We often blame procrastination when it’s our behavioural patterns that stop us doing the things we genuinely want to do. My last post, Recognising Writing Behavioural Patterns, was all about mapping and recognising these patterns as a way to changing them.
And while it was fun and I had quite a few light bulb moments, the next crucial step advocated by Jurgen Wolff, in Your Writing Coach, was confronting.
‘When you’ve identified a pattern, it can be useful to identify what it’s giving you. Normally, it will be some kind of protection, often a protection from needing to face change, which is uncomfortable initially and sometimes very scary indeed.’
So what was I getting out of sabotaging my efforts to write?
Wolff claims there are Seven Big Fears that cause us to stagnate.
• not being good enough
• revealing too much of yourself
• only having one book in you
• being to old
• overwhelmed by research
You know how you look up a medical text book to find out what’s wrong with you, and by the time you’re finished you’re riddled with illnesses? Well, I have six of Wolff’s fears, and should have become a researcher.
But when I came to one particular fears my chest tightened and I got that awful sinking feeling. I knew then why I accepted every invitation ‘life’ put in my way so I could put off writing. I knew exactly what I was protecting myself from.
Not being good enough, not reaching the high standard of writing I aim to achieve, terrifies me. Somewhere in my twisted subconscious I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t write, then technically, I couldn’t fail to reach those standards. So the pattern of avoidance I set up for myself was doing an amazing job of protecting me from that fear of failure.
I know from mapping my patterns of behaviour that it’s in the last stages of writing everything goes pear shaped. That is, when I allow myself to write. I am never at a loss for ideas. Writer’s block isn’t my problem. I fight my way through first drafts – never a fun period for me – with stoicism, determination and hopeful anticipation. Second drafts are ecstasy. But somewhere between the final edits and the polish I stop writing. I have a hundred stories floating around my computer waiting for a fine sand.
The solution seems obvious now. But no less frightening.
Wolff offers a suggestion.
‘When you have identified what the payoff is, you can generate alternatives for getting the same benefits in more benign ways.’
So I decide to make a pact with myself that has protection built into it.
I’m working on a story now that’s into the exciting second-draft stage. I have made a pact with myself to finish it. Right to ‘read-through-an-editor’s-eyes’ completion. Only then will I decide whether it’s ‘good enough.’ If I’m not sure how reliable my judgement is, I will ask a valued writer friend if she will read it. Her feedback is always constructive, honest and astute, and she does it kindly. After I receive her comments then I’ll decide whether to send my story to a publication. At each step I have control over who reads my story.
I’m already getting an unforseen benefit from this pact. Miraculously, I’m not thinking about whether this story will be ‘good enough.’ I’m writing almost every day for the pleasure and the challenge of it. I’m excited to see how far I can take it towards my ideal. Whether anyone else sees it is my choice. AT EVERY STEP.
This solution seems to be working for me.
Your fears and the negative patterns you’ve developed to protect yourself may be different. The solution you come up with will reflect that difference. You may not come up with the right solution the first time. Treat it as research for ways of working that suit you.
The key point Wolff makes about patterns and payoffs is important.
‘It’s not enough just to change your pattern, you must also change it in a way that also gives you the payoff that was provided by the old pattern.’
I’m eager to hear about your experiences and the solutions you’ve found that change your negative patterns and the payoffs into positive ones. Please drop me a line.
Not being good enough… the dilemma and black dog of the creative soul who works solitary.
Is my work “good enough”? Will it even be worth the effort of someone looking at it to tell me it’s NOT “good enough”?
This debilitating emotion is what holds us back… so – look into the history of your other writings? Have they been good enough to share – with spouse, family, friends? What was the response?
What is your history in other areas?
Have you made positive impact elsewhere?
Have you experienced life? Can you describe it? Can you tell a story without people falling asleep? Can you get people excited in the anecdotal evidence of life?
Do that !
And yet – we all cringe in the corner… because we compare our own work with that of the giants who have walked before us…
Robert Louis Stevenson – who travelled to an island paradise for his health and kept smoking.
Isaac Asimov – who loved rainy days so he could stay indoors and write without taking his wife out.
Harper Lee – a one hit wonder…?
Herman Melville – a real one hit wonder – Moby Dick took 18 months to write and only sold 3200 copies in his lifetime…
Ian Fleming, Robert Heinlen, Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler, James Patterson, Dan Brown, Dale Brown, Anne McCaffrey, Orson Scott Card, J K Rowling, Terry Pratchett … the giants crowd around me looking down on my work with … what … derision, discernment, disgust that it is not “good enough” to measure up to their level – or is it encouragement, to continue, to attain, to overcome and not give in?
Unless I write – I’ll never know!
But let me encourage you, Karen ( and dear readers ), to continue, strive, attain and deliver the story that is in you.
Thanks for your thoughts, Tony, and your encouragement to all of us.
While having others judge my work is a consideration, it’s me I have to satisfy. It’s not so much measuring up to the level of the giants of literature, it’s more a case of whether I’m good enough to reach the high bar I set for myself.
And your wise words are so true – unless I write – I’ll never know.
Mine is on my home page 🙂
Thanks for the link.
It can be quite gripping to experience that feeling of fear before writing. For me it’s more of a nervousness, edgy feeling that churns my stomach. Even though I’m aware of the feeling it’s always there, it doesn’t go away each time I want to create a story. But what I do is allow the physical sensation to happen, be mindful of it, identify it as nervousness and “butterflies”, recognise that the feeling will pass when I pick up the pen and then I just start writing. The reward is actually completing a story, It’s a great feeling, even if it’s not good enough … for now at least.
What has been so interesting in the comments is to see how differently people approach writing. Thanks for your process, Maree. I was fascinated that you feel nervous before you start, and then harness that energy in your writing. Your nervousness sounds similar to the heightened awareness I feel at the end when I work to make a story ready for a publisher. It’s a physical sensation that I think pushes me that extra bit harder. Now you’ve made me think about it, the unfinished stories filling up my drive are all waiting for that sharp-eyed critical stage that makes me nervous. Think I’ll approach it the way you do. Thanks, Maree.
I’ve been keen to focus on something longer (a novel or at least a long short story) and your post made me realise that I’m telling myself negative thoughts… I’ve never really analysed why I’m not writing longer pieces but this made me think. I love short pieces because I can write them quickly and see results quickly. They’re the high GI, high sugar, high energy foods of the literary world… But you can’t survive on just that. I need to just bite the bullet, sit down with a big bowl of brown rice and have faith that it will work out in the long run.
Loving your analogies, Jessie! Fibre keeps the body in good shape 😛
Ahh, Jessie. Faith, perseverance and trust! If only they came in cereal boxes! I do believe that the more we understand why we do things, the better our chances of breaking through the things that limit us. I’ve learned so much from others since I’ve been thinking and writing about these issues.
Read Jennifer Down’s “Aokigahara”, the winner of the 2014 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Story Prize at
There’s nothing high GI, high sugar, high energy food about it. It would sustain me for years on a deserted island.
All the best with your brown rice. I’ve seen some of your longer work and I have faith in you.
Two great posts, Karen, and so thoughtful and also (thankfully) hopeful! You write so amazingly well it’s hard to think of you worrying about standards! But I know most creatives have that “I’m still not good enough” feeling, no matter what. Retaining control over each step sounds perfect.
For me, it’s not so much about whether I write to a high enough standard (although I still ‘have’ that!), it’s about whether I have the energy to even start (having M.E. requires a constant dialogue re energy management). So for me, the steps are about size. Fifty words here, a silly poem there, spending fifteen minutes editing or expanding a work in progress (a WIP is easier because I’ve already made ‘the start’ so need less mental energy to make progress).
Baby steps. Controlled steps. Each one whatever we need to further our writing journey. 🙂
It sounds like you have worked out a very balanced way of writing that suits you, Joanna. Your commitment to it is admirable given how hard it must be at times for you. From your work I can feel how much enjoyment you get out of writing. And that translate into wonderful writing. Thank you for contributing in such an inspirational way to the conversation.
Thanks for that thoughtful piece, Karen. It seems we all have different ways of getting ourselves to put ‘bum on seat,’ e.g. discovering what negative patterns might prevent us, etc.
I have a couple of things that I employ when writing which might interest you and bloggers.
It’s based on the KIS (keep it simple) principle.
Firstly, I don’t think.
I make an appointment to write e.g. 10am-12 noon each day.
I trust that I’ve left my work from the day before at a point where I can get a kick start.
If I’m starting some new section, I trust it has something to say.
I trust that the words, unedited, on the page, will perhaps in a later reading, reveal what it is being explored, imagined.
I trust the process.
So for me, when I write, I only have three steps:
a) I don’t think
b) I turn up for the appointment. If I have to cancel it then I make another one, in my diary straight away, and turn up for that.
c) I fully trust the process and flow of words, e.g. imagine I’m in a canoe riding the twists and turns offered me by my non-thinking state. I take what is offered and that’s why trust has to come first, so I’m free and accepting enough to be led rather than to think it out.
Just a note about personal standards: It’d be like tying myself up in fishing line if I worried about the standard of my writing. That’s way, way down the line.
Mind you, my drafts do go on and on.
Part of the excitement, eventually, is when the shape and voice of the piece reveals itself.
At no point, do I really care about my standard of writing. I know I can write in sentences and I know I can imagine. That’s all I need. Any standard I set for myself with a certain piece may not be achieved straight away. I may need to put it away for a while, in some cases years, and get on with the next.
Thank you, Anne. It’s really helpful for every writer to see there are endless ways to write, and I’m so pleased people are sharing these on my blog. Trust comes with experience, I think, or is it the natural proclivity of some creative people? Have you always trusted your work will find its own way, or is it something that developed as you became more confident in your ability and found the process was reliable through your experience of writing?
I follow Kate Grenville’s advice that things don’t have to start off making sense but they do have to end up making sense. When things start making sense varies from story to story. The one I’m working on now came almost fully formed on the page. I love when that happens, because it doesn’t happen often to me. Certainly, in later drafts, I have always discovered the connections and layers that lie just under the surface waiting to be dug up. That’s the thrill of writing for me.
After thinking about Maree’s comment earlier I realised at what stage I start thinking about standards of writing. Hence the huge number of nearly finished stories I have. That’s my hurdle to jump.
Discovering why I’m not jumping has been like suddenly finding myself on a show jumper.
I agree with you that trust comes from experience. I certainly didn’t have it at the beginning of my writing life. I remember the days when it was like extracting teeth just to reach 600 words.
What started me on the ‘trust path’ was the discovery, in the earlier writing days, that some pieces demanded to written in a form other than the one I was writing. For example, a short story might demand to be an article, an article might demand to be an essay, a poem might demand to be a short story. I used to tussle with this a bit and try and make it fit my preconceived piece but I was leading myself up the wrong garden path. When I gave in to the work itself things began to flow and, as a writer, I was giving myself the opportunity to develop my skills.
Once I learnt to listen to what the pen was saying I learnt to trust the material itself. For example, I realised that what I wanted to write about could be written in many forms but the material seemed to dictate the form. This was an important development for me because it meant my job was to get the material down first of all, tip it all out, spill, spill, spill.
At that point I had a much better idea of what was expressing itself. For me, spills and more spills help find the essence.
Further developments can then take place and then, as you say, with more experience, you learn to trust things such as transitions, voice, form.
I agree with Kate Grenville. The work when it’s spilling and forming doesn’t have to make any sense at all because you’re spilling more as a trusty observer. You’re certainly not an editor or proofreader in the early to middle drafts.
Now, I know many people don’t work like this. The trust way is not the way for those who like to know the beginning, middle and end before they start. But, it’s a good way for those who know there’s something pressing to say but haven’t quite articulated it. I need to spill then read between the lines. What is being said between the lines?
Sometimes, I’ve written a short story as a radio piece just so I could find the essence and voice of the piece. Children’s stories I’ve sometimes written as a play first. I remember Elizabeth Jolley’s early successes came from her early radio plays which she broadcast on the BBC. The plays were eventually turned into stories, and, her dialogue sang!
PS all the best for your Writers’ Festival. It sounds great.
Thank you, Anne, for sharing another insightful and extremely valuable comment. I really love reading about your methods and thoughts on writing. Thanks again.
ps e.g. I have to accept that I’ve made a couple of punctuation errors in my previous comment. I’ll call it a ‘draft’ comment. Till next time 🙂
But it could in no way be classed as a pig-swill draft. Hehe.
Thanks so much Karen. It does help to know the hurdles other people are struggling with. Mine is literally the last hurdle. I find it very hard emotionally to get my book out to agents/publishers. I don’t persevere. I tend to send it out a few times and then get upset and start another book! I’m vowing to persist this time.
Good on you for deciding to persevere, Debbie. It does take courage to send our work to agents/publishers, doesn’t it? Completely understandable! Someone told me a story about a well-known local writer who sent one story he believed in to something like 20 competitions, and on the 21st time won the prestigious award he’d submitted it to. Elizabeth Jolley tried for 19 years to get her work published before she broke through. One publisher suggested she see a psychiatrist because her story was so disturbing. I like to hear stories like that. All the best with your writing!
thank you Karen for being so generous in sharing your personal story on this topic. the replies have been amazing as well. I haven’t yet made the time to do this second step of the process but m encouraged by your post and all the replies to do it soon..
The replies to this post were fascinating. I really love the interaction a blog gives you. Thank you for your comments, Marg. I hope you get something valuable from your discoveries.
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