Believing In Myself as a Writer

IMG_0206 2This has proved to be the hardest part; this belief in one’s self as a writer. I once started a journal with: “I don’t know what to write.” The rest of the journal remained blank. I don’t journal well. 

I fight with myself as a writer every single day. I reject this self-imposed isolation. I hate it. I don’t want to do it. I don’t know how not to.

It doesn’t help that my insecurities are fueled by difficulties getting published. Every time I receive a rejection, it sets me back, and I have to begin all over again, Sisyphus rolling this rock back up the hill. I am getting older, waiting to get that rock up that hill.

I’ve learned too, through the years, that the quiet writers need has a dark side; we also need responses, we need to know others read our writing. The answer is, we need readers who feel engaged with our material, but the challenge is, how to inspire and motivate the reader (without using extrinsic motivation, like schoolmasters of yore used a cane to beat recalcitrant writers?).

The blogosphere-world has exploded, and it’s literally impossible to read and respond to everything you see. I know that when I read something someone has put time and effort into, I can’t always be counted on to respond with the truth—to say, wow, no one will read this, you’ve found yourself a subject that’s bound to turn others off! Or to find time to compliment the writer who has managed to come up with a compelling subject, who I want to read over and over again.

I’ve had to force myself, in the past year or so, to be sure to comment on people’s blogs. This is why I limit how many blogs I read, and I don’t follow many. The greatest irony for me—someone who wants more than anything to encourage writers—is that it isn’t possible to encourage every writer I see (and then sit and wonder why no one is encouraging me!). It feels overwhelming to use each blog experience as a “teaching moment,” to tell them, the way I tell myself, alright, too much detail, excessive vocabulary, you’re losing your audience… etc. All the things that go wrong, go wrong in my head before they go wrong in the writing. 

I rationalize: I shouldn’t need encouragement, should I?

Oh, but I do.

All writers do. 

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The Passionately Curious Reader and The Writer of Great Imagination

The curious reader has the kind of imagination to see your writing not as it is now, but as it might be.

Writers have great imaginations, but virtually every writer has, at some point, had difficulty imagining his or her audience.

I propose that this is partially a side effect of the expectation that writers should isolate ourselves. If we therefore spend a lot of time in our heads, creating and imagining, the person we’re writing to might not exist in reality. Since we’re isolated and alone, we’re not likely to meet this person, either.

Therefore, it’s in our best interest, as writers, to collaborate with other writers or creative types, people who understand our inner world because they appreciate it, believe in it, or somehow speak its ‘language.’ You know who that person is: s/he is someone you feel comfortable enough sharing your writing with, someone who focuses less on errors and fixing your writing, and more on what you’re trying to say or accomplish with your story. This ideal reader, like Albert Einstein, could say “I have no special abilities; I am only passionately curious.” 

How do we access this ‘passionately curious’ reader if we don’t yet have a trusted writing partner, someone we can share our writing with? This reader is not what I would call a critique partner. I’ve had those. Even the writing partners who mean well, offering valuable advice that improves your writing skills, might not be the reader you really need, who sympathizes with you and the story you’re trying to tell.

In my experience, most critique happens long before your story has sufficient structure and purpose, and may end up doing more harm than good. Critique often stands in for copy-editing, and instead of allowing the writer to develop his or her thoughts and form a solid direction, nips incipient creativity in the bud far too early.

The helping hand of inspiration

There’s often a gap between the writing we produce and the writing we’ve got in our heart or mind’s eye. The difficulty will be finding the person who cares less about mistakes and more about what’s preventing you from telling the story you could tell if you had the right inspiration.

As writers, we share a fundamental hope. Somewhere deep inside we hope that our thoughts and feelings will be of interest to our readers. It’s this hope we nurture when we begin to write.

However, if, like me, you were trained by society to suppress your feelings, to forget your experiences and never speak of them, is it any surprise that when we sit down to write a story or essay that tells the truth, we stop ourselves with negative messages?

This is an insidious and debilitating process: I want to write, but I can’t let myself. We end up abandoning ourselves. We really need someone’s permission to say what needs to be said, yet we can’t allow ourselves to be that vulnerable. How, then, can we get past this fear and reconnect with our deep desire to write—complete with the conviction that our words are valuable?

One way is to make use of the powerful imagination writers have.

Sit in a comfortable chair. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, let the tension leave your body as you exhale. For a few minutes, sit quietly and pay attention to your breathing. Try not to think about much of anything. The goal is to relax your mind, release self-judgement, and allow self-acceptance.

Visualize your friendly, curious reader sitting across from you. This person accepts you no matter what you do, and is interested in everything you say. Remember the last conversation you had with this person, how openly you shared your ideas and feelings, realizing their significance as you spoke, knowing they would be received with understanding.

See his or her receptive, caring face and simply begin to tell your story. Open your eyes, pick up a pen and write to that friend. And now you’ve found your audience, for the time being at least. You’ve imagined what it feels like to have the ideal reader.

The next step is to find that friend in the real world, and share your imagination with him or her. This is the purpose of the Collaborative Writer forum; it exists with the intention of connecting writers who, hopefully, will end up trusting each other enough to share their writing with each other in a collaborative, not competitive, environment.

Making Peace With Time

What is the meaning of time?

When you’re deep in the midst of flow, you have no awareness of time passing. Your mind, intentions, and will connect, and time, as they say, flies.

It’s the rest of the time that turns us into philosophers as we try to make peace with time.

Coming to an acceptance of how you use and misuse your time, as a writer, is a daunting prospect. Making peace with the way you think about your work as a writer can be something we really just don’t ever let ourselves dwell on; after all, the word ‘writing’ is a verb. When we want to write, we’re supposed to be doing something associated with writing, ‘doing’ being the operative term.

How you imagine the concept of time has everything to do with your identity as a writer. Time does not seem like much of a metaphor when a clock ticks loudly nearby. Time is not a philosophical construct when you’re brushing your teeth—but we don’t think about the amount of time brushing one’s teeth requires. We’re too busy doing it to think about the nature of time, or to think that the amount of time we spend doing quotidian tasks, applied to writing, would seem inadequate to the task of writing (or so we believe).

Those who write must think consciously and deliberately about time— resistant or reluctant writers even more so—because the idea of time fills our thoughts in a way it does not for any other pastime. We become obsessed with the amount of time we have to spend writing. We measure the quality of the way time passes. We assess each moment critically, asking ourselves whether we’re ‘doing’ anything purposeful. Writers, and those who want to write, but aren’t, are terribly aware of

each

passing

second

as though the sun were perpetually sinking beneath our personal horizon.

Those who want to write are painfully aware of how little time is available to do the one thing they’ve decided they most want to do. When it comes to writing, we give time an awful lot of power, if you think about it. Ask yourself if there’s any other task in the course of your day you glorify in this way? If you break down the way you spend each minute of the day, you’ll find that you really don’t need anywhere near as much time to get something written as you might believe you do.

And yet, the illusion prevails that we must allot a significant amount of time to the task if we’re to give our writing the attention it deserves. It’s the way we think about writing in the first place that creates our perception of time. I see this belief often, in aspiring writers in particular. Until the writer makes peace with time and gets control over the emotions that prevent him from doing something as straightforward (yet difficult) as believing that fifteen minutes a day will lead to a finished manuscript soon enough, he will continue to procrastinate about his writing project.

The key to managing your sense of time when you want to write is to make an appointment with yourself. However, to do that, you have to first take yourself and your need to write seriously. I believe this is the most difficult hurdle for too many writer-wannabes. It’s difficult even for those who are familiar with this process, who know what to expect. There are too many hurdles, and too many books tell you some version of “oh, quit wallowing in your fears and just get on with it!”

The writer who lets himself believe that unless he has a full year of completely free days to write his novel is trapped in a perception that amount of time available to complete a task equals quality of outcome. In no other area of life do we make that belief limit our behavior as severely as we do with writing. It’s because of our beliefs about what writing means, what it entails, and what the doing of it requires that we tell ourselves we don’t have enough time to write.

It’s only when you begin to think of yourself as a writer, and at the same time, discipline yourself to see writing as a task that can be accomplished within a set amount of time each day (a half hour, for example; no more, no less—it’s important to break down the task into manageable chunks of time) that you begin to get some control over your ideas about how writing and time are interwoven.

Once we stop putting writing on the mystical pedestal we have it on, and turn it into a task that requires only a reasonable amount of time each day to effect the perfectly reasonable outcome you desire, which is to emerge, over time, with a publishable manuscript, we’ll see writing for what it is: a technē, an ability we can hone and polish with care and time.

Although Ms. Doughty over-emphasises writing’s difficulty at times, her overall approach is practical and wise.

Come to the task of writing believing that you will best accomplish your eventual goal, whether it is to publish one novel or fifteen articles, by:

#1: Breaking down your larger goal down into reasonable, manageable units of time. Fifteen minutes a day is completely adequate until you’ve built up enough material to build on.

Don’t overwhelm yourself by saying, “I have to write the Great American Novel in one year.”

You very well might write the Great American Novel in one year, but not unless you determine ahead of time how much time you can reasonably spare each day to get some—not all; not a chapter, maybe not even an entire page, but some—writing done.

It is entirely realistic to think you can write a novel in one year, and/but it will require self-discipline, and self-discipline means you cannot give in to the mystique that the “best” writing can only be done with a free year of no outside work impinging on your time.

Most writers of great renown were working at some other job when they wrote their first, second, and even third or fourth novels. Don’t quit your day job, not because you lack talent, but because you do not have to.

#2: Placing a boundary around your work: set up a space and time that is inviolate and cannot be interrupted or affected by the outside world and its demands. Take your needs seriously, and don’t be swayed from your goals.

#3: Thinking about your relationship to time. Do you think about time philosophically? Metaphorically? Philosophical attitudes to the passing of time allow us to see our use of time from a larger perspective. It’s difficult to panic about having enough time to write when you know, with certainty, that you will have all the time you need—you simply have to believe it.

#4: Asking yourself, what metaphors do you use to describe time? Do you “spend” time? Do you feel that time “has gotten away” from you? Listen carefully to the metaphors you use to describe time; they will tell you a great deal about the attitudes you have that hold you back from believing in yourself as a writer.

Most importantly, do not intimidate yourself into the fear that you cannot do this. You can.

A new beginning for The Collaborative Writer!

The Collaborative Writer, a website I’ve been developing for quite some time, is finally up! Please visit, and consider becoming a member to join the community of writers who want to work with one another collaboratively, not competitively.

The goal of The Collaborative Writer is to help you rediscover yourself through your creativity.  Expressing your creativity is a process of rediscovery. As you allow yourself to explore your potential, your new self emerges. The Collaborative Writer’s supportive community exists to help you develop as a writer. Contrary to belief, writers are not born, they emerge over time.

This metamorphosis occurs more smoothly when you interact with other writers who can provide encouragement and reinforcement. Frequently, the biggest stumbling block to creativity occurs long before you ever start writing. Your own beliefs about what it means to be creative might be holding you back. We can explore these blocks, finding ways for you to visualise yourself as a writer.

Learning to believe in yourself and value your need for creativity is an ongoing process. Making time for this might seem to be a luxury, but self-expression is a necessary part of feeling whole. Through group interaction via the forum, the collaborative blog, or with me through one-on-one counseling, your identity as a writer will be strengthened. You’ll find contacts, friends, and resources at The Collaborative Writer that will guide you on your way to self-expression.

Setting your writing compass

Begin with where you are now, in the present

When you set out on a journey of any length, it’s reassuring to have a general notion of where you’re going.

The same can be said of writing, but since there are few absolute parameters set for most writing situations, knowing your ultimate destination, as though you were a train heading for a particular station, can be daunting.

There is much about writing that feels intimidating, and the idea of having complete control over one’s writing experience is illusory if you’re not sure why you’re writing, what your goals are, or what your intention is.

Your response, if you’re overwhelmed, is not to write at all, so as to avoid something that feels confusing and difficult. Think about the issues that then become barriers to writing:

  • Not knowing what to say; precision eludes you; you’re confused
  • Feeling unfocused and irritable, barely perceptible thoughts poke at you, demanding shape and form that you can’t give them
  • Now knowing why you should write, or what your motivation is
  • Negative self-talk: the chattering inner voice of self-criticism, self-doubt, fears, anxiety, ego, anger, obsession
  • Attachment to outcome
  • Wasting time, or using the time you do have available for writing to complain that if only you had more time, you’d get more writing done

There are useful steps to take when you want to write, but you’re feeling overwhelmed and directionless. The antidote to not knowing one’s intention, purpose, goal or direction can be found in the concept of mindfulness. If getting started presents this much of a challenge, learning how to practice mindfulness, where you are consciously aware of each action, each thought, in any given moment, helps focus your mind on the direction you want your writing to take.

Ask yourself what truly matters to you

To be mindful, as a writer, means being consciously aware of your environment, your feelings, your visceral self.

Your visceral self exists alongside your intellectual self, the self with all the racing thoughts that lead you nowhere. If thoughts are the rats in the maze, your viscera are observing the rats, the maze, the thoughts themselves. Your visceral self is highly aware, at any given moment, of your perceptions of reality.

Awareness of one’s sensory perception is taught to creative writers. Creative writing teachers say: Pay attention to your surroundings; notice what that woman over there is wearing; describe her clothes. Notice what color the sky is, and try to describe it accurately. Don’t say ‘it’s blue.’ It’s not blue, not if you look carefully. When you really look, you’ll see it’s dove grey with light blue-tinged clouds shading into silver.

I remember this lesson very well from my creative writing classes, because without these teachers, I possibly would never have learned the word ‘obsidian,’ a wonderful word that perfectly describes some shades of grey sky, as well as being a variety of rock. Some dark clouds have obsidian underbellies in the moments prior to pouring stinging cold rain on your head.

Once you start to really notice the world around you, to pick up and touch stones, and feel their soft smoothness; or notice if your body is tired, if you’re thirsty, how your skin stings when the sun gets too hot; to notice when you suddenly hold your breath, or are aware of how that glass of water tastes… how cool, sharp and hard the glass feels in your mouth, against your tongue… all of these fractions of moments are part of what it is to be mindful.

When you approach your writing from this perspective, your thoughts are already focused, conscious and aware. Sit in this open state, quietly, with no distractions, for a few minutes, noticing with acuity everything around you—the quality of the light in the room, the precise color of your chair, the way the fabric feels under your hand—and then add deep, repetitive breathing (two or three deep breaths) until some kind of answer to this question comes to you:

Why do I want to write [fill in the blank: this book; this poem; at all]?

There was a time when I had no idea why I wanted to write, because I had no idea what it was I wanted, or needed, to say. In 1991, I started teaching adults creative writing classes at night. Did I know, in 1991, what my goal was, my ultimate purpose for writing? I did not. It took me years to discover what I want and need to say, and how I want my contribution to be that I help change the paradigm we have inherited about writing. This goal is what fuels almost all my writing now, but I didn’t know it consciously when I got started. I had to listen for this knowledge along the way. I had to wade through ego, too.

Listen to yourself; you know what you need to write about

At one point, about ten years ago, when I asked myself (again) “Why am I writing?” the answer was “to get published.” At the time, I believed I needed to get published. I needed it for my ego, for one thing, and I needed it if I was going to be taken seriously as an academic. However, I also have the conflicting lack of desire to be on display, to be ‘famous,’ or even to be known. So there was an egolessness warring inside of me, alongside my egoic need for achievement.

The middle ground I found to put those conflicting needs to rest began to emerge over time. I had to sit with my desire to write many times, asking, over and over again, “Why am I doing this? What do I hope to accomplish? What is it that I need that I can’t get any other way?” before it became clear to me that no matter what happens, whether I get published or not, I really do need to get this message out: that we need to see writing differently, we need to have a different way of looking at our need to create, to express ourselves.

So that eventually, when I asked myself “Why am I writing? What is motivating me, what is my purpose?” the answer came back: I want people to be free from their limiting self-talk. I want everyone who wants and needs to write to feel free to do so. I want people to stop believing that they can’t, or shouldn’t, write.

So, that’s why I write. Because if I don’t, I won’t get this message out, and it has to be heard until it is believed, until the paradigm changes, until our beliefs change.

Now we need to find out what motivates you. Why do you write? Why do you want to write, if you’re not currently writing? Once an answer comes to the surface, or the forefront of your mind, then we can state an intention: I want to [fill in the blank]. Only then can you set a direction on your writer’s compass. Without intention, you are directionless, and you will write aimlessly, with no discipline, if you write at all.