.
But as a human being, I’ve found that I take words from other people also very seriously. What’s detrimental about this attention to the words of other people is that I start to believe them in the most malicious way possible. I misinterpret them by adding nuances and words that weren’t even there in the first place. I start to craft a lie, a narrative about myself that isn’t true, one-sided, self-destructive.
That shouldn’t happen. I shouldn’t believe in a lie, right?
The problem is that this habit I’ve described can hardly be described as a habit. It’s hard-wired into my body to the point that it acts like a defense mechanism—that the first thing my body assumes is that I’m under attack, and that the friend of mine that is critiquing my story becomes a monster, when they really aren’t.
Here’s an example.
Critiques of writing are a tricky business. If handled properly, they give suggestions and possible problems on the craft of a story, not personal attacks.
Just today, I thought I wasn’t helpful to a friend of mine when I was critiquing her story, because I didn’t catch all of what was going on in it. Another writer who was there that critiqued and praised the story said, somewhat casually about my critique, “You’re just looking for what’s wrong with it, but you’ve got to let this story stand on its own. It’s good.”
I’ve worked with her before, and while I know her to be blunt, she is certainly not blunt to the point of personal attack. Instead of interpreting her the way I should have interpreted her, which is that I made a simple, human mistake of not focusing on the part of the story I missed, I interpreted her negatively. I interpreted her words as an attack when they weren’t meant to be.
My mind started weaving lies about me based on this faulty interpretation of her: “I didn’t read the story properly; I was looking for what was wrong with it; I made a mistake; I was wrong; I’m not helpful; I’m mean; I’m evil;—”
Which is completely irrational and ridiculous, because just yesterday, I met a friend who told me that my comments regarding the story for his screenwriting project helped him.
I know how to help people, and I would never try to bring any sort of writer or creative person down. I’m not in that business. But because I thought that one person suggested the contrary, even though I’ve known her in other classes, have admired her stories, and believe she’s an excellent writer and human being, my brain just shut down, and started weaving that thread of lies within milliseconds.
How was that fair? How was it fair that her words counted more than the words I heard yesterday by the friend that I helped? How was that the least bit rational?
It wasn’t. In that moment, words put me down instead of building me up.
And when I let others’ words get to me, I can’t find my own words to write. I start to believe in them instead of myself.
And that’s not good. Because if I don’t believe in myself, then everything starts crumbling all over again.
What to Do About It
I’m not a psychologist, or a clinical expert about this “sensitive” mentality. To this day, I still battle with that machine—the machine that kick starts the quilt of lies that my brain wants to wrap me up in and suffocate me in. However, I’ve gotten better at spotting it, because I’ve been able to personify it—to see how it works, so that I can find its weak points and stop it in its tracks before it. But sometimes, I forget that it’s there, and it creeps up on me before I have a chance to reel it back in.
If you find that you are dealing with some of the same problems or find that you think you can’t write, even though you’ve written before, here is what I recommend.
1. Name it.
Give your negative thoughts a name, or a designation. Write it down somewhere, or find another way to make it concrete. It does not define you, or control you. You control yourself. But once you name it, you will slowly stop feeling helpless, and start feeling more powerful. It is now something tangible, and not something scary.
2. Study it.
Others may refer to it as the “nagging voice” in your head. For the moment, I’ve called this part of me “the machine.” It is both a gift and curse, because it allows me to asses situations very quickly, but with not-so-helpful-results. I have to know its triggers, its motives, and its own habits so that I can eliminate them. No need to feed something that’s going to destroy me.
3. Be proactive about it.
The hardest part is trying to change that behavior, because it’s not an instant fix. And I never thought that I’d reference a dog trainer to explain this step.
His name is Zak George, and he is, quite possibly, my favorite dog trainer ever. I’ve mentioned on a previous post that I love dogs, and would love to own one in the future. And I love his approach to training with positive reinforcement and heartfelt communication rather than shock collars and choke chains. In one of his videos detailing how to teach your dog not to jump, he makes the following point:
The best time to correct an unwanted behavior is right before it occurs.
With unwanted jumping in a dog, you need to be able to recognize when your dog is about to jump so that you can tell the dog to that jumping, what they’re thinking of doing, is not the wanted behavior. Once they jump, that’s it. They’ve got the thought in their head to jump, and you have to start from square one.
I think the same principle applies to here. If you want to stop your negative thoughts, you have to recognize when they are about to occur before they can take root and make you miserable. Challenge your negative thoughts constantly: Is she really attacking me personally? Am I really a bad writer/awful person?
And keep challenging these thoughts.. Be vigilant.
You Can Do It
If you want to change something about yourself, it’s going to take discipline. Do you want to write more? Add a writing routine. Do you want to exercise more? Stick to that exercise routine. Do you want to be a positive, healthier writer that doesn’t fall to the victim of other people’s words?
Start addressing your behaviors so that new, more positive behaviors can form.
It won’t be easy, but you’ll be one step closer to what you want, and that’s better than being ten steps behind.
Take care of yourself. Hug yourself every now and then. Give yourself a pat on the back for that writing you did today.
There’s already a stigma against the creative arts, like writing.
No need to add flame to that cold, negative fire.