I’m so pleased to introduce Jan O’Hara. Becke introduced me to Jan a couple of years ago, and since then I’ve been following her blog, Tartitude, and her columns on Writer Unboxed.
Creating stories about imaginary characters sounds like a pretty cool gig. But sometimes we need more than chocolate and fairy dust for inspiration. Do you procrastinate, wallow in self-doubt or lose sight of your goals? Wonder if you’ll ever see your name on the cover of a book?
Today, Jan will address methods to overcome counter-productive behavior.
So you’re not writing as much as you’d like—perhaps not at all–and whereas you used to blame lack of time, the need to make your family a priority, or inadequate equipment, you’re past that now. In moments of painful self-honesty, you know you could overcome these obstacles.
Maybe you’ve acquired a case of creeping cynicism about the publishing industry. Maybe you’ve lost confidence in your voice or vision. Whatever the case, the real trouble originates between your ears. Your thoughts whisper, “What is the point?”
To find answers, I’d like to share a helpful parable I heard in an audiobook by Thich Nhat Hahn, the Buddhist monk nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King. (I wish knew the title, but that was lost long ago when I gave the audiotapes to Goodwill.) Then we’ll pull its lessons into writing.
Imagine that you’ve gone to stay at a cabin in the woods with the goal of working on your writing. One afternoon, as you’re taking your daily constitutional, you’re caught by an unexpected storm. You alter your direction for home, but the wind whips your clothes and you’re so wet, your shoes squelch with each step. Thunder crashes around you and, while you’re fond of the scent of ozone, a few lightening strikes come too close for comfort.
After a miserable hour, you see the cabin ahead with its promise of a hot shower and drink. But your troubles haven’t ended, for the shutters weren’t firmly latched. Now your work table is water-stained and your seat cushion drenched. Your formerly tidy papers whirl around the living room, chased by the ashes from last night’s fire.
Faced with such a scenario, most of us would embark on the following course of action:
- Close and shutter the window
- Restore order
- When venturing outdoors in the future, make advance preparations.
Both the content and sequence of choices are common-sensical, yes?
Now, where the wind and the chaos are placeholders for intrusive, destructive thoughts, let’s look at the correlation to writing. We’ll also consider some resources which can help keep the brain a hospitable place.
Close the Window = Stop Admitting External Sources of Discouragement
There’s a common belief in the writing world that a real writer must be able to create in all circumstances, that grit and character are enough to get one through. Certainly, we’ve all heard book-creation stories that are nearly as mythic as the actual manuscript.
No one would dispute that tenacity and willpower are helpful qualities to a writer.
But listen to long-term pros in any field, or listen to people who’ve achieved and maintained huge behavioral changes–such as quitting smoking, starting running, obtaining remarkable weight loss–and you’ll hear a language about more than courage.
They speak of self-care, starting by cutting out external sources of discouragement. These people learn to shut out the emotional storm. They pay attention to what fuels their energy and what saps it, then actively lessen exposure to discouragers. (Sometimes wholesale, but often only until their willpower and equilibrium is restored.)
What that might look like in writing:
- Do your creative, vulnerable work first thing upon rising or before letting in the outside world. (You might disconnect the modem when you go to bed and reconnect after you’ve written your words; use an internet blocker; write with paper and pen.)
- Limit your exposure to publishing news by finding curators you trust, then read only their material. You want to be informed but not overwhelmed.
- Consider a weekly social-media sabbath, or go dark for longer.
- Notice the “emotional temperature” of writing communities and seek out the ones which embody hope and empowerment. (When you’re strong, be one of those voices!)
- Avoiding sharing your work with the people who push your insecurity-buttons. Seek out critiquers who are honest, but encouraging.
- Watch for emotional vampires in your personal and professional life, because negativity in one area easily permeates another.
Feeling guilty for limiting contact with people and situations that you know aren’t good for you? Read this dramatically titled article, which contains pertinent neuro-science: How Negativity and Complaining Literally Rot Your Brain
Restore Order = Use Tools to Counter Negativity
You can’t banish negative thoughts altogether, of course. (Just as one wouldn’t want to banish wind and rain.) They’re part of the human condition and in some instances are protective, prompting us to take precautions we otherwise wouldn’t.
You can’t or won’t want to banish all negatively-inclined, suffering individuals, either. Doing so would make for a society of selfish people, if one could rightfully call it a society under those terms. For that matter, who hasn’t had periods of negativity? But for the grace of god, and all that.
However, you can learn a system of inquiry which diminishes your vulnerability to painful thoughts. The single best tool I know in this category comes with advantages: it’s free and endorsed by the psychologists in my life, because it’s a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. (CBT has been proven to treat depression as well as medications in some studies.) It even has an app.
How does such a tool function? In essence, you learn to question your troublesome thoughts and decide for yourself if you actually believe them.
Interested? Check out Byron Katie’s The Work, with which I have no affiliation.
Other books and practices I can recommend:
- Write a daily gratitude list.
- Set small, consistently achievable goals, then notice and celebrate your progress, however minute.
- Activate your endorphins with exercise.
- One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer
- 10-Minute Toughness: The Mental Training Program for Winning Before the Game Begins by Jason Selk
Make Advance Preparations for a Storm = Prepare for Future Days of Negativity
A Writer’s Emergency Hope Kit is the literary equivalent of heading out on a hike, knowing that you’ve shuttered the windows and have a windbreaker in your backpack.
It’s a simple but powerful tool, but beyond the scope of this article. If you’d like a grounding in the principles, feel free to visit this more detailed post, which I wrote for Writer Unboxed: This Product Prevents Literary Wedgies. Good for Multiple Uses.
Now, I’d love to hear from you. What are your favorite methods and resources for countering negativity?
Author Anna Campbell visits the RU campus on Wednesday, September 19th.
Bio: Jan O’Hara discovered the importance of hope during the time she provided birth-to-death healthcare as a family physician. She lives in Alberta, Canada, with her long-suffering husband (The ToolMaster) and two children (Molly and Frank.) You can find her on Twitter; at her citrusy blog, Tartitude; or at Writer Unboxed, where she contributes monthly columns to their blog and newsletter.
- Don’t Stop Believing! Words to live by – Karin Tabke
- Hold Your Nose and Type – The Upside of Writing Fast with Ruth Harris
- If at First, You Don’t Succeed…by Anna Sugden
- Deepening Motivation and Plot in Historical Fiction with Marci Jefferson
- Character Motivation Part Two—Discerning Motivation, Actions, Goals with Heather Webb