28 April 2023
Author Livi Michael passes on her top tips for when self-doubt threatens to derail your process
8.00 Monday morning.
It’s raining. Hard. I have an article to write which has been commissioned and a novel which has not. My thoughts about the novel go something like this: It’s not working. There’s no point. No one will publish it anyway. If it is published no one will read it…
My thoughts about the article: Why on earth did I say I’d write it? Why did I agree to that deadline? Why did I think I had something to say…
Other, random thoughts include: I really hope the roof doesn’t leak again. Should I make some more toast?
On such days, I’m more likely to write the article than the novel, because it seems easier to respond to external pressure than internal drive (what drive?)
Sadly, I’m most likely to make toast.
The chances are you will recognise this scenario – you are a writer after all. Perhaps, however, you thought that professional writers don’t have these thoughts, or that one day you would arrive at a point of professionalism where you will rise above all doubts and prevarications.
I’m here to tell you that won’t happen.
This year it will be 40 years since I published my first short piece of writing, 31 years since my first novel was published, and I still have days like this. During the writing of my 20th novel, Reservoir, I had a lot of them, in fact. I wrote it during lockdown (not the most positive phase of my life!) and I had just had several other pieces of writing rejected.
In the years since I first published, many things have changed in the writing world, but my top tip for aspiring writers remains the same: never let the way you feel dictate whether you write or not.
It can be useful to examine the way you feel, and the kinds of things your mind is telling you, rather than just accepting them. What actually lies behind the stream of negativity and self-doubt?
Buddhist writings suggest there are five hindrances to spiritual progress: Sensory desire; ill-will; sloth-and-torpor; restlessness-and-worry; uncertainty, or sceptical doubt. If we substitute the word ‘writing’ for ‘spiritual’, this list reads like a template for every writer’s experience of a bad writing day.
For the writer, the common factor behind each of these five hindrances is usually a loss of confidence, in themselves or in the writing process. Behind the toast-munching-refusing-to-get-dressed-computer-avoiding behaviour that typifies a bad writing day, lies a writer on the brink of a confidence abyss.
But what can be done about it?
The short answer is nothing. These days will happen. It is often, to misquote several terrible science fiction films, futile to resist.
But what you shouldn’t do is act on it.
The trick is to allow these self-critical, negative thoughts to exist without allowing them to determine what you do. In much the same way as the rain exists, but it needn’t ruin your day.
Why? because the part of your brain responsible for the creative process will continue to function anyway. There is scientific evidence for this.
My main character in Reservoir, Hannah, is a psychotherapist with a specialist interest in neuroscience. Current neuroscientific research suggests that creativity cannot be confined to any one part of the brain (left or right, for instance) but there do seem to be specific networks involved in creative function. While it is not known exactly how these networks can be stimulated into productive action, it is equally difficult to ‘switch them off’.
They will work, if you give them even the smallest chance.
In her excellent TED talks, the writer Elizabeth Gilbert says that we all have a ‘creative genius’ in our brains, however hard this may be, on certain days, to believe. The main thing she has learned about the writing process is that ‘your job is just to show up’, in order to allow it to do its work.
That’s what I did, when writing Reservoir. I ‘showed up’ at my writing desk, in front of my computer, despite all the angry, negative or self-defeating voices in my head. I didn’t always get very far, but sometimes I was surprised by what I could do in the course of a short session. Presumably, that was those creative networks kicking in.
Whatever it was, in the end, it worked. Reservoir is both finished and published!
My favourite quote about the creative process is not about writing at all, but art. Vincent Van Gogh once said, If you hear a voice within you say, 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.’
Sometimes the act of showing up at your desk or kitchen table, or wherever else you write, will be enough to silence that voice.
Writers are individuals, and there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all writing process. Create a writing process that works for you, says author Jessie Greengrass.