How to sustain a writing practice without romanticising your pain

20

November, 2018

About Me

I'm George, and I'm a book coach. I'm a cheerleader, mentor, coach, editor and project manager for aspiring authors.

When I had writer’s block (as I discussed in my newsletter last week), I was advised (by the wisdom of the internet) that it was BS. A sign of effeminate privilege, which must be replaced with the blue collar attitude of just showing up and doing the work because “plumbers don’t get stuck”.

There can certainly be a relief in doing the work, focusing on the writing and not on the drama that can surround it. But the way this was phrased was shaming. It essentially suggested I was not man enough to write.

As writers, we know there’s power in them there stories. So, make sure you examine and actively choose which story you tell yourself about your writing practice.

 

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Craft a marketable book without second-guessing yourself.  Nurture your self-trust as a writer. 

Find Compassion and Empathy for Yourself by Remembering You Are Unique

Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Shame is everywhere in the world of writing advice. And much of this shame relies on masculine ideals and a lack of understanding or compassion for the unique challenges each of us face and negotiate in order to create art and literature.

Unique challenges like those faced by a sleep-deprived, breastfeeding, single mother. Would you really advise her to get up early to write?  In her newsletter last week, feminist thinker and marketing consultant Kelly Diels spoke of
 a time, when I had a newborn and I was trying to find time to write a book, that I would read productivity books on my phone while I was nursing in the wee, wild hours of the night and morning. I was trying to figure out how to be more organized, more productive, use my time more effectively so I could get more of my (hopefully magnificent) work into the world.
Then I read some advice noting that successful people are early risers and if you want to be successful you should get up earlier, perhaps at 4 a.m.
And I thought, motherfucker, I AM up at 4 a.m.  Breastfeeding. Literally doing reproductive, generative labour. What productivity advice do you have for me now?
Kelly was quite literally not man enough for the productivity advice she was offered. Rather than acknowledging the practical difficulties and, frankly, heroism, of her unique situation, productivity advice imagines a would-be creative who just needs to be more efficient and less lazy. [n.b. I love Kelly’s newsletter, you can subscribe at www.kellydiels.com]
 
Your particular challenge may not be your caring responsibilities.
Maybe you have health problems, maybe you struggle with seasonal affective disorder (raises hand), maybe you have recently suffered a loss, maybe you haven’t done this for a while.
Just like when we are creating our characters, it’s the specificity of the situation that fosters compassion and empathy.
Are these excuses?
No.
They are the details which remind you why you do not need to feel shame when you get writers’ block; when you don’t hit your word counts or when you don’t (shock horror) write every day. And they are the details that remind you to forgive yourself. Not to allow you to give up, but to stop shame from preventing you from trying again.

 

Why is it important to remind yourself you don’t need to feel shame?

Because, while the ritual of a writing practice can help you enjoy creativity and flow, holding yourself to generic masculine ideals of stoicism andself-discipline, and shaming yourself when you don’t live up to them, is the worst way to beat writers’ block or create a sustainable writing practice. Anticipating the feeling of shame and unworthiness when we don’t achieve what we set out to will eventually stop you from trying. So do everything you can to make it safe for you to keep trying. Be the person who makes it safe by practising compassion for yourself.

 

I began to join these dots more clearly as I listened to an episode of Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast, Magic Lessons. She was speaking to her good friend Brené Brown, (an expert on shame, if you somehow haven’t come across her fabulous work). I loved it so much, I transcribed some of it so I could talk about it here:

 

 Liz (I think she’d be ok with me calling her Liz):

[With writing or creating] I think that the most important thing you need is self-forgiveness, because the only thing that’s gonna get you back to work on day 2 is if you forgive yourself for how bad your work was on day one. And that’s not discipline, that’s just love, you know.

Brené :
There’s zero question in my mind that you’re right about that. There is zero question. Day 2 doesn’t stop because of willpower or discipline, it stops because of shame. And the answer to shame, the antidote to shame, is not discipline, the actual antidote to shame is empathy.[…] It’s kindness, it’s talk to yourself like you’d talk to someone you love. 
Liz:
We have such capacity to offer that to everybody but ourselves[…]you put yourself in this special category where you alone are not deserving, and you alone are not worthy, and in a weird way ‘better’ than everyone else [laughs].

 

Why do so many writers feel they are only really writers if they approach their writing like a stoic gladiator? I mean, I wish you strength and honour, and all, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  

Masculine Ideals and the Shame of Not Writing

What if this resistance to allowing ourselves the compassion and kindness we’d offer others is about clinging to outdated masculine ideals? Historically, a huge proportion of our literary canon has been created by men. It stands to reason that the mystique around writing would be prone to promote these masculine ideals.
As Brené and Liz’s conversation went on, my suspicions only grew:
Brené: 
I would have called this weak, chicken shit. I would have named this some horrible shaming name before I read [Liz’s] article. I -my creativity- requires midwifery. I need a midwife. I don’t need, I need to be able to talk, and tell stories and get feedback and – I need something….and I didn’t think I did because I’m really introverted, but-
Liz:
And proud! You’re proud! 
Brené: 
Oh God yes[…]I know that. I don’t need anybody. I got this. I’m just going to lock myself away, and, two months -I’m gonna come out and it’s gonna be a masterpiece.
Liz:
And I will be limping and forever harmed and there will be five years taken off my life.

Brené:

Right -but I’ll wear that as a badge of courage.[…]There’s the proof of my legitimacy as a creator, is how much this harmed me.

Like I say, once you see how masculine ideals mystify writing, you can’t unsee it. And once you see it, these narratives start to lose their power. 
There is a mythology around writing which encourages us to believe that the process of writing has to be painful. But, far from demystifying writing, this can be just another form of romanticizing; this time romanticizing suffering. 

 

“Now you’re just romanticizing some pain that’s in your head.”

Joni Mitchell

A Good Birth

You know, there’s another form of creation that we’ve always been told has to be painful, and in which that story can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; childbirth.
It’s no coincidence that Brené spoke about her creation needing midwifery.
As Liz puts it, “as long as we stay locked in this idea that creativity can only be born through suffering, sacrifice, pain, and torment, it will always be born through suffering, sacrifice, pain and torment. But when we open ourselves up to the idea that it can be done joyfully, collectively, lovingly, forgivingly, then that’s the work that you make.” 
I couldn’t agree more.
And I take the metaphor almost literally when I say that the reasons why I used hypnobirthing are the same reasons why I use self-hypnosis to shore up my mindset for writing.  
Like cultural representations of childbirth, the cult of productivity disconnects us from our intuition with goal-oriented controlling, measuring, disciplining, and scheduling. We discard our intuition and self-knowledge and health, prioritizing a particular idea of when and how fast writing (or childbirth) should happen and how it should look. We expect it to be painful. So it is. 
Wait a second now, I hear you say, don’t try to tell me that childbirth isn’t painful. Right, you’re right. But, as a very wise coach and former hypnobirthing teacher said on social media yesterday (Ray Dodd, www.raydodd.co.uk), as a hypnobirthing teacher you are not trying to deny that birth is painful, but you are trying to allow people to make their own stories about their pain. I tell very different stories about my two experiences of childbirth. I’d compare the first to the pain of being subjected to pain involuntarily (I’m deliberately keeping this abstract as I don’t want to perpetuate stories about childbirth as disempowering and painful). My second experience, though, was like the pleasurable pain of going beyond what you believe your body can do. Like pulling yourself by your fingertips onto the summit of a mountain, letting your body take over while your mind simply marvels at what you are capable of. Two VERY different stories about physical endurance. The word ‘pain’ doesn’t begin to encapsulate them both. 
 

How to nurture your writing practice with romance, without romanticizing suffering.

Instead of brutal self-discipline, light a candle. Put on some music. Stay in touch with your body. Approach creativity with romance and with patience. Unless they serve you, drop the measurements.  If this feels BIG, then think about writing your own story about how hard it is. Think about the points of resistance and get curious about them, then try to release them, try to let your creativity do its thing by not controlling it so closely. Let it happen. Change medium, change desk, change project. 
And if you don’t achieve what you set out to when you set out to, don’t beat yourself up!
You need to extend to yourself the compassion you would offer to those you love. Make it safe for yourself to try.
Shame doesn’t dissipate by proving you are big and strong and invulnerable with your typewriter pointed at the wall in a windowless room and your sleep deprivation.
Compassion for the writer in you that wasn’t quite clear enough or interesting enough or productive enough or simply didn’t write enough yesterday, is what will allow you to write tomorrow. 
I’m sharing a story about how shame almost stopped me writing with my lovely newsletter subscribers this Sunday. Subscribe below if you’d like a more personal account of the damaging potential of shame, and how to overcome it.  

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