Words of encouragement are flooding social media this month. Words like hope, peace, love, respect, patience, and even no. As a writer, I’d like to offer another. Self-sabotage. That thing many writers do to avoid moving forward.
I’m not the queen of sabotage, but I know how to procrastinate. Take this book I’ve been working on for almost twenty years. Ten years ago I shopped this book around thinking it was finished. But clearly it wasn’t or I’d be collecting royalties instead of avoiding revisions.
Why isn’t it finished? It isn’t because I don’t know how to write or deliver a product. It isn’t that I don’t love the idea of this book, I do. The only reason I can offer is that I’ve gotten in the habit of avoiding this project. Every time I set out to finish this book something gets in the way. Here are some of the ways I’ve sabotaged the completion of this book.
1) I can’t work on this book until I finish xxx. Insert clean the house, take the dogs for a walk, or do the laundry.
Life is messy and has a way of getting in the way of writing. There will always be something else that needs attention. Pretending I can’t write until the dishwasher is loaded only prolongs the project. Instead of waiting until everything is done, I need to make working on this project a priority. First thing in the morning I need to sit down and revise a chapter. Before anything else. Waiting until I have a big chunk of time to work isn’t the answer and is just a lazy excuse.
2) I need to do more research.
After twenty years I should have more than enough information to finish this book. And if I don’t I can make it up. After all, it’s fiction, not non-fiction.
3) I don’t have the skills to write this story.
Recently I listened to Alice Hoffman discuss writing. She said a writer needs to write every day. Only by writing every day do you become a better writer. So stop waiting until you have the skill level you seek. Start writing and it will come.
4) It’s not perfect, so why bother.
Good writing is revisions, lots of them. Anne Lamott says write a messy first draft. Get the story down and then do the work of revisions. That’s where skill and magic happen, in the honing of words.
5) I need feedback on this chapter before I continue.
Maybe, but probably not. Even if you are lucky enough to have friends and family who offer to read your work and comment, this can be a big way to sabotage your writing. Reading is subjective and you will get good comments and bad comments. The time for constructive feedback is after the book is done. When you know the ending of your story, you’re better equipped to identify weak plot points and motivation. Too much advice while you’re being creative and writing can stop your story dead. Rely on your gut and trust the process.
6) I’m not smart enough to write this story.
If that is true, than put it away and work on something else. Just because you don’t feel adequate to complete this story doesn’t mean you can’t produce a sexier, better story. Learn to let go. Not everything you write is golden.
7) I need to turn off the internal editor.
Often the fear of failing, or even the fear of succeeding, can prevent me from finishing a project. Yes, criticism is scary. But it’s part of the process. Don’t let fear prevent you from achieving your goal. Writing can be scary, learn to work through the fear.
8) I can’t write until I get in the mood.
The longer you work as a writer the more it becomes a job and there are days you won’t want to go to work. Waiting for the mood to strike could mean days without writing, a sure way to shoot yourself in the foot. Many times I sit down to write, in a bad mood because I don’t want to write that day, and like magic my muse shows up and I produce some pretty amazing stuff. If you want to be a good writer, write even when you don’t want to. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.
9) Illness gets in the way.
My goal for 2017 is to finish this book. I had a good start, with four chapters revised before I ended up in the hospital with a nasty gallbladder. See, I told my son, this book doesn’t want to be finished. And, yes, sometimes I feel like that. But the book isn’t the writer, I am the writer, and no one else is going to finish this book but me.
Self-sabotage diminishes passion and energy. It’s just an excuse to keep you from moving forward. If you’re in the habit of self-sabotaging yourself, try to identify why. Then work toward reaching your goal. You’re in control. Only you can do it.
This blog might fall under the topic of why you should attend writing conferences because that’s where I met Cheryl Strayed, at a writing workshop in Oregon. That was before Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail took off, before Cheryl appeared on Oprah, and before Cheryl revealed her identity as the author of the “Dear Sugar” columns in The Rumpus. Soft-spoken with a captivating smile, Cheryl looked anything but wild the day I met her.
That was a couple of years ago and today Cheryl’s coming to Idaho. For some of you lucky ticket holders, you’ll get to spend part of today and tonight with Cheryl, and I’m betting you’ll go home supercharged and eager to write. I know I was after hearing her speak about writing from a fearless place. She was inspiring, saying the best writers dare to tell the whole, complicated, beautiful and ugly truth. Write, even if you never get published. Write what’s in your heart. Stay true and stay genuine. Do what you can to support other writers.
Today Cheryl will be in Boise, Idaho. Tomorrow she’ll be in Helena, Montana. And then it’s on to Washington before she returns to her home in Portland. Since her memoir Wild took off, Cheryl’s been on the go talking with writers about writing and taking risks. If, like me, you can’t attend Cheryl’s reading today in Boise, go out and buy her books. Or make a trip to the library. She’s an author you don’t want to miss.
A couple of years ago I was attending a writer’s retreat and our assignment was to write a Christmas vignette. When it came time to share, I was frustrated–to cop a cliche–to tears. I had no Christmas memories, no stories to share, and that left me feeling empty inside.
Since then, I’ve tried to be more present in my life, to pay more attention, and here’s what I’ve discovered. I am an observer, rarely a participant. People fascinate me and I love to watch them. I am transparent. Joyce Carol Oates explains it beautifully in this interview. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/06/video-joyce-carol-oates.html?mbid=social_retweet
Phew, for a writer, I’m normal.
Everything I write sucks. My characters talk like robots. No one’s going to read this crap. I need more coffee, something to eat. I could be hanging out with friends, but, no, here I sit in this chair and stare at this stupid blank screen. I’m never going to be a writer.
Sound familiar? If you’ve been writing as long as I have, I’m sure you’ve struggled with the same feelings. Self-doubt is a killer. It will eat you up and squash your creativity. Instead of feeling like a failure, I should be walking in the clouds. I should be dancing, laughing and singing. The book I’ve been working on forever is finished. I did it. An editor is looking at it now. But instead of celebrating, I’m second-guessing. What if my plot stinks? What if my characters lack depth? What if she hates it?
I’ve been writing for years. I’ve even had some of my work published, and yet, I still haven’t found a way to combat self-doubt. This week I discovered two things that help.
First, I finally made time to read Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. Carolyn’s book has been on my to read list for more than ten years. Over the weekend I picked up a copy and as I turn the pages, I find myself cursing. Why did I wait so long?
“Pretend to be a writer,” Carolyn urges. “Do Some Magic.” A writer and a teacher, Carolyn believes in practicing affirmations: I can. I am a good writer. This is going to be a great day. She got me thinking. What kind of magic could I create if just for once I believed I could instead of insisting that I can’t?
I have a picture on my desk a writing buddy gave me years ago. It says IMAGINE, and I have pasted a page from the New York Times Book Review of Best Sellers there, penciling my name in as number one. What a joke. I’m never going to hit the New York best sellers list.
No, I’m not. Not if I don’t try. Not if I believe I can’t. But what if I believed I could? Just today one of my friends hit #1 in free Kindle books. It can happen.
My other tool to combat self-doubt is Owen Egerton’s uplifting article in The Huffington Post, “Type So Hard You Bruise The Screen”, which you can read here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/owen-egerton/type-so-hard-you-bruise-t_b_3052750.html. He begins his article, Write. Now. Go. In Jack Kerouac style, he offers a list of points for prose. Several of them speak to me including No. 16, which says: Do not write from answers. Write from questions. Discover more questions. Our work is not to explain the mystery, but to expand it. His No. 28 made me laugh because several years ago I quit my “day job” believing I could make a living as a writer. Owen says: If you write because you believe the world needs you, you’ll soon discover we don’t. If you write because you are so naturally talented you must, you’ll soon discover you are not. If you write for money… I’m chuckling at you. None of these reasons will sustain you. Listen. Are you called to write? Then write.
I particularly like No. 30: Writing is both holy and meaningless. That’s all the pressure and freedom you need.
Writing is so much harder than it looks. It’s exhilarating to create new worlds and characters, but it’s also exhausting. Are the commas in the right place? Who or whom? Am I showing and not telling? So many rules to follow, so many mistakes to make. But at the end of the day, I can’t fall asleep until I’ve faced the blank screen and did my best, because, in my heart, I’m a writer.
I’ve pasted Owen’s article to my monitor, and my copy of Carolyn’s book rests between my dictionary and thesaurus. I have a fresh cup of coffee, my butt’s in the chair and I’m looking at the screen. I’m ready to Write. Now. Go. This is a bright new morning. I’ve looked in the mirror and recited: I am a writer. I will have a productive day. I say it again. I am a writer. I will have a productive day.