Random Thoughts: Self-Sabotage – Waiting for the Muse

Ah… the muse. This is an idea that comes from Greek and Roman mythology wherein there are 9 goddesses who inspire. Usually personified in the singular, the muse is responsible for providing inspiration. While it is certainly a seductive notion and it can sometimes feel, during the process of creation that some magical force is guiding the work, there is no muse. The muse is you. The magic happens during one of those rare moments when all of your accrued skills are working in tandem more beautifully than you think is possible on your own. But it is still you.

Waiting for inspiration to strike is another excellent way to prevent you from finishing things. I’ve said before in this series that not every moment of the creative process is joyful. Sometimes its painful, sometimes, the words are sluggish, or you feel distracted, or some other activity seems more promising. The idea of the muse, though, is pervasive and there are ways that this notion hurts writers beyond preventing us from finishing drafts, which I’ll get into later.

I repeat, the muse is you. Inspiration or story ideas come from everywhere, overheard conversations, a news story, a science article, something you and a friend were talking about, weird notions that present themselves to you in dreams, that guy that made you angry at work, or any number of things. The point is that inspiration comes from the real world around you, it is what happens in the creative person’s brain that turns it into magic, but it doesn’t turn into magic unless you roll up your sleeves and turn up at the page regularly, prepared to work. Working writers often have a host of rituals, tips, tricks and processes to court ideas that lead to craft. Rune Skelley has two awesome writing prompt generators to help get the creative juices flowing. If you use them, you might not end up with a story that works, but you will be working on craft and generating ideas that are new to you and could lead to something greater.

There are books out there that contain nothing but writing prompts if you need a jump start. There is no quick and easy fix to courting inspiration, but my advice is to try new things and most importantly, pay attention when you are out in the world. You never know what will capture your imagination in a useful way. If you wait for the muse to strike you might never reach your goal, which is a finished draft. When you do have one of those moments where a story arrives in your brain, seemingly complete, embrace it, celebrate that, but recognize that it is still coming from you, and don’t wait for the moment to arrive. Chase it down, make it happen. And that’s all I’m going to say about the self-sabotaging aspects of the muse idea.

The muse is a pervasive myth about writers and artists, that I think is detrimental in a couple of other ways. Everyone knows that there are frequent, and necessary, conversations in writing communities about paying the writer. (I would extend that to paying the artist, just to broaden the conversation. It is a bad problem in the arts. I should note that my fave business blog can be found here.) There are a lot of factors that lead to writers and artists not getting paid for their work, but I think that this notion of the muse has something to do with how art and the work of art is perceived.

The idea of the muse adds to the perception of non-creatives that art itself is not actually work, or that if it is work it isn’t hard work. If the perception is that all creatives are inspired by some genius that comes from outside of their own effort, that makes it easier to justify not paying artists. And that, my friends, is just disgusting. Those of us in the trenches know that creating is fraught with challenges and difficulty and it is a hell of a lot of work, sometimes with very little material reward. Yes, we do this because we love it, we can’t imagine not doing it, but it isn’t magic. It takes time and effort. A magical muse did not dump a story or painting whole cloth into our laps and say, “Sell this and reap the rewards!” To be honest, I don’t know if I would be interested in this work if it was that simple.

Anyway, that’s my perception of the muse. What do you guys think?


Random Thoughts: Self-Sabotage – Chasing Markets or Shiny New Ideas

Another way that writers prevent themselves from completing a first draft of a project is by chasing things that are a) moving unpredictably or b) new and more interesting by virtue of being new.

Chasing the market is when you start paying attention to what everyone else is doing/writing/selling and the ambitious side of you adopts the seductive idea that if you write towards trends that you’ll have a better chance of producing publishable material that people will want to represent or buy. The problem with such a strategy is that by the time you are hearing about a trend, the trend is either already changing or there are writers out there who have completed drafts of work that speak directly to the trend. You also might want to consider whether or not you have a genuine interest or accrued knowledge about the trend in question. The bottom line here is that if you stop work on something that you’ve made real progress on in order to write to a trend, you are killing a project before you’ve given it a fair shake. Finish the thing you started.

Consider why you were drawn to writing fiction in the first place. For most of us, it’s because we fell in love with stories and wanted to start telling our own. I’m not saying that in the process of creation you will love every minute of it, but do the thing that personally as a reader and a writer excites you. Check trends when you have something finished and see if the finished piece matches. Chances are you will, by virtue of talking to readers and writers, be aware of trends already, regardless of whether or not you happen to be tracking them.

There are many roads to publication, but crafting with trends at the forefront instead of placing the story at the forefront is a good way to keep you second guessing yourself, and to keep you from finishing. This is one of those areas that I advise trying to compartmentalize. When you are working on fiction, work on the fiction, and if you have to, carve out some time to stay updated on the publishing world and consider your goals. Do not let that distract you from making progress on the work. You have to put the work first or none of the other information about publishing will matter. Keep in mind I am talking specifically about first drafts for novels. Things with short stories can be a bit different with calls out for themed anthologies. Do it if the theme and genre excite you, don’t just do it to be mercenary about submitting to as many places as possible.

The second thing I think is one that we all, at some point, fall prey to: the shiny new idea that hits you just as you are gaining momentum on a project. I think this happens to every writer. We’ll be working on a piece and then something tangential to the main story will suddenly grab hold of our imagination and give birth to a new idea. Because the new idea is new, unexplored territory and we haven’t hit the point where that new thing feels like work, sometimes we’re tempted to chase it in favor of the thing we’re working on. The advice here is not to disregard the shiny new idea, but to write it down and come back to consider it later.

Something that has started to happen for me, when I put that into practice, is that while I’m working on the current draft the new idea sort of percolates when I’m doing other things not related to writing. Details about the new idea will arrive when I’m at the day job or doing daily household maintenance. It doesn’t hurt to write those down when they arrive, but keep working on the current project, and hang on to those notes. The notes for the shiny new idea will help give you direction when the current project is done and you can dive right into the next first draft when it is time to let the current project sit for a few days or weeks which will enable the critical distance needed for editing. Doing this instead of abandoning the current project is a habit that will help you maintain momentum in writing fiction. It also prevents you from scrambling for ideas on the next project because you’ll already have something you can build on.


Random Thoughts: Self-Sabotage – Perfectionism and Overthinking

So continuing the series on authorial self-sabotage I thought it was time to talk about perfectionism and overthinking. All of this, so far, has to do with removing roadblocks that keep us from getting that first draft done. Perfectionism and overthinking are tied together in my mind.

There’s a great David Foster Wallace quote regarding perfectionism, “…Because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”

I like that quote because it is absolutely true. If we are afraid to move forward in a first draft because that paragraph or sentence has not been perfected, we’ll never move forward. Here’s some tough love regarding that tendency. We have to stop thinking that every word on the page is precious, that every linguistic utterance must blossom with wisdom and/or literary gymnastics.  To fiction writers and fiction readers story is everything. That darling sentence with multiple clauses and 5 dollar word descriptors might not serve the story. In my case, I determined that those rare gorgeous sentences serve the story best when they arrive because of story, and not the other way around.

Another very practical truth when it comes to writing fiction is that it is always best to remember that a first draft can and will always be tweaked. Those carefully crafted words and sentences that you agonized over? Half of them probably won’t survive the first, second or third round of edits. That might actually be the most useful thing to realize when perfectionist tendencies start to take control of your first draft process. Letting go of the idea of first draft perfection is, for some of us, the first step to getting to a completed draft.

Overthinking, in my view is a close cousin to perfectionism. One of the ways I define overthinking when it comes to crafting story is when you have a plot, a direction, you know generally what needs to happen on the page, but rather than doing the work of putting words on the page and starting the story, you get hung up on not knowing certain incidentals and you let that hang you up for hours, days, weeks. A friend of mine has described the experience of having a character walk past a copse of trees and she could not move forward in the text until she figured out exactly which type of tree she wanted those trees to be. The group of trees were not integral to the story, they were a detail of the landscape, but not knowing what sort of tree it was kept her from making progress. My answer to this type of thing when working on a first draft is to make a parenthetical note directly in the text to come back to it later so that I can move forward while I have time carved out to get work done. A detail like that can always be determined later.

I’m interested in how other folks deal with the problem of overthinking when it comes up. Another tactic I have is to step away from the text for a couple of minutes and come back. Sometimes those few minutes of critical distance can put the story/text problem you are thinking about into perspective and give you either an answer or at least a way to move forward.

How about everyone else out there? How do you cope with these problems when they come up?

As I’m looking back on these little posts about writerly self-sabotage is that it seems to all come back to the notion that rewrites are your friend.


Random Thoughts: On Self-Sabatoge – Negative Self Talk

So, negative self-talk is a big way everyone in every field gets in their own way. The Psychology Dictionary defines negative self-talk as “the expression of thoughts or feelings  which are counter-productive and have the effect of demotivating oneself.”

When it comes to writing, we call this voice our inner critic. Maybe some of us call it Captain Crankypants. Whatever. It’s that inner voice that says, “I can’t do this,” or “This work is shit,” or “This makes me look stupid,” or the winner, here, for simplicity’s sake, “I suck.” I don’t know that inner critic is quite a harsh enough term to describe this internal voice. As everyone in the creative fields know, critical thinking and constructive criticism are useful things when we’re in editing/re-design stages of a project. Your inner critic isn’t a critic if they are saying things like, “You suck.” If someone else saw you typing or applying pen to paper and interrupted you, to announce, in an authoritative manner, “You suck! That looks stupid! You can’t do that!” I bet you’d call that person an asshole, maybe punch them in the face, or remove yourself from that person’s presence. I’d also like to point out that it doesn’t require the application of a skill like critical thinking to say something like, “You suck!”

That’s just a long-winded way of saying, you don’t suck. Your negative self-talk sucks, and you quit that shit right now so you can get to work on doing this thing that you love.

Easier said than done.

There are a lot of articles on the web and in psych mags about dealing with this internal voice. There are also health conditions that for some, will make my particular advice worse than useless, but there are resources. If you are a writer with depression talk with your health care provider or support network about it and read the literature from health care experts whose information you trust.

Anyway, rather than trot out some other person’s wisdom about this, I’ll talk about how I approach it.

Self-monitor those thoughts.

This is not as simple as it sounds. Our inner monologues are always just below the surface, a constant thing, so we can’t catch every single thought, but when you do catch yourself saying “This is stupid,” figure out why you think that, and then flip the script. Turn it into a question. “Why do I think this is stupid?” or “What can I do to make this not stupid?” That reframes the thought into something more constructive, but here’s the deal, your answer, if you are in a first draft of something is nothing.

That’s right. NOTHING.

It isn’t time for revisions yet. And it might not be as stupid as you think it is, but you won’t know if the negative self-talk convinces you to throw away the draft. I had to repeat this process frequently before I realized that the inner critic is, in fact, absolutely useless in first draft mode. What I learned is that squashing down that negative internal voice is difficult, it takes time. Self-monitoring can work. If nothing else it points you to the inevitable truth that it doesn’t matter if your first draft sucks because without a completed draft there is nothing to fix. The lesson here is to charge forward in spite of yourself. It will get easier, and the negative self-talk in first draft mode will, eventually stop being an issue. As long as you self-monitor, turn those negative statements into constructive questions. Write those constructive questions down on a piece of paper and trot them out in the second draft. Writing them down will also help reinforce the new pattern of thinking you are trying to establish (replacing negative statements with constructive questions). It may sound a little weird, but hey. We are writers. Weird is kind of our wheelhouse.

The second part of this, for me, was not so much killing the inner-critic completely, but repurposing him. Once those statements start as constructive questions instead of negative statements about the self as a writer, it can actually be helpful.

Wake up that bastard during revisions. Hopefully, by the second draft, the inner critic has been cattle prodded enough to use his/her right words so that rather than statements like this sucks, it says, “What could make this section better?” or “I think something is missing here, what is it?”

Anyway, that’s how I handle it. I’d love to hear what other people think about this!

Random Thoughts: On Self-Sabotage – Procrastination

So, here’s something that’s been coming up in conversation a lot lately. Self-sabotage. Psychology Today defines self-sabotage as a set of behaviors that get in the way of long-standing goals. There are a whole host of dramatic issues associated with the phrase self-sabotage, but I’m not so interested in the big ones for purposes of this post. I’m thinking about the smaller, day to day dumb-ass things we do to get in our own way. Of course, I’m thinking specifically about the writing life.

Let’s talk about the most obvious one that applies to writers, because it’s listed in a bunch of articles. My best frenemy, procrastination.

When it comes to writing, there are a whole host of activities that, to non-writers, look a lot like procrastination, but are not. Daydreaming is one of those things. When writers daydream, it is often with purpose. We are thinking about story, working out plots, hammering out world-building details, filling in what we don’t know about the characters we’re attempting to create on the page. Sometimes research can look like procrastination, because we aren’t actively producing words. We’re reading a whole bunch of stuff relevant to the themes and topics that we want whatever narrative we’re working on to address. I think the issue here is that purposeful daydreaming and purposeful reading can sometimes cross a line into procrastination. The only person who can figure out when that’s happening is the writer, because all of that activity happens in our heads. When I found myself the other day reading a bunch of articles on procrastination, I was in fact, procrastinating. I think I ended up spending an hour that I had set aside for actively producing text to reading that work. I count it as procrastination because it is not relevant to the stories I am working on right now. Although in a weird way it has resulted in some use because of this blog post. But when does procrastination cross the line from “normal thing that everyone does at least a little bit daily” to true self-sabotage?

I know I’ve crossed that line if, in a day, I have written nothing. In the day job, I have watched people create a huge amount of extra work and pointless strife for themselves for the sake of avoiding a single task that would have otherwise taken five minutes out of an eight hour shift. I don’t know what the solution is to avoiding avoidance, but it might be useful for individual authors to figure out some way to self-monitor.  Word count is, for some, a useful metric. For others, it may be something else, like progress on an outline, or number of story problems solved in a brainstorming session.

My point is that as writers we need to figure out where the line is, for ourselves, and come up with a self-monitoring system that works for us. I think this is important stuff because working in creative fields requires us to be self-motivated.