Routines, Writing Phobia, and a Couple of Metaphors

Hooray! I’ve made it to the ROW80 Wednesday check-in and I’ve met my challenge for both of the two days since I announced my goals! I’ve also been reminded of just how adept I am at procrastinating. But my house is clean and I’ve re-written my “About Me” page and made homemade granola, so I’m not complaining too much.

There have been some great comments on my kick-off post. Thank you to everyone who’s commented!

In my ROW80 kick-off post, I talked about my fear of this writing challenge. Just to clarify, I’m not worried about what people will think of my words. My words come from me but they aren’t me. And I don’t need only praise of my work. In fact, I really like specific, constructive criticism; it drives me to want to write more so I can get more criticism. Criticism is not abuse and it’s not just telling someone what’s “wrong” with their writing. It’s analyzing someone’s work with the purpose of helping them find and express their meaning more clearly. Unfortunately, finding people who can offer that is difficult outside of a carefully constructed writing critique group or a writing seminar/course in which everyone is given instruction about the nature of constructive criticism.

I don’t worry (much) about what people will think of my words. More, I worry about what they will think of me because of my words. There’s this need for acceptance of me as an individual; writing is just the vehicle through which I want to connect with others and through which they are going to judge me. This need for acceptance is, apparently, something I share with many others. One commenter found that her need for acceptance came from hurtful comments and unsupportive situations in her past. Another noted that he feels insecurity despite a supportive and loving childhood.

My childhood was certainly not unsupportive of my writing. In fact, my dad was my first critic and taught me that specific, constructive criticism of my work can be a loving invitation to improvement and clarity of expression (and, therefore, connection). If I can point to one thing in my childhood that’s contributed to my hang-ups around writing, it’s being told that I was a “good writer” from the time I was about 8 years old. This comment came again and again from teachers and other adults who had the best of intentions. At that time, telling a child how “good” she was at something was considered the best way to foster positive self-esteem. In the intervening thirty years, research suggests that this kind of unlabeled praise actually has the opposite effect.

When I was eight years old, I had no idea what I was doing in my writing that made people say I was “good.” It felt magical, mysterious, and—since I had little clue as to how to repeat it—out of my control. I knew that the praise felt good, though, and I wanted it to continue, especially since the absence of that praise would imply that I was the opposite of “good.” If I’d been told, instead, “Wow, I really like how you used the word ‘shimmering’ there. It really helps me see the frog’s skin,” that would have given me the positive effects of the praise along with something specific that I could pinpoint as a concrete reason for the praise. It wouldn’t feel so random and I wouldn’t (theoretically) have so much fear of the praise being withdrawn for some reason outside of my control.

Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford and author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, talks in more detail about this phenomenon in Jim Fleming’s October 2011, interview with her on To the Best of Our Knowledge. It’s an incredible interview, and I encourage you to check it out.

At any rate, my work as I see it, is to accept that I’m not a “good writer.” In fact, I prefer not to label myself a “writer” at all. I’d rather think of writing as an action and a process, not as something that defines me. I’d rather be defined by my actions than by a role. If I’m defined by a role and that role goes away or I fail in that role somehow, where does that leave me?

Some of the fear I have about writing is what it says about me if I fail at it. And of course I will fail because that’s just how things work.

A big part of coping with that fear, for me, is to make writing routine. Sure, routine doesn’t sound very creative, but all of the creativity in the world is useless if I’m always too afraid to put it into words.

When I was in college (I majored in writing, by the way), Susan Streeter Carpenter, author of Riders on the Storm and prof for my senior writing seminar, talked about how the best writers she’s known are not the ones who were just great right out of the box, they were the ones who put in the time putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Two hours a day, 1,000 words a day, whatever it was, it was a routine, a way of letting the muse know that, if she were inclined to sit down next to you and kiss you on the cheek, you’d be available at a particular time and place every day.

When I listen to and read interviews with writers whose work I admire, they all talk about the long slog that’s punctuated by moments of transcendence. It’s like a runner’s high—you can’t just run around the block and feel a runner’s high. You have to put in the miles and trust that it’s going to be there and just let it happen. Most of it is work and most of it’s grueling, but you do it for those moments in which you feel like you’re flying. (This isn’t my original observation, either. Haruki Murakami makes this comparison in his What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.)

This has been my experience with writing (and with running, incidentally. And hiking, reading, doing dishes, and giving birth). I know it works because I’ve experienced it. Like with running, I know I need to build up my writing miles until I have the endurance necessary to experience the high. But even the high isn’t the destination; it’s just a landmark along the road. If I want to see it—experience it—again, I need to embrace the process and keep on writing.

Which requires fearfully following my routine.

How about you? Do you wait for the muse, or do you go and seek her? Are your fears of failure or rejection as an adult clearly traceable to incidents in your childhood, or did you live an idyllic childhood and the fear is there anyway?

6 comments

  1. Lori · October 4, 2012

    Oh, I haven’t read “Talent is Overrated,” but that is a very reassuring theory. For some reason though, as painful and non-productive as it might be, it is hard to let go of the idea of talent. It’s a little bit like saying that there is no magic in the world. But letting go is the right things to do. It just holds us back, I feel.

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    • CJ · October 4, 2012

      Well, Colvin doesn’t argue that talent doesn’t exist, just that it doesn’t exist without effort. His argument is that those people we see who are exceptional at something are exceptional not because they were born with a talent for it (beyond physical characteristics that might give them an edge in a certain area, usually athletics), but because they were born with enough of a love for a particular field/task/sport that they were willing to practice and practice and practice (and fail and fail and fail before they succeeded). I actually found it encouraging—that we can make our own talent. I think I’ve blogged about his book before. I’ll toy around with the search terms that bring those posts up. “colvin” works okay, but I think it misses a couple.

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  2. Lori · October 4, 2012

    I read the Carol Dweck interview and I found it so interesting! I think I have a fixed-mindset child and that is good information to help me teach her not to be afraid of failure. It’s so encouraging that we can change that sort of thinking.
    I am sure you’ll be able to sort it out and you’ll be able to make your writing a priority, if that’s what you want, even if it can be a challenge.

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    • CJ · October 4, 2012

      It really is an “a-ha” interview, isn’t it? Dovetails with Geoff Colvin’s idea of “deliberate practice” (or maybe it’s not his idea, he just describes it well in his book, Talent is Overrated).

      Thanks for the vote of confidence!

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  3. Ryan King · October 3, 2012

    Welcome to the ROW, CJ 🙂 I firmly believe that writing should be a routine if you can manage it. It does train you to write on demand. I don’t wait for that lovely muse to visit. I write everyday at lunch time and if I can’t due to work related reasons, I write at night when I get home. Either way, it gets done unless my schedule is really out of sorts. That’s what you have to do. If you just wait for the muse to visit, you won’t finish anytime soon or at the very worst you won’t have a career at it. All you can do is face your fear. Best of luck!

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    • CJ · October 3, 2012

      Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting, Ryan. My friend who told me about ROW80 said it was a great, supportive community, and so far, that’s what I’m finding it to be!

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