Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 3, 2024

The Dumb Stories We Tell Ourselves and What To Do About Them

by Johnny B. Truant

What are the stories writers tell themselves

I’ve always had trouble coming up with ideas. It’s my constant weakness. Give me an idea and I can articulate the hell out of it, finding all sorts of interesting nuance that bears on the story. But ask me to come up with ideas? No bueno.

I used to do that thing all the time where I’d stare at the blank Page One of a book, then realize suddenly that it’s extremely important that I walk circles in the living room and feed my dog twice.

(Don’t act like you haven’t done this.)

I stated in my last post that the writing life can be a beat-you-up pain in the ass. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the problems usually come from our emotional reactions to reality, not reality itself.

Yes, you can get rejected and yes, your new book sales can vastly underperform expectations, but chances are the rejection itself or the book sales alone probably aren’t what’s beating you up. It’s probably the associated emotion and the way you react (and then go into a tailspin) that does that. Especially if your day was already kind of crappy when the news hits you.

As writers, we often work alone. When you’re alone, it is easier for emotions to run amok because you are the only one able to change the situation. Unfortunately, my friends, sometimes we are the problem in the first place.

Something we’ve all done

Check reviews. Oh, there’s a bad one. It makes me feel terrible. Then we check reviews again. That same bad one is still there. Now it’s like I’ve gotten two bad reviews.

Look at that voodoo: One bad review, read twice, feels like two bad reviews. Read it a third time and it’s like the same big meathead keeps right on hitting you. Why do we do that? It’s like inflicting freaking black magic on ourselves.

And so I started thinking: What if I could make some white magic to counter it? What if I could thwart the “solo writer freaking out because they don’t have any good vibes to help shake off the bad” situation by making some better vibes for myself?

Friends. Romans. Countrymen. We are creators. We make things up for a living. We exist every day in fantasy lands that other people can’t possibly imagine.

We can use the benefit that our everyday lives are better than hippie trips to our mood-boosting advantage. Maybe, during the days when badness is having its way with us, we could channel our profession’s natural fantasticalness.

Things To Give Up written on recycled paper - including negative self talk

Dealing with misconceptions.

So. Circling back to my argument above. We all have bad days, weeks, and even months, but I believe much of that ill feeling comes from a few very specific, very misguided misconceptions.

Misconception #1

We tell ourselves that we need to force out the writing even when we feel crappy. I do, anyway. As the higher-up pull-out quote says, though, it probably makes more sense to use our creativity to GET OUT of the crap instead of making it one more thing that holds us down.

In other words: Do whatever it takes to find joy in writing when you’re down instead of saying, I must write no matter what, to get the job done!” Writing should uplift us, not be one more rock on our backs.

Misconception #2

The goals we think we should have are often out of whack with our real goals. (See my last post.) I’ll go for weeks disappointed that I’m not #1 at the local Barnes and Noble, then remember that being happy, earning enough, and having a small group of devoted fans and supportive friends is all I actually wanted.

A solution.

We need to allow our working world to be the amazing, magical place it should have been all along. Because if we begin in a bright and sunny place (or, rather, acknowledge that we’re already in a bright and sunny place), any darkness that comes will never stand a chance at defeating us.

Inspiration is everywhere.

Inspiration isn’t just about ideas. It’s about magic, remember?

I’m not talking about magic mushrooms, although I do know folks for whom psychedelics work better than antidepressants. I’m talking about channeling whatever makes your world feel just a bit more peaceful or ethereal, and less like it’s filled with terrible monsters.

But that right there is the whole point: the world feeling more ethereal instead of feeling like a monster.

Its the same world, people. If I feel good and if you, standing right next to me, feel bad, it’s not the world that’s different. The problem lies with the baggage we carry and how it tints our perceptions.

Finding clarity.

Seeing problems and failure all around you is like wearing glasses covered with mud. That’s the state we fall into when we’re alone, spiraling out of control with no one there to anchor us. Those are the times when we fail to see the beauty and magic and inspiration that’s all around us.

What if instead, you could live in a world...

  • ..where everything has something to teach you?
  • ..where everything helps your art instead of convincing you it’s trite and you’re wasting your time trying?
  • What if instead of being constantly discouraged by toxic thoughts, you felt constantly encouraged by the world?

That would be a pretty kickass world.

I have plenty of bad days, but getting my priorities straight (see last post) took away a lot of that angst because it made me see that I’m doing pretty well on my real needs and wants even when my fake needs and wants (the ones the internet and society and comparisonitis give me) are lacking.

And finding a way to feel inspired all the time? Finding a way to use that mindset to face darkness from a place of light and positivity? Well, that was some serious icing on the cake.

Causes and Triggers of Stress and  Anxiety

Searching for inspiration.

Recently, I started writing down one thing every day that inspired me.

It was difficult at first, because I used to think you needed to sit by a waterfall or meditate on a mountaintop to find inspiration. That’s just silly. In truth, there’s a lesson in everything. We’re just too much on autopilot to see it.

Recent Inspiration

Here are some of my recent musings, drawn from totally mundane things around me:

Today I noticed how hollow most of our everyday interactions are. It got me thinking about how every background character in a book has their own backstory, and every backstory could birth a novel.

Today, I learned that my 12-string guitar didnt sound right because I was using the wrong kind of capo to change its key. It made realize that amping up anything creative might be as simple as trying new tools.

Today, I noticed that there is never NO sound, and that instead, a background hum is always present. It made me wonder how unnoticed elements of my books are influencing reader perceptions without me — or maybe them — even realizing it, and how I could use it to my advantage in the future.

Why did I phrase them this way?

They’re phrased the way they are because I started writing them up as posts for my blog readers in the same way some people find benefits in Morning Pages. It’s a word-of-the-day thing for my readers, who tell me privately that seeing what ordinary things I find inspiring actually makes them inspired, too.

Even cooler, there’s a meta thing that happened with this exercise.

Writing “Noticings” helps me to feel more of that daily magic and live in a much better place … but it got even better when I learned how my ridiculous little habit was helping other writers who read my blog, or who listen to the accompanying podcast.

We are not alone.

That's what I think is really the point of all this: We are not alone. But...because creative people are deep thinkers, we often overanalyze things. Or catastrophize things. Or turn everything into a long harrowing story because (duh) we're storytellers.

That's what storytellers do.

But the stories are mostly just stories. If we cut through the garbage we add to our bad days, more often than not we’ll see that we’re making our own madness.

But we’re not alone. All of the other creatives out there are just as crazy as we are. Keeping that in mind takes away a lot of the sting. At least it does for me.

Final Thoughts

I started writing the “Noticings” blog and recording the accompanying Art of Noticing podcast because I was kind of messed up one day and knew I had to do something. But the “something” I chose to do for myself had a ripple effect.

For one, it made me notice my own disempowering stories. I began to see that there’s a lot more to love in a creative life than there is to hate. There’s more joy than there is pain, even when there’s plenty of pain.

When those posts did the same for others, it was like the benefits doubled. So yeah. despite the work I’ll keep doing it. Because community is what this is all about.

This thing we do isn’t easy.

But who cares? I’ll keep doing it anyway.

What dumb stories do you tell yourself? Do you have any misperceptions, writerly or otherwise, that derail you or get in your way? We'd love it if you shared them down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Johnny

Johnny B. Truant is the bestselling author of Fat Vampire, adapted by SyFy as Reginald the Vampire starring Spider-Man's Jacob Batalon. His site at JohnnyBTruant.com publishes his 10-minute Art of Noticing podcast and the accompanying “Noticings” post series, both for writers and other artists.

Johnny's other books include Pretty Killer, Pattern Black, Invasion, The Beam, Dead City, and over 100 other titles across many genres. Originally from Ohio, Johnny and his family now live in Austin, Texas, where he’s finally surrounded by creative types as weird as he is.

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27 comments on “The Dumb Stories We Tell Ourselves and What To Do About Them”

  1. We are told, "Write every day." But I think that is one thing we use to beat ourselves up. "Oh, dear! I didn't write anything today. That must be bad." But it isn't necessarily if you aren't feeling it, or life happens.

    I tend to think I'm a useless writer when I read a fantastic book with a complex, gripping plot and beautiful writing. I think I can never compete.

    1. And it's worse because there's no official playbook. I know people who do indeed write every day, but I only do it Monday through Friday. I know people who write slow or fast, but each of those can be right for someone -- not EVERYone. Comparing kills us. It's hard to differentiate the blanket idea of "what's right" versus the more proper "what's right for me."

    2. We call that "feeling like a hack," VM. And every single one of us goes through it. The true strength is for every creative to "do it anyway." Your stories matter.

  2. Thanks for this post, Johnny. My number one writing goal this year (I prefer goal to "resolution") is about cultivating a better, more positive writing mindset, embracing the uncertainty and challenge at the heart of the writing process, and reconnecting with the joy in it. You've given some very inspiring and helpful insights into doing just that.

    Happy writing in 2024 and beyond!

    1. I'll add that one of my misperceptions is always being in a hurry, that thinking I need to write faster (and draft less messily, of course) rather than enjoying each step of the process even as I sweat hard doing the work (much like exercise).

      1. Yeah, I'm in the process right now of mentally changing everything I do from some form of "I have to do this" to "I get to do this." It's the same thing every time, so I'm talking only about a mental shift. It's amazing the difference it makes, just reframing something like that ... because my nature rebels against anything I HAVE TO do and embraces anything I GET TO do. But I have to work to reframe it every time.

  3. You remind me how different we writers can be - and still end up with what looks like the same product: a book for sale.

    Books really aren't alike, internally, but they sit next to each other peaceably on shelves (or now in ebook galleries of covers).

    I'm an incredibly slow writer due to chronic illness, so what I write has to be worth what it costs me to write it - I've been working on the same mainstream trilogy for almost a quarter of a century. And it was vouchsafed to me - it came as a sudden gelling of several ideas into one 'What if...'

    My writing life was supposed to be writing a mystery a year in retirement. Boy, was I off!

    Things happen - you learn to adjust if you can.

    That's my whole mantra: don't quit. And my path stays on the incredibly complex story I haven't finished yet - because I want to, maybe even more, every day.

  4. Most of the people around here know I just went through a cancer battle. Nothing focuses you more than alligator-wrangling with life-threatening illness.

    Post-cancer, most of my normal writer excuses look very pale and easy to step over. It also makes me more self-forgiving about doing what you can when you can.

  5. Johnny, I needed this today. I was working on a project and I started from a "this is complicated" place. Too little time, too much stress, and so I stayed up most of last night worried about doing it - instead of just doing it. Today I decided that I was going to just dive in. And it was done within a few minutes.

    I think my favorite part of this was to remember how much FUN writing is. I've been deeply enjoying your art of noticing series.

    1. That's my favorite phenomenon - where you resist and resist ... and then it's no big deal when you finally do it. (And yes, I'm being sarcastic.) Just goes to show that it's truly ourselves that get in the way. 🙂

  6. I never thought I was very creative. But when you made the connection between catastrophizing and storytelling...wow! You are so right!
    I tell myself the craziest stories in my head, and they all revolve terrible things happening to me, or my causing terrible things to happen.

    I am indeed very creative when I think of it that way!

  7. My little sister sent me your writing and she inspired me to see if I can listen to you and follow your writing and thoughts. how refreshing. I am almost out of power on the IPad. I will seek you out tomorrow. love your way of expressing yourself.

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