Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Noelle Sterne
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But then, faster than a form rejection, more powerful than an editor's frown, able to freeze you in a single flash, a horrible thought zaps you: I can't stand it anymore!
What! Why? Your writing's going just too well.
When we're blocked in the usual ways, the reasons are pretty clear -- the infinitesimal progress, the search for the ever-elusive perfect word, the unshakable suspicion that, despite all our sweat, what we've written is still no good. But why, in heaven's name, can't we stand it when our words are surging?
The answers aren't easy. For one thing, the more we write, finding our voice and feeling our oats, the more this paradox can strike, and its irrationality throws us. For another, the emotion itself is hard to pin down. In a "normal" block, we recognize depression, frustration, anger, anxiety, sugar cravings. But what's going on when the work is going well?
Psychologist and personal growth specialist Gay Hendricks offers insight in his book, The Big Leap. We all have borders, boundaries of joy, like pain. Each of us has set "an inner thermostat . . . of the 'upper limits'" of success, happiness, and creativity we allow ourselves.
Hendricks admits with candor that he discovered his own "Upper-Limit Problem" early in his career. Happy with his work as a research psychologist at a well-known university, he found the work going well, as were his relationships. "I felt great. A few seconds later, though, I found myself worrying about my daughter, who was away from home on a summer program." After assuring himself she was all right, he wondered why he had gone from feeling so good to feeling so anxious. His realization applies to us all: "I manufactured the stream of painful images because I was feeling good! Some part of me was afraid of enjoying positive energy for any extended period of time. . . . The thoughts I manufactured were guaranteed to make me return to a state I was more familiar with: not feeling so good."
And so with our writing. When we bump up against our upper limits of joy or exhilaration that it's going so well, we activate, often unconsciously, ways to shut down. One writer admitted, "When my writing flows, I shake all over." Another said, "I avoid it because it's too delicious." Another confessed, "When I'm stuck, I get depressed, and that I can handle. But when my creativity explodes, I get nervous, itchy, elated, giggly, and panicky, all at once. And I hit the chips, or booze."
Familiar with this strange writers' malady, psychologist and writing therapist Rachel Ballon gives us a logical explanation (in The Writer's Portable Therapist). "You may get so overwhelmed by the burst of creativity that you respond the same way that you do to frustration -- by turning to a substance or activity that calms you down and relaxes you from your excitement." So we tamp down our excitement and tell ourselves, "I can't get through all these chapters." "This novel is so bad I should stop now." "I'll never get it published."
But if in this state we quit, we're only defeating ourselves and our writing goals. Now, when I feel myself shutting down because my writing is taking off, I take action. First, I promise myself to keep writing. Second, I do one or more of the ten things listed below. These remedies have worked for many writers who feel the paradox of the unexpected block. Try a few.
The first five will shake up your body:
1. Get up. Get out of your chair and away from your desk. Run in place. Do ten situps. Jump up and down ten times. If you have an indoor exercise machine, use it. Take a walk -- around the room, the house, the block, up and down the driveway.
2. Dance. Put on your favorite upbeat music and dance for twelve minutes.
3. Do one household task. Clean the bathroom sink, take out the garbage, windex the mirrors. Water the plants, pet your pet. Pet the plants, water your pet.
4. Cook. Put together a dish that can be completed quickly (like sauteed vegetables or scrambled eggs) or a dish that needs little attention after initial assembly (like spaghetti sauce or soup).
5. Buy Something. Run out to the local office supply store and buy one writing supply. Choose something you don't really need, something that may cost too much, and something you've always yearned for and haven't allowed yourself. (You know exactly what it is.)
The second five remedies will shake up your mind and feelings:
6. Feel all those fear-anxiety-panic-terror feelings. Acknowledge them. You won't get destroyed or punished, the other shoe won't drop, your inspiration and creativity won't run dry.
7. Grab a piece of paper and a pen. Pour out your feelings and thoughts right now. No censoring.
8. Identify whose "voice" is talking you down. Whose "voice" is intoning that you don't deserve this exhilaration? Who is telling you that you don't deserve to do what gives you the greatest pleasure? Whose choice is it? Whose life? No one else is living it but you. You have the strength to shake off those old voices. Like ropes made of glue, they grab at you to conform, to be what they want you to or think you should be.
9. Remember the wise words of the great philosopher Dr. Seuss: "Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind." And fortify the directive with this chaser from life and career coach Tama Kieves: "I allow myself to be uncorked, unabashed, and showered with delicious good in every facet of my life."
10. Shout to yourself. Take a deep breath. Open your arms wide. Repeat out loud: "I can stand this. It's not too good to be true. I've dreamed and worked all my life for this."
And every time the anxiety demons hover and sting, repeat this single self-booster, "I deserve joy in my writing!"
With these methods, you'll break through, in Hendricks' term, your upper limits and vastly extend your joy boundaries. You'll soar right through your scribbling ceiling and allow your writing to go well -- and fabulously, as it should. And then, faster than a fifteen-minute break, you'll be back at work and rarin' to go all night.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 250 published fiction and nonfiction pieces in print and online venues. She has contributed many guest blogs and writes a column in Coffeehouse for Writers, "Bloom Where You're Writing." With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has guided doctoral candidates to completion of their dissertations. Based on this work, her latest project-in-progress is a practical-psychological-spiritual handbook, Grad U: Complete Your Dissertation -- Finally -- and Ease the Trip for Yourself and Everyone Who Has to Live With You. In her current book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books), Noelle draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at http://www.trustyourlifenow.com.