Updated: May 30
Something knocks us a little sideways. Perhaps it is a series of things. You didn’t make the long list for the short story competition. You were convinced your entry was the best thing you had ever written! Or you received a royalty payment from your self-published book in the amount of $14.35. Or someone close to you queries why you are slaving away on your writing, “What do you hope to get out of it? Is it really worth all your time and trouble?” Then you sit down to write and a whole lot of doubt and fear floods into your mind.
You know you can write and you know what you want to write about. But the words will not form on the page or screen. You try to get something down but every sentence is like wading through gooey mud. You hate what you have written and reject it. You go away and make another cup of tea or coffee. ‘It should not be this hard,’ you think. The doubts follow you and can lead to self-sabotaging behaviours such as looking for distractions, avoidance and procrastination. What are some typical doubting thoughts:
‘Am a writer or just a scribbler?’
‘Who am I kidding – I’m not good enough.’
‘No publisher is ever going to want to publish my stuff.’
‘I haven’t written anything worthwhile; I might as well give up.’
‘Writing is such a slog. Isn’t it supposed to be enjoyable?’
Fear and self-doubt are experienced by the majority of writers at various times, and not only when they are starting out. Few writers are so fortunate as to be able to write almost as easily as they speak. A famous quote of Ernest Hemingway illustrates an author’s daily confrontation with the blank page:
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
“Bleed.” It is all there in that one powerful word. Hemingway also said, “Easy writing is hard reading.”
In order to overcome self-sabotaging behaviours, our logical first step is to understand the negative mental state that can disable us from writing. This mental state is caused by a physical part of the human brain: the amygdala. It is our ancient brain and has been part of the human physiology since the earliest times. Its purpose is to alert us to danger in our immediate environment and protect us from landing on some other creature’s dinner table.
The amygdala is instinctive and involuntary and we cannot turn it off. We can, however, gain a degree of control over it by interrupting its fearful messages and lessening its impact on our emotions and behaviours. In effect, we can put it back in its cage. One aspect of our primitive wiring is the negative self-talk going on in our heads. I refer to this negative inner voice as ‘The Inner Critic.” We can and should talk back to our inner critic whenever it comes up with irrational doubts, such as the ones listed above. We must reinforce that we are in charge and assertively tell it to “Get back in your box. I am not going with you.”
The amygdala triggers our fight-flight-freeze responses where we either attack, run away quickly or become immobile. The latter response temporarily paralyses our brain and bodies. We cannot think. If we cannot think, we cannot create. Hence ‘writer’s block’ where we are stuck in that sticky mental mud.
What are some practical and positive ways for writers to deal with fear and self-doubt? This will be the topic of a following article. If you would like to be notified when it is published, you can subscribe at the bottom of this page.
Doing the write thing (and loving it!)