I just got back from the Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference, and boy, is my brain tired. But I had to write this down…I was talking to Chris Mandeville about feeling like a failure as a writer at one point during the conference. I said something like, “And then I realized I was feeling extremely negative, so I went down my checklist and realized I was just tired. All better now.” And she sounded kind of shocked…a checklist?!? Yep. I have a checklist.
Feeling negative about your writing? Lots of critical self-talk? Wondering why you ever thought you could write, no matter what positive things other people tell you?
Before you give in to despair, stop and go through this checklist!
Every writer I’ve talked to about it, from newbies to professional writers, has admitted they have overwhelmingly negative thoughts from time to time. So rather than running away from your writing or digging youself a hole of depression, go through this checklist to make sure your negativity isn’t coming from an easily-repairable source. By the time you get rid of everything on the list, you should be either writing or taking care of what needs to be done.
(Non-writers: yes, when we’re writing or stuck at writing, these really are things that we don’t notice.)
- Are you hungry? Eat something healthful. (Prepare ahead with appropriate snack foods.)
- Have you had enough water today–not coffee, not soda, but water? If not, drink water.
- Are you in pain or discomfort (headache, allergies, sinuses, backache, carpal tunnel, etc.)? Take medicine and write down a note to address root causes later.
- Are you tired? Sleep.
- Are you sick? Take medicine and write down a note to address root causes later.
- Are you stiff? Walk around. I find this the perfect time to do laundry/dishes/etc.
- Have you exercised in the last two days? If not, exercise.
- Are you tense (you may need to dig deeper for the reason)? Stretch, meditate, take a walk–whatever works for you.
- Are you indulging in a repetitive habit (you may need to dig deeper for the reason)? Change what you’re doing for a few moments to see if inspiration hits; your subconscious is trying to tell you something.
- Are you bored? You may be writing the wrong thing or headed in the wrong direction. Reread last few pages and see if you like them. If not, remove/save elsewhere back to the last place you read and liked (don’t “think,” read and then decide).
- Are you restless? You are looking for something. Do research. Do something (anything) new. Expose yourself to the random for a while.
- Are you stuck? You are probably not in your character’s head(s). Make sure you know what the character is wearing and review what’s happening for all five senses. If still stuck, change what you’re doing for a few moments to let your subconscious process any complex situations (again with the laundry/dishes/etc.).
- Do you find yourself making excuses rather than write? Free write for ten minutes, exploring the reasons you’re avoiding writing, but allow yourself to wander as necessary. When you’re avoiding writing for no conscious reason, then your subconscious muse needs to tell you something.
- Are you easily distracted? Make sure your external world aligns with your internal world–clean, organize, add inspirational objects, mess things up, etc.–but don’t stop to make it perfect if you feel suddenly focused.
- Do you feel you’re not coming up with inspired choices? Free write/brainstorm/outline/idea map every dull choice you can, then change your behavior for a few moments to allow your subconscious to process new ideas. Identifying the less than optimal in a conscious way clears the subconscious for further inspiration.
- Are you overwhelmed? Your subconscious relies on your conscious brain for logic when intuition isn’t working. Approach a problem analytically until your writer brain can take over again.
- Do you feel like a fake? Overdo it in an area over which you have control: write a lot, submit (and get rejected) a lot. You cannot fake wordcount or the number of rejections you have (you can only lie about the number).
- Are you stressed about external approval? Use your social network to gain external approval in a minor way–share funny, sweet, cool, or otherwise awesome things on a regular basis.
- Are you unacceptably jealous of another writer? Put them in a story, changing any identifying details or history, and do something terrible to them. You’ll either feel satisfied or you’ll feel sorry for what you’ve done to them. Either is better than jealousy. (This works for all kinds of unacceptable feelings toward other people, really.)
- Do you have too many things to do? (See the tip on being overwhelmed, too.) Write a list of what you need to do, and prioritize. Consider ways to get rid of all but the top five items on your list.
- Too many emails? Unsubscribe from as many emails as possible or change your settings to digests.
- A note for freelancers–not making enough money? unhappy? bored? not diversified? Pick your most unsatisfactory client and politely get rid of them.
- Are you stressed about a major life event? Allow yourself to cope. Thinking the same thoughts/feeling the same emotions over and over is a sign of not coping. A good method of coping is finding a metaphor for what you’re going through and writing a story using the metaphor (we do become writers partially because that’s how we process the world around us, by organizing it into a story and giving it meaning). Sometimes you just have to stop creating and heal.
- Are you a “good enough writer”? Questioning your ability is a sign that you’re ready to learn something new; people who are incompetent can’t recognize their own incompetency (the Dunning-Kruger effect). Take heart; you’re getting ready for a jump to the next level as a writer. You will never stop learning how to write better, and it’s uncomfortable every time.
- Are you in a rut? Pick a new genre/media/format/length to write in. You will need to read & research to find out what your sweet spot in that genre is.
- Do you feel dissatisfied with your writing, but you can’t identify what you need to learn/fix? You should a) keep writing, b) free write on your dissatisfaction, and c) read various approaches to writing advice that may or may not have anything to do with what you suspect the real problem is. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. If you look.
- Do you feel that you are following all the advice you’ve read, but you want to push yourself outside of a rational approach to writing (I find that both rational and irrational approaches work best when used together)? Read until you are conscious of reading something especially good, then type it up. You’re forced to go into real-time (meditative) brain mode, which goes straight to the subconscious to teach you how the greats did their work. Warning: can spoil you for a lot of shoddy, one-trick writing.
- Are you really supposed to be a writer? Assess how you spend most of your leisure time. If you aren’t a reader, then you may not be a writer. If you are a reader, take a break from writing for about two weeks, then schedule a solid block of writing and force yourself to do it, whether you want to or not. If you feel better after you write (fewer nightmares, better alertness, feeling of purpose, relief, etc.), then be a writer. If you feel worse, then you may not be a writer. It’s a calling; that means you stop being fully functional when you don’t do it. Conversely, if you haven’t been writing, schedule a reasonable, regular writing time/wordcount per day for two weeks, then stop suddenly and see whether you feel better or worse. Don’t count how you feel while writing, only when you’re done, and for the next few days.
- Feel that you’re handicapped by some shortcoming as a writer? Every aspect of writing, from speed to focus to dialogue to query letters, is a skill, and someone has figured out how to build that skill. Find out who does that skill at a remarkable, insane level, and find out how they built that skill. Read some Tim Ferriss while you’re at it. If you are really good at something (that’s not writing), analyze how you did it.
- Are you not sure whether what you’re doing is worthwhile? (The “but I could have done something useful with my life, like being a teacher or a nurse” interior monologue.) It’s never a bad thing to ease the burdens of another person’s life by entertaining them, or to help them process something painful or bewildering. It’s only a question of whether you’re giving people something or calling attention to yourself. To paraphrase Robert Crais at PPWC the other night, it’s not about you, it’s about the story. Work to get over yourself.
There you go, the checklist 🙂 An interesting experiment, writing the whole thing down. Usually, I’m good by the time I get through physical and mental, but sometimes I do have to go all the way down. If you have more items, share 🙂
Of course I forgot something, and I’m doing it right now…I call it “having a zen day.” It’s when I’m having the kind of day where everything is so complex you don’t know up from down, your brain is full, and even writing a list doesn’t do it. At that point, I just do whatever the next thing is, when I get done with the thing before it. Like, you look at a piece of paper and decide that it’s trash, so you dump it in the recycle box, see a piece of clothing on the floor, dump it in the laundry, get inspired to write a blog post, then see a pile of receipts that needs to be put into Quicken, etc.