Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Riding the Writing Roller Coaster 3: Fear, Doubt and Inner Critics

Raise your hand if you have ever had one of the following thoughts (or a variation of one of them):
  • -        This book stinks
  • -        I can’t write to save my life
Unless I’m wrong, every person reading this blog post – published or not – has their hand raised.  If you don’t, then you are, quite possibly, the most well adjusted writer on the planet and the rest of us would like to be you.  For the rest of us, our inner critic is a constant companion. (You can put your hands down now.)

Personally, my inner critic can be counted on to raise its head at least three times a novel.  Once at the beginning, once in the middle, and again at the end. Okay, to be completely honest, the critic shows up at the beginning and stays for the entire novel, but I managed to beat him back most of the time so that he only causes real trouble three times a story.  What I’m learning is that self doubt is inevitable.  (Heck, the damn thing’s sitting on my shoulder while I write this blog.)  Writers spend way too much time in their heads.  With no one to talk to except our characters, and no outside contact other than through social media and email (and we all know how dangerous that can be), doubt is bound to find fertile ground. 

We are our own worst enemies.

I have a huge sign in my bedroom that reads Feelings Are Not Facts.  It’s a statement based on the cognitive therapy theory that our brains magnify thoughts into all or nothing emotions.  For example: A scene that isn’t going well becomes, “This scene is terrible” which becomes “”This book is terrible” which becomes “I can’t write” which becomes “I am a no talent hack.”  Each negative thought feeds on the next negative thought until you reach the conclusion that you stink.  Next thing you know, you’re ready to jump off the roller coaster at the highest peak and never write again.  (My friends and I call these moments Standing on the Ledge Days.)

Except you don’t.  You FEEL like you are a no talent hack.  The FACT is that you wrote a flat scene, or your story veered off in the wrong direction or your hormones are acting up. (Seriously, don’t underestimate the emotional killing power of PMS.)  Unfortunately for us, feelings are often far stronger than facts. 

What can you do then when your inner critic starts taking over?
  •  Realize that you are not the only author in the world who feels like an utter fraud.  At any given day, there are dozens of writers feeling exactly the same way.
  •  Print out your own Feelings Are Not Facts sign.  Hang it somewhere so that when the doubt demons attack, you can remind yourself that what you are feeling is not reality.  I have a second sign in my bedroom that says “You are better than you think you are”.  I like to read that reminder as another reality dose.
  • Get out of your head for a bit. Go for a walk, have coffee with a friend, go run a few errands. In other words, step away from the computer for a short time.  Thinking about something else will force the demons back in their box.
  •  If you’re feeling particularly down, consider volunteering somewhere.  Another downside to living our heads is that we see our problems as far bigger than they are as well.  A crisis of self – and face it, self-doubt is a crisis of self – always feels bigger than it really is. (Whoops, there it is again, that facts vs feelings thing).  For me, I find a few hours at the food pantry every month is an excellent reminder that other people have far bigger problems than a crappy manuscript.
  • Find a ledge buddy. A ledge buddy is not a critique partner. A ledge buddy is a colleague friend who, when you  get really, really down on yourself, will remind you that your simply freaking out. He or she is someone who understands why you're thinking these horrible, nasty thoughts.  I wouldn’t survive without my ledge buddy.  She gives me the reality check I need to keep moving forward.  One of the most useful quotes she ever gave me was "You don't suck; you're just on page 98."
  • Buy yourself a copy of Art & Fear byDavid Bayles and Ted Orland.  It’s one of the best books on doubt and fear that I’ve ever read.
  • Soldier on.  Don’t take too long away from the keyboard.  There’s giving yourself a breather, then there’s avoidance.  The only thing procrastination does is make you feel worse.  Push through the doubts.  Remember: you can fix a bad page, you can’t fix a blank one. That said…
  • Track of your doubt triggers.  Last week, I talked about knowing yourself and your motivations for writing.  This is another place where “writer know thyself” is invaluable. What is making your doubt yourself?  Did you not make your word count while your critique partner wrote 5000 words?  Did someone in your chapter make the NY Times list while your last book sold two copies? Or, on a more basic level, have you simply hit the middle of the book and your story no longer has the new idea luster it had on page one? (See the quote from my ledge buddy above.)  All of these things can spark the downward spiral.  Knowing the root cause of any negative thinking helps you to kick the demon to the curve that much quicker.
  • Cut yourself some slack.  One  of the reasons our inner critics have so much power is because we mistakenly think the book that’s in our head is the book that should end up on paper.  News flash: That book doesn’t exist.  It’s a fantasy book, much like a fantasy boyfriend, perfect, nebulous and unrealistic.  No matter what you do, you won’t write the perfect book.  And guess what? That’s okay.  It’s the imperfections that make your story yours.  Perfect books are also homogenous books.  They lack passion, they lack personality.  They lack…you. 
Finally, accept that fear, self-doubt and inner demons will never –EVER – go away.  They will exist for as long as you are putting pen to paper.  To pretend they don’t exist or that you can vanquish them forever is a recipe for disaster.  Instead, accept them, learn how to cope with them, and because it bears repeating, remember that you are not alone.

Next month: New month, new nasty issue. Writer's Block!

This month, Barbara is dealing with her own doubt demons in the form of pending reviews.  Her novella, Love in the Shadows, is being released on Friday, March 28th.  Readers who aren't able to wait a month for her ramblings, can check out her blog at where she muses every Wednesday about the demons and thoughts rattling around in her head.

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