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Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

The Self-Sabotaging Writer’s Blues [January 16]

A tragic-comic list has been doing the rounds recently on Twitter. Entitled ‘The Creative Process’, it’s a seven-stage description of how writers often feel when they embark upon a new project:
‘1. This is awesome 2. This is tricky 3. This is shit 4. I am shit 5. Everything I do is shit 6. AARRGGHH 7. Booze.’

This humorous tweet describes a state of mind I usually describe to my writing students as ‘The Self-Sabotaging Writer’s Blues’. For the lucky ones it is a temporary crisis of confidence that is quickly overcome. For others, it can lead to the abandonment of a writing project. So how do writers find their way through the thicket of anxieties?

The first thing to acknowledge is that these fears can be useful. Writing is tricky. Not everything in a first draft is going to be worth salvaging in the second. Sometimes what we write really is ‘s**t’. Our self-critical voice can help us to refine our writing until it is of a publishable standard. And there is always consolation to be found in the Thomas Mann quote: ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’

There is also consolation in knowing that even the most successful authors often still struggle with this stuff in the midst of their brilliant careers. At the State Library of Victoria last year award-winning writer Christos Tsiolkas described the inner critic who sometimes gets in the way of his writing:

‘There’s this voice on my shoulder that says, “Are you good enough? Are you a fraud? Are you deserving to be… a writer?” (But as well as) that voice… there’s the other one that goes, “you’re a bloody genius.” Equally wrong. I think.’

The self-sabotaging blues can also prevent us from coming up with a new writing project idea. In an essay for The Millions online magazine, novelist Toni Jordan (Addition, The Fall Girl) described the paralysis that overtook her after she finished her second novel:

‘I wrote nothing for more than a year… This was the bleakest stretch I could remember… I called my long-time publisher (and said) “my career is over… I’ll never get another idea.”’

Fortunately her publisher didn’t take her seriously (“that’s what you said after your first book”), an idea eventually emerged, and Toni Jordan’s third novel, Nine Days, was published in 2012.

Deborah Robertson, author of the novels Careless and Sweet Old World, says it’s important to ‘learn to tell the difference between genuine self-criticism and the demands of the ego. Being overly concerned with yourself, rather than the work in front of you, is a failure to take the work of writing seriously. Writing demands a certain moral toughness and stamina and it helps to be very clear with yourself about your reasons for writing.’

So what exactly are these paralyzing thoughts produced by our inner critic, and how can they be combatted? My writing students can easily fill a whiteboard with these nasty little saboteurs, but the three most common are:

– I have nothing original to say with my writing
– I’m too old to become a successful writer (or too young)
– No one will want to read or publish this stuff because it’s no good

Writer and academic Professor Ross Gibson recently addressed the first one in a keynote speech to the Creative Manouevres writing conference in Canberra. ‘How do you stop yourself being oppressed by everything that has gone before?’ he asked his audience. ‘How do you trick yourself into writing?’ The answer, he says, is to start by letting go of the myth of originality and acknowledging that everything you write has come from something else.

Gibson pointed to Bob Dylan’s songwriting process, as described in Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. Dylan unashamedly re-worked other people’s songs and stories until, Gibson says, ‘the stuff that was already re-working (him) started to push through’.

‘Stop worrying about getting it right’, Gibson advised, ‘because there are so many things to say.’ He quoted from a 1921 essay by T.S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in which the poet argued that the process of artistic creation ‘is a continual surrender (of oneself) to something which is more valuable.’

As for being too old to be a writer: two words – Elizabeth Jolley. The award-winning WA writer didn’t publish her first novel until she was 53, but went on to write fourteen more. One way to positively re-frame the ageing process is to think of it as a process of gathering stories. The more stories you’ve gathered, the more you have to tell in your non-fiction, or to recycle in your fiction.

As for being too young: two more words – Tim Winton. His first novel, An Open Swimmer, was published when Winton was only 21 and his eleventh, Eyrie, in 2013.

The third anxiety on that list is perhaps the hardest to counter. Unless you are an established literary star, there are no guarantees that anyone will want to publish or read your work. Deborah Robertson says, ‘In order to tolerate the doubt and the nagging internal voices and just get the words down on the page, it helps to remind myself… that THIS IS AS BAD AS THE WRITING IS EVER GOING TO BE! It will be my job in subsequent drafts to make it better, but by then… I’ll be dealing with words in front of me rather than phantoms in my head.’

You could also try using this fear to take more risks with your writing. A mentor once advised me to ‘write as if no one is ever going to read this stuff’. It was a perfect example of ‘tricking yourself’ into writing and allowed me to write with new courage because I had lowered the stakes, at least temporarily.

If tricks won’t work, try these practical strategies to move past your anxieties:

– Set yourself achievable word targets each day (or week).
– Use the Pomodoro system for time organisation: write (anything) for 25 minutes, then give yourself permission to stop for 5 minutes, before writing some more.
– Try doing ‘scaffolding writing’, where you write about the writing you are trying to do.
– Spend 15 minutes reading a few pages of writing by one of your favourite authors, then go straight to your desk and write.
– Write with the thought that it’s ‘not about you’, but that your work is going to help or entertain or inspire or delight someone else.
– Write down the names of three books you are really glad the writer finished because they have had a positive impact on your life.
– Write a letter of congratulations to yourself that you can’t read again until you have finished your first draft, acknowledging the hurdles you’ve overcome and the reasons you should feel proud of yourself.
– Keep going because if you don’t finish the project, you may ultimately feel worse about yourself than if you keep writing in spite of the vicious taunts of your inner critic.

(This article was published in Newswrite magazine in February 2014)