All writers have done it. A deadline inches closer, and the more anxious we get, the more we try to convince ourselves that we don’t have that much to do. We can finish in plenty of time.
Or we’re staring at words that we’ve just written when we hear that familiar voice in our heads: “That’s terrible. You’ll never be able to do this. Just give up.”
That voice has a flip side with perhaps an even more dangerous message: “You’re a genius. What do they know? Don’t change one word.”
If you’re a writer, both voices can paralyze you—one with doubt, one with hubris. Doubt says, “Everyone will know how stupid you are.” Hubris says, “This thing will be a movie—and you’ll star as yourself.” If you listen to the first voice, you’ll never finish what you’re writing. If you listen to the second, you’ll never improve.
Both voices are based in fear. Many writers fear failure. Many more, I think, fear success. Opportunity knocks, or at least pauses, at the front door, and writers run out the back. That can mean breaking a leg (literally), deciding to take on multiple projects (maybe writing three books at the same time), and in the case of one of my colleagues, traveling from California to New Mexico to do research for a poem.
When I asked how long he’d been working on the poem, he scratched at his beard and answered, “Five years, so far.” Had he written a word? You know the answer. This is not research; it’s researchitis.
A close friend received an offer to write a column for one of the most widely read magazines in the country. After dealing with imposter syndrome for almost five hours, she gathered the courage to call me, sobbing. She knew I’d insist that she take the job, and I did. She excelled at it for years.
These cases may sound extreme, but how many times have you decided that you needed to catch up on social media, watch your loved ones watch TV, or clean the oven or the toilet when you could have been working on your writing? Think about it. Anything that makes you want to clean the oven or the toilet cannot be good.
Self-sabotage talks about responsibilities: “You’ve got do laundry tonight.” It talks about guilt: “You finally have a Friday off, and you’re doing what?” It talks about failure: “You got another rejection. No one is going to publish this POS.”
Most of all, the voice judges, often in ways that may remind you of messages you heard in childhood: “How can you call yourself a writer? You don’t even know where to put the commas.”
That’s when you start questioning yourself. “Maybe I’ll start next week. Maybe this is an unrealistic dream. Maybe I don’t deserve it.”
Simply put, self-sabotage is wanting something with all your heart and then doing everything in your power to keep yourself from having it. Don’t let it win. Talk back to it. Shout it down if you have to. While you’re at it, tune out those who may not want the best for you.
Pay attention, and you can tell which people in your life want to build you up, and which ones, despite lip service to the contrary, want to keep you down. That loved one who complains about the time you spend writing may be terrified that you’ll change if you succeed. The loudest critic in your writing group may feel threatened.
Once you practice the first rule of writing, BIC (butt in chair), you’ll start seeing results. Another set of initials that helps me is JGID: just get it down. This may be the most important lesson I’ve learned. Get it down. Slam that first draft on the page in any form you can get it there. You can edit later. You can refine, replace, delete. You can fix anything but a blank page. Until words appear on that page, no one can fix anything, and the demon wins.
The demon isn’t going to roll over either. Evil is loudest right before it’s destroyed. Like the last screech of the monster in a horror film, it will swoop in for one final attack just as you near the pinnacle. Expect it, rebuke it, reject it, and keep writing.
Those of us who write are frequently trying to move ahead and avoid being thrown off course. The first time I sailed, the destination was Catalina Island, and I watched from our fragile vessel as Los Angeles disappeared, but I couldn’t yet see the island ahead—an unnerving experience.
Writing is like that. We are afloat and vulnerable with the land behind us and the destination still invisible in the mist. All we have are our craft and our faith. They are what get us there. And, despite what anyone, including our own desperate voices, tries to tell us, that is enough.
Bonnie Hearn Hill is the author of more than a dozen novels. Her most recent is 'The River Below.'