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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Guilt-Free Writing

An aside before getting down to business: I want you all to know, my hubby decided to take a copy of my up-coming release, APHRODITE'S BREW, to show his boss. I handed him the same copy I'd taken to a workshop yesterday to show around. With a studied frown, he looked it over thoroughly while I sat waiting for his "critique". (He prefers to give me an "honest evaluation" rather than useless praise-- I think you can interpret that.) Finally he made his pronouncement. "That's a pretty good cover," he said. "Just the right amount of nudity to get attention."

There is no question in my mind that writing poses some strain on my family. I think sometimes they'd really rather I have a more lucrative job, or spend more time mopping floors and scrubbing toilets, sew up more ripped pockets and bake more bread, more like I used to be. Sometimes their frustration shows. Yet at the same time, they all seem to appreciate who I am and what I must do, and they don't hesitate to brag about me when the occasion calls for it. I'm really pretty lucky to have a family who divide up chores reasonably well and understand following dreams. Not everyone does.

The trouble with writing is we feel guilty if we write, but we feel guilty if we don't write. We feel guilty if we catch ourselves "wasting time" when we "should have" been writing. We should have been more organized so we could have sneaked in some writing minutes on our break while we ran to the bank. We took time to go to a movie with our best guy or played volleyball with the kids, when we really should have been writing. We blogged and we FaceBooked, and we MySpaced, Twittered. We even logged in a few interviews and judged twenty contest entries. We should have been writing. Somehow. Or we wrote twenty more minutes when the cats were crying for dinner, or Daughter Number Three smashed her thumb while we were finishing the chapter, and she wouldn't have if we'd only paid more attention to the fact that she had been messing around in the garage looking for a hammer.

Writers live by guilt. They motivate all aspects of their lives with it. And to be truthful, I think a lot of them like it. They'll deliberately dream up sins of omission or commission just to have something to shove themselves along through life. And conversely, when they somehow don't get their over-scheduled day completed with sufficient satisfaction, they have guilt to fall back on. The price they pay in guilt is used to balance the scales. It's almost as good as buying time.

It doesn't work for everyone, though. Some authors become so guilt-ridden, they become enervated. Some of them pay their writing debt with guilt instead of pages turned in, and they get so accustomed to this pay-off plan, they pay this price every day. One of the clues is the almost daily recital of their personal put-downs of laziness and dis-organization. It's too easy to fall into the excuse trap, and they have become completely ensnared.

Some authors have become intimidated by their own failings, and would rather burden themselves with guilt than dare to fail at writing. For them, when the guilt doesn't work, they can always find a toilet to scrub.

All of this is really poisonous to a writer's mental health. The pay-off for their procrastination and self-bullying may have relieved their fears temporarily, but it can become a full-fledged writers block or worse, depression.

So how do you dig yourself out of that sinkhole int the road? How do you keep from falling into it or even stepping into a mere shallow rut? There's only one way. It involves changing the negative thoughts you're using to poison yourself, and following that up with changing your behavior.

Did I say this would be easy? I sure hope you don't think I did. It's darn hard. These habits are deeply ingrained ones and they persist because we secretly get a pay-off from them. All negative behavior has a behavior somewhere, and this is no different. What's the pay-off? Guilt in exchange for not writing. The one thing they say they'd rather do than anything else.

So begin with finding what your pay-off is. If you are raking on guilt as payment for the permission to not write, why? You know you want to write, but why do you want to NOT write? What pain do you not want to face that is worse than guilt? You wouldn't make this trade-off fir nothing. What is it?

Could it be that you can avoid finishing, thus submitting, thus being rejected, thus proving one more time you're a lousy writer? Could it be that you don't want to face the page when it stays stubbornly blank, thus proving you've lost your voice, if you ever actually had one, thus proving you're a lousy writer and always were? What if no matter what you do get written, you just don't get that incredible buzz you used to get when characters took over the crimson corners of your imagination, because now they're just like carved chess pieces moving on the black and white squares?

What are you telling yourself? Is it a lie? Or are you afraid it might be the truth? Think about it, and think hard. Take out a notebook and a plain, ordinary ball point pen and write down one side of a page every single negative thing you're telling yourself. That's your list of Beliefs. If you get stuck, then go sit at your computer and start to write a story, and listen to yourself if the words don't come. Pick up your notebook and write those thoughts. Write everything that keeps the story from getting to the screen. Everything.

You'll know when you've got the ones that matter. Then go back over them and make notes. This is your list of Truths. Exactly how true are these thought-fears-beliefs? Don't waste your time with false bravado. That's just as dangerous. Be really frank with yourself.

The truth is that you are likely confusing your success in this cruel industry with your skills, talent and self-worth. You may be confusing fame and wealth- or even just self-sufficiency- with self-worth. That's really easy to do in this culture, which ties our personal value to our ability to make daily bucks.

We know we're struggling in an ailing industry, in an ailing economy. We know most authors never get published and very, very few published authors actually make a living at writing. We know a figure of $6-12 thousand a year average is pretty much what most do. But somehow we compare ourselves to Nora Roberts, Linda Howard, Suz Brockman, and we don't measure up. BIG THINKING ERROR! WE'RE NOT THEM!

Where you've likely slipped a cog is in thinking the joy of writing comes in the joy of success. Back when you began to write, and it was so ridiculously easy, you were also dreaming of the success you were going to have, and you mapped out mentally your path to stardom. Every success you had put some paving on that path. But it was the wrong path to pave.

I don't mean to say you shouldn't have dreams or goals. You should. You need them. You need a planned or hoped for career path. But that is not the joy of writing. If you want to get back onto the track where writing is a joy (a difficult one, but at least a joy), you must write for the sake of writing. Aim your story at a target if you want, but change the things you tell yourself about what you write, and about your ability to write. You know you did it once, and it was good. It still is. Yes, it is.

Yes. It is. And that's not hype.

Maybe you have to look at fresh material, aim at a different market, go learn something new. That wouldn't be surprising because the market is constantly changing and so are we. Do that. Experiment. Sit down and writer, just for yourself, a story you know you could never sell, something maybe 10,000 words long. Write a piece of fan fic about a story no one else but you cares about. The Lone Ranger, say. Sponge Bob Square Pants. Give him a lover. Something totally outrageous just to amuse yourself.

Then read it. Not bad, huh? Even if ole Bob did fall in love with the Little Mermaid and they...
Oh, no, I'm not telling you how the story ends. But see? You really can write. Your writing skills and the market are not the same thing.

Your writing is yours. If you could write before, and you haven't lost the skill of typing or spelling, then my guess is going to be pretty accurate. You can write. So stop lying to yourself.

Give yourself the gift of carving out the time, a specific chunk you know will be yours. Make it minimal. If it's fifteen minutes, then that's what it is. Set an alarm clock so you can't forget it. Sit there. Now, begin developing your next skill, that of delayed gratification. No surfing. No email. No scrubbing toilets while you type away for fifteen solid minutes. Then get up and leave. Do not continue. Do the same the next day. When the first delaying doubts and guilt-ridden self-lies sneak in, look at your list of Truths. Start typing. Don't stop even if you find yourself repeating the same word over and over. At the end of fifteen minutes, get up and leave.

Do not advance your schedule until you have this one down firmly. You may double it, but no more than that. Repeat, repeat, repeat every day. This is the pattern you ruthlessly follow until you are sure you can give yourself a larger gift. And every day. for that small amount of time, you drum the real truth into your head. Pretty soon you'll get sick of denying yourself your greatest pleasure, because you will begin to see it really is your greatest pleasure. And the truth is--

You are a writer. And writers write. You are writing. And you no longer need guilt to hide from your greatest love.

Are you guilty? Or have you been telling yourself you're guilty? What secrets have you been telling yourself about yourself, and what's the real truth about them?

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At 7:32 AM, Blogger Dianna Love said...

Hi Delle -

You make a very significant point for anyone trying to write a book is to not equate the joy of writing with the joy of success - aka selling the book.

Too often we lose the joy of something that started out as so much fun. That happened to me with art, but it was out of necessity that I worked day and night all week for years painting large murals for companies - we needed the money. I do still love art, but having forced myself to paint at times I was sick of picking up a brush took the true joy out of something I loved as a child and teenager.

So I'm careful now to pay attention to what I do so that I can always enjoy writing, even on the hard days.

Good post and I love your books, but I really enjoyed Sins of the Heart and loved that cover.

At 10:04 AM, Blogger Christine said...

Yesterday I cleaned toilets--they were really dirty and today I lollygaggled. Then, as I wrote my own blog, I realized the reason I was procrastinating (other than the fact that the dang toilets really were filthy and required mega cleaning), was the fact that the book needs a climax fix and I am getting really close to this section and I am not looking forward to revising it.

But, I will edge forward. Today my 45 minutes are in and the rest of the week I have full days.

Thanks for the great advice, Delle. I love writing and at the end of the day, I can't imagine not writing so I plod along and add to my skills whenever I can. I find that taking courses jumpstarts me.

Oh, and I started another thing: I pay myself for the maid services I provide the family. I bank it and use it to fund my writing courses and retreats and dues.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Christine, I love that you pay yourself for maid service! That is inspired and really shows you appreciate the value of what others might take for granted.

Delle's concepts can work even if you are not a writer! If you are holding yourself back from trying for success. But remember it is often the journey that is the reward, not the destination.

I think of all the wonderful things writing has brought me--friends, travel, experiences--there is more than success to be gained. If you enjoy the ride, get on your own particular bus and go for it!

At 11:37 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

All good points, Delle!

I've rid myself of a lot if not ALL guilt in the past few years and it feels good. Kids and husbands need to learn to make their own meals every once in a while. It's good for them!

Writing is my passion and getting paid for it, no matter how little, would be the icing on the cake. Can't wait for that to happen!

At 11:38 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

And good for you on getting the toilets cleaned, Christine! Don't you love when that's out of the way!? :)

At 12:09 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Thanks, Dianna, Christine, Diane, Theresa! I have to admit I worried last night whether I was getting too heavy-handed. But on the other hand, I see so many wonderful writers who are just plain stuck right now, it makes me want to cry. Why should the thing they love be such a horrible burden for them? I've gone through it myself, and in the end learned my writing has to first be mine. If I give that away before I start, then I've given away everything I love about it. I might as well go shovel dirt without planting a garden.

But let's admit, sometimes toilets do need cleaning and for most of us, that's also our job. And sometimes cleaning toilets is a very welcome break!

At 12:25 PM, Blogger Ladyhawk said...

Thanks, Delle! This was exactly what I needed right now. With my theme of experimenting this year, your ideas work in perfectly.

At 1:57 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Delle, your post isn't too heavy-handed, not at all. Truthfully, it struck too close to home. Thanks for the words of wisdom! :)

At 4:49 PM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Christine--I had to smile when I read your comment about cleaning toilets vs. facing a tough writing assignment. My husband has figured out that when I'm cooking gourmet meals or organizing closets, that means the writing has hit a bumpy spot ;-).

Thought-provoking post, Delle, as always :-)!

At 7:19 PM, Blogger Merrillee said...

Thanks for a great post!

At 11:02 PM, Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Delle, this is an awesome post and I really needed to hear it. I have a master's degree in guilt, trust me. My house is a wreck, but I want to write and so I write and the whole time I am thinking about cleaning up the house! NOT WORKING FOR ME!

And I DO tell myself all those things about my writing being a fluke or not good enough and I am terrified the well may run dry.

As a singer I learned the absolute truth - Fear of success is far more crippling than fear of failure!

There were times my singing was so stressful because I was getting paid and I felt like I HAD to deliver. I lost the joy in it. Fortunately I had a great voice teacher who told me "Do it because you love it and you can't NOT do it. NEVER for the money."

Now I just need to translate that to my writing.

At 12:29 AM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

I have spent a good portion of the last few hours emailing with friends who are telling me just what you're saying, Louisa and Gillian. They're caught in the guilt trap in both directions. It's an evil trap. First it has its uses- pay-offs. But then it possessed and strangles, like an evil demon. Is it an addiction? Sometimes I think so.

This last weekend, I attended a workshop by Alicia Rasley that was just plain fantastic. She told one of my friends to set her alarm clock early and go straight to the computer. No vacuuming, no dishes, no feeding the cats, but straight there and catch herself while the dreamstate still influenced her and write what was in her mind.

Since my cats would start chewing my ankles, I have used a variation. I get up, feed them, grab a up of coffee and go back to bed, with the alarm clock re-set. Then I let myself drift and re-take the dreamstate. I will often lie down and nap, then begin writing as soon as I awake. And keeping the notebook, pen and flashlight handy beside the bed helps. Sometimes instead of using the computer, I just sit in bed and hand-write, then use my writing to jump-start my morning.

I think getting religious about scheduling certain tasks can help. No, you don't need to vacuum before you can write. You need to write before you can vacuum. Or maybe you need to schedule both. Maybe 3:15 in the afternoon is the exact time for vacuuming. And 8:15 in the morning is the time for writing. If you deviate, you may have the right to feel guilty, but really, honestly, truly-- is that what you want to feel?

At 7:59 AM, Blogger Ann Lethbridge said...

Great post Delle, I am going to bookmark it and when I start down the the old procrastination path, for me email, I'll look at it.

I am definitely going to give this a try.

Thank you.

At 8:34 AM, Blogger Christine said...

Yeah, who knew cleaning toilets would be such a welcome relief? But one thing I have discovered is that doing the mundane chores of cleaning, ironing, organizing closets, folding laundry--well that turns off the left brain cause there's nothing linear to edit or criticize. Then the right brain takes over and suddenly the mind starts wandering and lo and behold, a solution to that plotting dilemma or scene issue pops into the brain.

So "escaping" is really our right brain's way of telling me that it really really needs that left brain to get bored and shut up so it can step in and fix the problem.

At 1:06 PM, Anonymous Jessa Slade said...

Very thought provoking. I've decided to apply the lesson also to guilt-free chocolate.

At 2:44 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

No, Jessa, it does not apply to chocolate. Chocolate is full of Vitamin C and many other wonderful things like mood enhnacers, and is known by experts like me to have no calories. So there is no need for guilt where it is involved.

At 10:15 PM, Blogger Christine said...

And Chocolate is a bean which makes it a good carb, not a bad one.


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