November 22nd, 2021

Wrangling Your Writer Demons In 4 Steps

by Tiffany Yates Martin

Writing is a career where it can feel that there are so many outside forces standing between you and your goals: work or home commitments that may keep us from your writing time; the agents or publishers who stand at the gates of career “success”; the booksellers or reviewers we need to help us reach readers.

But often the most formidable foe of our writing lies within ourselves.

I like to refer to these internal antagonists as the demons, and I used to think I was alone in all too frequently entertaining a panel of them: those insidious internal voices that instilled me with self-doubt.

But at a recent writer's retreat where each evening we held group discussions about a variety of writing-related topics, one night nearly 45 attendees showed up eager to talk about their demons—a subject brought up literally by popular demand.

It turns out most of us seem to suffer from some sort of demons: impostor syndrome, fear of failure, procrastination, comparison, or a host of others.

What Are These Demons?

Personal demons aren’t confined to our creative efforts—they may assail us in the workplace as we doubt our ability or efficacy, or at home, as we worry we’re failing as a parent or partner, or in the mirror, as we compare ourselves to the artificial standards held up by models and celebrities and social media.

But I think that they’re especially rampant among creatives.

Examples of Authors Battling Their Demons

  • Recently an author whose debut novel has won a dozen awards posted about self-doubt and feelings of comparison with other authors’ careers as they work on their second novel.
  • Another author, whose last book has remained in the rarefied air at the top of the Amazon charts since its release, garnering more than five thousand reviews and a 4.5 rating, castigated themselves during the editing process on their follow-up novel for the amount of revisions the story entailed—wondering why they didn’t “know better” by now.
  • An author who has had more than half a dozen well-received and popular published novels lost their publisher and worried that no other pub house would ever want to publish them.

These are demons I’ve witnessed recently among highly accomplished authors considered successful by most metrics. Among authors who haven’t yet achieved certain career milestones, the demons can grow even louder and more aggressive: “What makes you think you can write?” “You’ll never finish/get an agent/get published.” “You don’t have what it takes.”

And worse. Horrible personal judgments and attacks we’d never dream of saying to someone we cared about—or even to a stranger. Yet we batter ourselves from the inside with such negative, hurtful, destructive messages—we who should always be our own greatest champion, the one person we can count on for support no matter what.

Our various demons may be different, but they have two things in common: they all have at their root some version of “not good enough,” and they keep us from fully stretching our wings to see what we can do and reveling in our own achievements.

4 Steps to Wrangling the Demons

The difficult truth is, your demons will likely never be vanquished or banished. They are part of you—yours forever.

So how can we learn to overcome those negative messages our demons whisper in our ears to free ourselves to achieve our full potential—not just as writers, but in all walks of our lives?

First off, in the middle of an acute attack, the most important thing to do is to stop it immediately. The longer you let those automatic erroneous messages play on in your head, the more they gain steam and the more destruction they can do.

Call a positive, supportive friend or loved one who always makes you laugh. Go see a movie. Go for a hike in nature with your dogs.

Don’t wrangle the demons or try to reason them away—it’s almost impossible to do that in the middle of one of their attacks anyway. Just silence or ignore those voices in whatever way you can. Do not entertain their messages for one second.

Once the storm passes—and it will—it’s time to address them head-on.

Identify your demons:

  • Chances are excellent that your demons are always the same: mine are impostor syndrome, perfectionism, and comparison. Think about the commonalities in your bouts of self-doubt and see if you can put a name to yours. Before you can deal with your antagonist, you have to identify them.

Find the patterns:

  • Trace back what was happening in your life at the time the demons attacked. I’ve learned that when things are going extremely well for my career, my impostor syndrome demons come swarming out of their cave to shoot me down. When I find myself stuck—whether in creating a new workshop or course, writing an article on craft, or working on my own writing—often it’s the perfectionism or comparison demons gleefully holding me back.

Knowing the triggers allows you to get a handle on the demons before they run rampant over your psyche.

Take control:

  • Your demons actually came into existence to protect you in response to some inner wound—just like your characters’ vulnerabilities and fears stemmed from theirs. Their messages are intended to keep you from feeling pain—but they’ve never matured past their childish misinterpretations of what caused it, and their delusions come from irrational fear.

Luckily you have become an adult. You can reassure those demons that all is well and you have things under control, just as you would with a child scared of monsters.

This not only defuses their power, but it lets you even learn to love the demons a little, to be grateful to them for trying, in their limited understanding, to keep you safe.

And then hit them with a big dose of reality.

To paraphrase The Martian, logic the shit out of it:

  • When I have impostor syndrome, for instance, I remind myself that I’ve been in the publishing business for thirty years and have worked on literally thousands of manuscripts. I’m not putting anything over on anyone--I legitimately have this knowledge and am simply looking to share it.

When your demons tell you that maybe you don’t have the chops to succeed, remind yourself of evidence to the contrary, or that growth is a normal part of mastering any skill, or that this is as mercurial a business as any on earth and rejection isn’t necessarily a reflection of your or your work’s merits. Reaffirm that success doesn’t come from external definitions, but only from your own. That you aren’t in competition with anyone else. And that you’re a writer because you write.

The most important thing to remember—over and over again—is that these automatic messages are false, simply maladaptations to emotional pain that have been allowed free rein for so long, they’ve convinced you that they are the truth about you.

They are not.

Take yourself seriously—as a person, as a writer, as an artist. You are all these things, and you have nothing to prove to anyone, even your demons. Even yourself.

When do you find that your demons are most likely to attack your writer journey? What tips do you use to defend yourself from the internal writer blocks we all face? Share with our readers below.

* * * * * *

About Tiffany

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York TimesWashington PostWall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller IntuitiveEditing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your WritingUnder the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of six novels, including the recently released The Way We Weren't(Berkley). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.comor www.phoebefoxauthor.com.

Top Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

18 responses to “Wrangling Your Writer Demons In 4 Steps”

  1. Jenny Hansen says:

    I always love to be the first commenter! *wiggles fingers*

    Writer Demons are tough sons o' bitches. I've noticed mine always rear their ugly heads after a success. I'm working on that, but the failure times seem to push me further than the "you are a rockstar" times.

    My latest mantra:

    "Do the best I can
    With what I have
    From where I am."
    -- Melinda Cohan

    Followed by:
    "STOP chasing 'Perfect.'"

  2. Michelle Cecile Ferrer says:

    My Demon of Doubt still hangs around, especially when I get stuck or when a scene just won't come together. I've decided to "make friends" with my demon by letting him know that doubt always gives me the impetus to work through the problem with all the strategies I've learned to clear out the cobwebs and remember the story. I've also realized that I'll always have these doubts/fears/woes. But changing my perspective on my demon gives me the energy and motivation to ignore him and move forward. I suppose, too, that the Demon of Doubt encourages me to check my stories keep the writing authentic, find the holes, fill them, and keep learning.

    • I love that you find the good in the demons, Michelle. I do think there's a good side to them, as you point out. It helps me, too, to remember that we all have them in some form or another--they aren't abnormal. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I love a good mantra, Jenny--and yours are right up my alley. Honestly, I don't think we ever stop entertaining our board of demons: We just develop tools for coexisting with them, and mantras are among my favorites, little shortcuts to reminding myself what matters and staying connected to that, rather than derailed by fear-based messaging. Thanks for breaking the comment ice, as always. 🙂

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You are most welcome! I even approved another comment for you (see above). This late in November, today's comment section might come up against the holiday AND the late-month NaNoWriMo frenzy. They're still lurking, but they're not taking time to hit the comments.

  4. Barb DeLong says:

    Thanks for this post! I'm always chasing perfect. It doesn't exist, right? So my chase runs my head into a brick wall. Like every day. I'll try your wrangles and see how I do.

    • Yeah, that perfectionism demon is one of mine too. I just try to remember it has a good side--it makes me conscientious and hardworking. As long as I don't let the demon have the controls. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, Barb.

  5. JL Nich Author SFF says:

    I'm not a great speller. I don't edit well. No publisher will like that. And knowing this...I decided many times to only push out work for free. The feedback was positive. And I love writing and creating. So this demon called "IttyBittyInnerVoiceOfFear" calls me once in a while to check ing and see if I'm finishing my book soon? Cause...I should never submit it, anywhere. I pushed out my first book this year. Got my first rejection, too. I think it was a learning process. The publisher did not come back and say...hey....you cannot spell. This would take too many revisions. It was more professional. And...it took so long for the response that when it came...I was already deeply involved in something else. I called IttyBitty...Etc and told her I've blocked her user number.

    • Ha! That's excellent, JL. Good for you for taking ownership of the career you want to have--and not letting the demons drive the bus. And big congrats on your finished manuscript and your bravery in submitting it. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Yvonne Müller says:

    English is a foreign language, but I love it so I decided to write in it. That's my first big hurdle. I read a book (in English of course) and think wow, I'll never be able to use all these wonderful words. I should stop thinking about writing. I'll never be good enough. The next big demon is my constant urge to edit while writing. I just can't stop. So I manage to finish a chapter, I might have needed ten days or so, and then I start rereading it. Again and Again. I can spend a whole week only rereading the chapter every day changing things around. And the more I read it, the worse I feel it is, and the louder the voice in my mind gets that I should just give up. That I'll never be good enough. It's a vicious circle. And though I successfully wrote FF and different people have told me over the years that my writing is great, it doesn't reach this inner place where the demons live.

    • Oh, bless you, Yvonne--this really resonates. Not the English part (but that's impressive that you write in a second language), but all those feelings of self-doubt and how they spiral. I agree--all the external praise in the world doesn't quite reach those demons, does it? I find it has to come from me, and it's an ongoing battle. Thanks for your candor in sharing this.

  7. thewriteedge says:

    Oh my goodness. How I needed to hear this. I've been battling my own demons for a few weeks now -- after my debut came out in October, I've been anxious at times and nearly frantic at others that if I don't keep the momentum going and submit another book for publication, like, yesterday, that I'll lose whatever slow success I'm earning with this very first book of mine. It's hampering my creative spirit in brainstorming new book ideas as well as trying to convince me that any brainstorming work I do is all stupid anyway.

    Thank you. Thank you, so much, for this timely article and the reminder that any success I've earned will be mine to keep forever. It's not a "returnable" item in a store. It's mine, fair and square. And it won't run out or decrease with time, because while I'm working on new story ideas I'm also contributing to the writing community in other ways that all reaffirm and establish, rock solid, my place in the world as a writer.

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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