Act as if you’re a writer. Sit down and begin. Act as if you might just create something beautiful, and by beautiful I mean something authentic and universal. —Dani Shapiro
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been unsure which direction to take with your writing, if self-doubt has nipped at your heels, or you’ve landed in the clutches of writer’s block or “second book syndrome.”
I thought so.
Writing rejections and disappointments nibble away at us like torture from half a million cuts. After a while, it feels as if we’re bleeding and can’t tolerate one more slash. Statistics show that more of us have the stamina to continue to take safety risks after a car crash than to continue after a series of psychological defeats. Writers often throw in the towel so they don’t have to continue feeling disappointment. Attempts to bring quick relief to the misery of defeat rob us of knowing what missed opportunities lay beyond the barrier. This impulsive reaction—scientists call it the what-the-hell effect—is a way out: permission to give up. Adding insult to injury, we seek comfort in the very thing we’re trying to conquer: writing failure.
Most of us who’ve written for any length of time have gotten stuck somewhere along the way. But there’s good news. Twelve Step programs have thrown a phrase around for years called “acting as if.” This principle can help us get through periods of writing paralysis.
What does it mean to act as if? Acting as if is a simple, yet powerful tool that says we can create outer circumstances by acting as if they’re already true. We give ourselves to a certain performance as if it’s how we feel. When we act as if, the mood we pretend becomes a reality.
Suppose we’re angry toward someone who offended us but want to be forgiving. We can start to feel forgiving by acting as if we are forgiving. Perhaps we’re feeling cold and detached but want to be happy for a fellow author’s good news. We can be happy by acting as if we are happy. Maybe we have difficulty getting words on the page, but instead of fighting tooth and nail, we convince ourselves it’s easy, write as if it’s easy, and tackle the difficulty with ease.
Authors of all genres have used this method to jumpstart their writing mojo. The Playwright Tennessee Williams said, “I believe the way to write a good play is to convince yourself it is easy to do then go ahead and do it with ease.” Screenwriter Steven Pressfield also recommends the as if approach: “You and I as writers must write as if we were highly paid, even though we may not be. We must write as if we were top-shelf literary professionals, even though we may not (yet) be.”
When I wrote Limestone Gumption: A Brad Pope and Sisterfriends Mystery and Daily Writing Resilience: 365 Meditations & Inspirations for Writers, I too, used the as if strategy in my fiction and nonfiction work, writing as if my books will be on the shelves beside Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, as if Steven Spielberg will beat down my door to sign me for the screenplay. I’m still waiting for Hollywood to call, but I can testify to the effectiveness of this strategy.
Scientific evidence supports the old adage when we act as if, the rest of us follows suit. It’s based on the mind-body connection. The cells of our bodies constantly eavesdrop on our thoughts from the wings of our minds. When we’re doubtful or disappointed about our writing, our bodies go with the downturn of our feelings, making us feel worse. Hunching our heads or slumping when we walk makes us come across as insecure.
On the other hand, if we change our body posture, breathing patterns, muscle tension, facial expressions, gestures, movements, words, vocal tonality, it releases a surge of chemicals and changes our internal state. For example, making the facial expression of a smile can make us happy. Or standing tall, shoulders back, not only makes us look confident, but also makes us feel more confident. Training the body to position itself the way we want to think and feel about ourselves adjusts our thoughts and feelings to the way we want them to be. Making body adjustments—pulling our shoulders back, standing or sitting up straight, walking in a more expansive way—can pull us out of self-doubt, disappointment, or any other self-defeating emotion.
When our minds and bodies proceed with the way we want to be (as if), our attitudes navigate us with easy sailing through choppy writing storms. This tool can salvage a bad writing day, repair or prevent a squabble with a fellow author, or kick-start a marathon in front of a blank screen turning dread into enthusiasm.
So let’s convince ourselves that a writing challenge is actually a piece of cake, act as if it’s true, then notice the ease with which an obstacle becomes a cinch to work through. To say we write “as if” is another way of saying we’re resilient warriors on a literary path, determined to persevere over the long haul.
Have you had success with acting as if? How can you see yourself using the technique in 2018? Do you have questions for Bryan?
BRYAN E. ROBINSON is consulting editor for International Thriller Writers’ online magazine, The Big Thrill and columnist for Southern Writer’s
Magazine and Psychology Today. Bryan authored two murder mysteries (working on the third) and 35 nonfiction books that were translated into thirteen languages. His debut novel, Limestone Gumption, was a multi-award winner for best psychological suspense. His latest books are Daily Writing Resilience: 365 Meditations & Inspirations for Writers (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2018), and the thriller, Bloody Bones (forthcoming). He maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Asheville, NC.