I’ve always been comfortable in my own skin, and yet I’m a hot mess of insecurity about everything I write, including this blog post. Why? Because it matters to me. Writing is my passion, which makes it a soft target for that inner voice of worry. Doubt has been my constant companion through four manuscripts—one unpublished—and is now cutting its teeth on number five.
Earlier this month I came back from vacation rested, ready to detox from rum cocktails, and desperate to jump into my second draft. I hadn’t finished shaking sand out of the suitcases or putting away deflated pool floats before my work-in-progress was open on my laptop.
I steamed through a serious edit of the first fifty pages, which I’d already polished multiple times for my contract proposal, and then slowed to a turtle’s pace. The low point came when I wasted ten hours editing five pages…before I realized that I had the wrong POV. You can figure out what happened next. Yup, anxiety pounced: I was never going to make my deadline; I’d have to return the advance; the manuscript was worse than crap; blah, blah, blah. To up the ante, I added a few personal catastrophes related to aging parents.
In the language of OCD, an anxiety disorder known as the doubting disease, this is called awfulizing. Your mind latches on to the worse case scenario and refuses to budge. When I reached page 125, I could barely hear anything beyond the ticking bomb of my deadline. Nevertheless, I turned up for work each day, even hauling my laptop to my OBGYN appointment. In the exam room—typing away in one of those natty, front-opening gowns—
something clicked: I wasn’t listening to doubt anymore. I was listening to my characters.
Here are some of the positive thoughts that helped me reach that moment:
- Doubt is omnipotent for writers. I’m sure even Stephen King occasionally believes he produces crap. (Right?) Acknowledge the doubt; accept it. Acceptance doesn’t make you a quitter. It gives you power. Think of it as waving to a talkative houseguest and saying, “I can’t chat right now but feel free to forage for breakfast. We’ll catch up later. ‘Bye!”
- Always keep writing. Writing through the bad days makes you a better writer. Others have said it before: writing isn’t for wimps. Lick your wounds until they heal, but always limp on.
- Bad writing days end, and every tomorrow brings a fresh start. Corny, but true.
- Anxiety isn’t logical, and logic is your best counter-attack. My family reminds me constantly, “You say this every time.” That’s the logic I grasp: writing isn’t easy, but I’ve completed four manuscripts. I can do it a fifth time.
- One rejection, one bad review, one weak chapter can eclipse everything, but it doesn’t have to tarnish your writing for all eternity. This time last year, I returned from vacation to discover that my contract for THE PERFECT SON had been cancelled. My amazing agent landed me another deal almost immediately and foresaw great things with my new publisher, Lake Union. I tried to believe her, I really did. But I’d been dumped, and my inner voice whispered constantly that the manuscript was to blame. When THE PERFECT SON was chosen for Amazon’s Kindle First Program, I told her it would be their first dud. I’m happy to report that my doubting Thomas was wrong, and that second pub deal has turned into my golden egg.
- KBO, keep buggering on. This is my writing mantra, and I stole it from Sir Winston Churchill, who defeated the Nazis and won the Nobel Prize while juggling a learning disorder with undiagnosed mental illness. Go, Sir Winston!
- The best way to reduce anxiety? Laugh. Repeat keep buggering on Laughing yet?
- You can’t please every reader—including that voice in your head—so don’t try. Make peace with the realization that you are not, and never will be, everyone’s cup of Earl Grey. Reading is subjective. The end.
- No one else can tell your story; no one else has your voice. You’re unique, baby! I write about mental illness and strangely functional dysfunctional families. Oh, and I use the f bomb. Combine those factors and I’m way outside many people’s comfort zones, but I’m writing what I want to write the way I want to write it.
- When the crap of life pulverizes your writing focus, fold whatever crisis derailed you back into your story. Steal mercilessly from the potholes of your life. The great Lydia Netzer reminded me of this a few days ago. After an emotionally draining four-day visit with my 99-year-old father-in-law—around page 125—everything I wrote fell off the page, flat and boring. But I had all these great anecdotes about old people behaving badly in a retirement home. “Weave them into your manuscript!” Lydia said. I did, and I started having fun again.
My favorite weapon against doubt is a technique used to combat OCD. It’s called boss it back. This can be as simple as saying, “Go to hell,” or “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. Tell me something new.” Boss back that worry and then write over the doubt.
Do you have a strategy to boss back the worry? Please share with us!