Hey, this could be big!
Do you say and think that about your project? When you do, does it feel exhilarating? Depressing? Why is it that sometimes everything seems possible, and other times, we’re stuck and see nothing but obstacles? Is it that the stuckness comes from our inborn needs to connect with others—and to distrust them too?
Do you write for yourself, or with a carefully defined target reader in mind? Whatever your situation, it’s likely that part of your writing energy derives from an urge to connect. Yet none of us can avoid the self-protective suspicion that eventually got humans to our position at the top of the food chain.
We surge toward the joy of making something new and fine to enrich the lives of others – and we also scramble instinctively for the back of the cave, as far away as possible from sharing, trusting, or seeking an audience. Day by day, each of us navigates a continuum of need, between mistrustful isolation and immersive connection.
But it’s not always easy to negotiate a middle way, when we’re in the grip of these powerful—opposed—impulses! Inevitable tensions accompany the paradox of connectedness. Aware of them or not, we must live with those tensions.
Here are four tensions you may have experienced that have the potential to undermine your creative work and leave you feeling stuck.
1. Are you competing?
Are you looking over your shoulder when you’d be better off taking in the view ahead? In other words, is it possible your sense of stuckness is a product of comparing yourself with others, even competing with them?
This can derive from your own unexamined beliefs, or from actual toxic people.
First, take a close look at your unspoken assumptions and let yourself rethink. Consider these ideas:
- Nothing you do will harm other writers.
- Your good work doesn’t hurt them.
- Your popularity doesn’t hurt them.
- Your financial success doesn’t hurt them.
Now turn that around. Nothing other writers do will harm you either.
For instance, if a writer sells a book, do all other writers suffer? Only if we’re in a zero-sum book-buying universe. And, like me, you probably know too many readers who’d rather buy books than new clothes (or dessert!) to believe that. If you focus on writing an excellent book, you’re doing all you need to do. Other writers will do the same.
Second, if you actually know writers in your circle who are behaving selfishly, or worse, spreading negative comments about your work, it’s essential that you disengage. Be better than that, and keep your eye on what’s important. Do what you can to separate from contact with these people, especially if they assume the upper hand and pose as the cool kids. Protect yourself and your work.
Instead of looking over your shoulder and feeling miserably inferior to the cool kids, reconnect with the timeless clan of writers and storytellers. Let their camaraderie support you. Forget any frenemies who’ve been bedeviling you.
If you need companionship, find some non-toxic friends or acquaintances for a day trip or a night out. Do everything possible to free yourself from the meanness and negativity of writers who have lost their way, believing in a zero-sum world. You don’t need them. Stop looking over your shoulder and move on, no longer bogged down in competition.
2. What moves you to anger?
Note what irritates you about other writers who work in or near your topic or subgenre. This can be useful intel for several reasons. Ask yourself why you’re angry. Then ask yourself, what would need to change for you not to be angry? Your anger is probably sending you a message. So follow the trail and find out.
What is happening for you? Can you discover what this is about?
- Is this about envy?
- Is this about your deep competitive streak?
- Is this about the superiority of your work compared to theirs?
- Is this about some kid in third grade who looked a little bit like this other writer?
Your own thoughtful responses can become a treasure map, guiding you toward your own destination, your own story, told in your own voice, with your own experience and research supporting the work.
Consider, for instance, your gut response when you learn of other writers’ good fortune. Part of you may be happy for them, while another part may wish that their good fortune only be moderate—no more than you can handle comfortably. Who said feelings were supposed to be rational, right?
If you find yourself struggling with envy as to other writers in your community, or in the world at large, you may benefit from some focused attention on these feelings.
To keep writing, to keep forging ahead with your own work, you’ll need to come to terms with your anger. Why not flip the dynamic and decide to learn from your anger? Notice the next time you clench your jaw or mutter a swear word in response to another writer. What is it that got to you? Find out its meaning to you.
3. Are you complaining?
Complaining is a sinkhole that can swallow up a lot of good writing mojo. Instead of progressing with your writing, do you find yourself listing the reasons why things aren’t going as smoothly as you wanted?
- I don’t have time!
- The phone keeps ringing!
- You should see my email inbox!
- All those meetings!
- Too many doctor appointments!
- My spouse / partner / BFF doesn’t understand!
- This weather won’t quit!
- My boss / client / customer is impossible!
Do you find yourself suggesting that other people have contributed more than their fair share of grief to your life lately? Are you placing blame on others for your disappointments?
When you think about it, complaining requires a passive stance. We’re saying that life is out of our hands, and the responsibility for it lies with others. Remember, it’s your life. It doesn’t belong to the others. Consider shifting away from complaining and blame, and toward locating one next step. One practical and doable single task. Don’t give the overwhelm the upper hand.
Decide to be active. Over time, you will accumulate accomplishments the way you used to list complaints.
Identify a safe place or two to vent. Journals are terrific for this. Therapists also. Then locate one doable next step and move along.
By the way, it’s important to note what’s not complaining, and yet can sometimes be confused for it. If you use your voice to talk about what you are learning from your struggle, that’s not complaining. Your struggle doesn’t cancel out your brilliance. It is generous and helpful to look back at your experience and share what you’ve come to understand.
In other words, sometimes telling a story about a problem you had and the lesson it taught can be useful. That is not complaining.
4. Do you use sales as a measuring stick?
Resiliency pop quiz: Can you reply calmly to the relative who asks, “So, you sold a million books yet? When are you going to give up this writer thing? Can’t you see the writing on the wall (heh, heh, heh)?”
This is a tough one for so many people. Maybe your writing won’t pay very much. Maybe it will, after a while. Maybe it’s our First-World Western outlook that makes this so tricky for so many of us. It’s not worth doing unless we get recognition and a bunch of cash, right? If we’re not making a splash, why are we doing it?
Enough with the judgmental attitude, already! It’s more important, and more subtle, than that.
For me, Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, helps illuminate a path for the tentative artist with this short dialogue:
“But do you know how old I will be by the time I learn to really play the piano / act / paint / write a decent play?”
“Yes . . . the same age you will be if you don’t.”
Another famous and successful writer—Stephen King—explained the creative person’s priorities this way: “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Do you remember the first time you found yourself on the receiving end of a writer’s offering that was perfect in the moment? The experience linked you together, whether you were face to face, or centuries and continents apart.