The subject today is one close to the heart of almost every writer I’ve ever known. Self-sabotage. It is very hard to write when you think you can’t, when you believe your story is garbage, when you’ve received some hard criticism, whether it’s a suggestion to rethink your protagonist or rethink the placement of a comma. I don’t know about you but some days a comma comment can undo me.
A writing practice requires control over our negative thoughts. Otherwise, we believe what we think, that the story is worthless, nobody is interested in what we have to say so why bother, and only real writers know what to do with commas.
But thought control, or confidence or belief in what we do does not mean we are not plagued by negativity. I have yet to find a way to rid myself of doubts, fears and insecurities as I write. We are raised in a judgmental culture. Look at the lead stories in the past week. We are drowning in The Year’s Ten Best lists. What about the other ten thousand movies, books and songs produced last year. Are they pond scum? Must be if only ten made the cut, right?
Or, we make resolutions. I will exercise more. I will complain less. I will work harder. I will write more. The fact that we even make a resolution means we are coming up short in our own eyes.
Of course there are products and works of art that rise above the others. But very few people agree on the lists. The New York Times Book Review trashed your favorite novel; you wouldn’t drink a certain red wine touted by Robert Parker if your life depended on it. Your main squeeze thinks you’re just fine without losing ten pounds. Who is right?
The question alone should teach us the folly of judgment. The process by which a particular effort rises above the others is mysterious at best. Sometimes it means that a best selling writer had an agent who was married to a friend who finagled a read. But an equally talented writer, with perhaps a superior book, can’t get noticed because said agent is not accepting new clients. The best seller can believe she is better than she is merely because she is published, while the rest of us want to give up after a dozen no-thank-yous, forgetting how many rejections it took Jack London, for instance, to break through. We can’t look at anything without giving it a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
This is the stuff, not of dreams, but of nightmares as we sit down and attempt to summon the confidence to continue with our work while our judgmental engines are churning away. How do we write through negativity, to push our story or essay forward through the muck of self-judgment, as thick as tar on some days?
I had a revelation one morning years ago as I was rereading a few pages in my writing session before work. What seemed like deathless prose as it poured out of my soul, seemed dead on the page as I reread it. I could almost hear that chorus of naysayers that taught me over the course of my life to criticize, condemn, and ultimately give up because something of mine didn’t measure up.
But as those voices came through loud and clear, something happened for me that was pivotal in my writing career. All of a sudden I heard them as voices on auto pilot, not words from the mount. Not some inarguable truth about my work, but merely a segment of the tape that runs through my head. The tape takes turns calling me a good writer and a bad writer. If I wait a few minutes, I might love that page again. Which side of my brain would be right? The flip or the flop?
I kept on writing not knowing the answer to that question. As sentence after sentence appeared on the page I realized I could write feeling doubtful, afraid of someone judging what I wrote, of not being a good enough writer. Those thoughts come and go. My job, it came to me, was to write. To learn my craft and do the best I could to let the art in my work flow. It was up to other people to judge it. I must write in spite of the way I felt about my work, not because of it. The thoughts that I was a good writer had no more validity than the thoughts that said I was an amateur. Henry Ford said whether you think you can or you can, you are always right. Only someone who dealt with doubt and came out the other side could say that.
I realized that having confidence in my writing meant I had the confidence to write no matter how I felt, that the words would come even if I thought they were the wrong words. Who knows, an agent might think they were the best words she had ever read. And at that point, I wouldn’t care whether she was right or wrong.