Self-Defeating Behaviors in Authors and How Best to Combat Them
This is from a presentation that Jenny Trout and I gave earlier this month at the Grand Rapids Region Writers Group, and we thought we’d share it with the rest of the world since we’re professional level self defeaters.
You don’t have to look very far to find self-defeating behavior. That’s why it’s called SELF defeating behavior. A lot of these habits result in unfinished or obviously rushed final products.
Denial We’re starting with denial because at least one person in this room is thinking, “I don’t have any self-defeating behaviors attached to my writing. I love writing. It’s my life.” In order to fix any of the behaviors we’re going to discuss, you have to be willing to recognize them in yourself. The first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Blaming these behaviors on other people or circumstances—“I wouldn’t be such a martyr, if I wasn’t so needed!” “I don’t procrastinate, there’s just never any time!”—will just hold you back and is a self-defeating behavior in and of itself. It’s comorbid with all these other problems that we’re about to shame you for.
The common procrastinator knows they’re procrastinating, but they genuinely believe that they have all the time in the world. In the middle of January, a March deadline seems ages away. But when February 27th rolls around, and they’ve only got fifty thousand words of their one hundred thousand word novel finished, the panic sets in. The Procrastinator knows that this is a problem of their own making, and doesn’t want to accept that responsibility, so they deny it, usually by getting on social media or taking an avid interest in a new show that has seven or eight seasons on Netflix. A lot of procrastinators can actually pull off getting their work done under the wire; however there’s always a price to pay: your house is dirty, your kids are eating crap for dinner, nobody is getting the attention they need, you lose sleep, then you get sick, and then at that point you’re so burned out, you don’t start writing again until the deadline panic sets in once more.
How do you fix this? The easy answer would be to ask for a deadline extension. But that only prolongs the inevitable. When faced with the new deadline, the procrastinator starts the cycle all over again. And if your deadline is self-imposed, you’ll see it pushed back further and further as your manuscript languishes unfinished.
So, how to combat this problem?
1.) If you’re in dire straits and need a fix to finish by a deadline, the first thing you can do is estimate the amount of words you think you need to complete your project. Divide that by the number of days you have until your deadline. That’s the number of words you need to write every day. Add a couple hundred if you feel nervous. If you are fifty thousand words short and your deadline is in ten days, Sorry, you’re up a creek. Exercising this step at the start of a project may help keep you on track in the first place.
2.) Remove yourself from the internet. The biggest distraction a writer faces is twitter, tumblr, facebook, or pinterest. It’s easy to tell yourself that you’re getting on twitter to build your readership, or you need to make some kind of story vision board on pinterest, but if you’re doing this during your writing time, you’re not writing. Have someone change your internet password, and tell them to only give you the new password when you’ve completed your work for the day. Or, enlist a timed program like Freedom to cut off your access for a few hours. There are ways around these solutions, and you could always get up and walk away from the computer—do you need to clean out your closets? Put photos in the albums in chronological order? Knit a sweater?—but the point is stop the mindless surfing of sites like Buzzfeed and Gawker.
3.) Get to the root of why you’re procrastinating. Is it because something else is on your mind? Is it because you’re afraid of failure? Is it because you’re suffering from depression or ADD? Stress can also shut down your writing productivity center, and distraction helps us ignore stress. Unless you seriously examine why you’re not able to focus, you’re going to find yourself backsliding into more procrastination.
Martyrdom, the passive-aggressive sidekick of procrastination, is defined by a deep need to put everyone else’s problems before your writing. Sometimes, this is unconscious: many writers find themselves at the mercy of family and friends who do not respect a request for uninterrupted writing time. Working writers know this all too well; the phone rings constantly, because people know you’re at home. The house doesn’t get cleaned and the dogs don’t get let out if everyone takes your presence in the home for granted, especially when it appears to them that you are doing “nothing” during your writing time. The problem comes when you allow people to take you for granted, or you don’t see that it’s happening.
But good news! The martyr is totally able to get down off the cross. With a healthy dose of selfishness and stand-up-for-yourself-ittude, you can learn to set boundaries to protect your writing time.
1.) Don’t train your friends and family to neglect themselves. If your spouse needs something laundered, there are directions on the inside of the lid of the washing machine—and they’re in at least two languages, with illustrations. If you’re working on a project with a group, and one member isn’t pulling their weight, don’t pick up the slack all by yourself. If you intervene in someone else’s responsibilities, you teach them that you’ll always be there to rescue them—this goes for children, too. If your children have an urgent need—a bathroom accident, a cut or scrape—that is an unavoidable interruption. Boredom, can’t find the remote, homework projects left until the night before they’re due, are all things that can wait, or result in inevitable consequence. When people around you learn that you work from home or have carved out time to work on your writing, they’ll impose on that time if you let them. Defend your writing time as though it were a small and helpless baby surrounded by hungry tigers.
2.) Do not set an unreasonable schedule for your writing time. This one applies especially to women writers, and even more specifically, to writers who are mothers. When we started writing, a common piece of advice for writers was to stay up after everyone in the household went to bed in order to get quiet writing time. Or, we could get up an hour or two early, before the kids needed to be on the school bus, so we could get a few words in. The problem with this “wisdom” is that it expects the writer to sacrifice their health for their writing and their family. While the spouse and the kids are slumbering peacefully after a long, hard day of you doing everything for them, you’re hunched over the computer, bleary eyed, so as not to inconvenience them. This is productive for no one. Lack of sleep will make you cranky with your offspring, more likely to catch colds (from your diseased spawn), and it will lesson your productivity during the day.
3.) Do not offer. It’s hard to hear about someone else’s problems without wanting to help. Some people are natural fixers. If someone needs something from a store, they’ll drive over and get it. When the phone rings and it’s a needy friend desperate to have her love life fixed, don’t answer. Sometimes, an honest conversation is what it takes to set a boundary. However, these conversations need to be repeated. It’s unpleasant, but with practice, it becomes less so. Eventually, someone will try to test the boundary you’ve set, but remain firm. The key to withstanding siege is to fortify your walls. And your food stores.
4.) Some writers who are genuinely mentally ill may reject treatment on the grounds that their creativity will be hampered. The truth is, you’re more likely to produce quality work if you’re not mired down in depression or so riddled with anxiety that you can’t think about anything but your fear that your house will burn down. Some adults go for years with undiagnosed non-neurotypical features like ADD or Aspergers, which affect their ability to focus or manage time effectively. Learning disorders that evaded detection during school years can become unmanageable in adulthood—and often these problems are explained away as laziness, stress, or procrastination (hence our advice to get to the root of the procrastination problem).
The Muse Do not wait for “the muse.” The muse doesn’t exist. As a writer, you need to write, even if you’re not “feeling it” or you’re not “inspired.” Inspiration won’t find you, you need to hunt it down—not on pinterest. The only way to keep your head in your story is to continually write it. Even on days when you’re not into it, or you don’t know where the story is going. The muse won’t write your book, no matter how romantic and poetic it may seem.
Talking about your book too much This is another simple one. If you are constantly explaining to everyone who will listen—and even those who would rather not—about your characters or your world building or your plot twist, you’re going to get as tired of it as those poor saps in the elevator. And when you’re bored with your book, you’re not going to want to write it. You have talked yourself out of a story. Brainstorming is fine, but constantly reciting your story will sap your excitement and drain your creativity.
Perfectionism takes many insidious forms. And we’re going to talk about them right now.
Research-a-holic How will anyone know that I did my research on 18th century French insane asylums if I don’t ferret out exactly what type of lock they kept on the doors. I should also find out if the walls were made of limestone or cinderblock, and if limestone, where was it quarried? Sometimes the reader doesn’t really care all that much about the floor plan of the Terrace Room for your character’s Plaza wedding. Sure, you’ll get the occasional expert who will complain in an Amazon review that you specified the wrong type of collar on your medieval heroine’s dress, or the horsepower on the motorcycle your protagonist rides is different from the model you described, but people will complain about things that actually are correct. If your research is preventing you from doing actual writing—see also procrastination—then you’re not helping your book, you’re hindering it. Specific details requiring research can be added in during the editing process. Getting your first draft on paper is more important than limestone quarries.
Comparison “I will never write that well, so why do I bother?” Your favorite author is your favorite author for a reason, but that doesn’t mean you won’t ever become someone else’s favorite author. There are things you can learn from reading another author’s book, but those lessons can’t come through comparison that finds your work lacking. Analyze the things about their work that affect you as a reader, not things that you think are missing from your own writing. Voice is one of the common traps we all fall into—namely, that we can recognize other author’s “voices,” but we never hear our own. Our prose seems amateurish and unstructured when compared to the books we’re reading. But the books we’re reading are finished products, and the books we’re writing are not. Comparison speaks to a writer’s insecurity, and desire to be the best, which leads to…
Competition. Some competition is healthy—when you’re competing with yourself for a new record time on your run, or number of words written in an hour, you’re pushing yourself toward an obtainable goal. But when you’re competing with others, (someone specific) either consciously or unconsciously, you’re only setting yourself up for failure. Either you’re going to miss the mark and feel bad, or you’re going to attain your goal but never feel satisfied. You’re still measuring your success by someone else’s standards—and there will always be someone doing better than you. It becomes a vicious cycle of self-hatred and hollow successes with fleeting satisfaction. In order to break the cycle, you have to first learn to stop comparing yourself with other writers.
1.) Retrain your brain. If you read a book you really enjoy, and find yourself distracted from that enjoyment by all the ways it is superior to your own work, pause and force yourself to think, “This a really good book. Good for them. They’re a great writer, and I’m glad I get to enjoy this book.”
2.) Learn to celebrate the successes of others. There’s room in the market for everyone. Hardcore readers buy books by the armload. If they buy one written by someone you view as competition, that doesn’t mean it’s the only book they’re going to read. They might pick yours up later. If a publisher buys your friend’s book, it doesn’t mean you’ll never sell yours. Snoop Dog and Cameron Diaz knew each other from high school, and they both still got famous. Just because something happens for one person, doesn’t mean it won’t happen for the other.
3.) Set new markers for success. If your joy of writing comes from the number on your royalty check, or the failure of an “enemy” author, you’re not truly enjoying writing. Yes, royalty checks are super awesome, and it’s always fun to watch someone you hate fail (and we would never take that away from you), if you can’t write without these negative rewards, you need to repeat steps one and two, or reevaluate your choice of writing as a career. If you truly do not enjoy it, why keep torturing yourself? If this is the position you’re in, try taking a week off from writing. Every time you think of a new idea or scene while you’re doing some other activity, make a note of it. At the end of your hiatus, if you don’t have anything listed, then you’ve got your answer. If you spend the entire time fretting over how many people are finishing their books before you, how many people are making money that you aren’t, then congratulations, you actually do enjoy writing, but you’ve got a problem that needs to be fixed through self-reflection.
Confusing mental health issues for creativity More people have heard of Ernest Hemmingway’s alcoholism and suicide than have read any of the words he wrote. Because he was a great writer, his mental illnesses were romanticized and given full credit for his genius. You’ve probably heard, “Write drunk, edit sober,” as actual writing advice. It’s not uncommon to hear writers in all genres talk about how they bleed for their characters, how they need to “hear voices” or become so emotionally invested in their characters that they can no longer separate their own fiction from reality. Get on Twitter on any given night, and you’ll see author after author joking about their wine, as though alcohol consumption equals writer credibility.
Everyone will have that occasional character that they’re especially in tune with, but if you find yourself buying a Christmas present for your friend the character who does not exist, this isn’t a hallmark of genius, but a red flag for mental health. Occasionally having a glass of wine while you’re writing isn’t a cause for concern, but if you’re unable to write without alcohol, or if you feel the need to broadcast your consumption in an attempt to normalize it, you may have a problem.
Writer culture has coopted features of various mental illnesses—we hear voices, we have imaginary friends, we cling to our rituals like a person with obsessive compulsive disorder, and we thrive on having dark, tortured souls. These tendencies, if they are an affectation, are insulting to people who suffer from mental illness at best, and perpetuating misinformation at worst. However, if these are not adopted behaviors romanticized for street cred, they’re serious symptoms of mental illnesses that need to be addressed.
1.) If you are hearing voices, literally hearing voices, seek help from a medical professional.
2.) Similarly, if you find yourself unable to create without drinking or taking drugs, find an addiction specialist.
3.) Learn the warning signs for depression, ADD, obsessive compulsive disorder, and anxiety. If those warning signs seem to apply to you, talk to a doctor or mental health professional. They can help you with coping strategies and determine the best course of treatment. If you face obstacles in receiving care, don’t give up. Some doctors, like some people, are less informed and sympathetic to mental health issues.
4.) Do not reject medication on the grounds that it will harm your creativity. Don’t let the misplaced romance of the crazy genius stop you from getting the help you need to live a productive life. Alternately, don’t let the stigma of mental health issues dissuade you from seeking treatment.
5.) If you are not experiencing any of these symptoms, but are using them to describe your creative process in a pithy way, consider some alternatives. Mental illness is serious, stigmatized, and the severity is underestimated, and making a joke out of it marginalizes the sufferers. It also makes it difficult for a writer with mental illness to recognize what is the normal writing process and what is a mental health crisis.
If you recognize yourself in any of these examples—unless you’re that secondary type of martyr, in which case you will not—take heart, for there is hope. Unfortunately, you’re the only person who can fix these problems. Be honest with yourself; so many of these issues are excuse driven. You don’t have time, so you procrastinate. No one can help themselves, so you have to do it for them. You can’t possibly finish the scene if you can’t describe the type of marble in the foyer of the house your characters are renovating. This is all bullshit. You have the power and the ability to control your own destiny as a writer. Sure, we can’t ensure blockbuster novels and lucrative careers, but we can make sure our books get finished, and that we’re doing the best work we can.