She’s always there, staring out of her front window. When I herd my children into the car for the school run or come home late from work, her gaze follows me. I’ve learned not to look because her answering smile is borderline creepy.
Sometimes her constant scrutiny angers me. I want to scream obscenities, smash the window, drag her outside. I want to get right in her face and tell her to get a life that’s not mine. However, polite society frowns on that kind of behaviour, not to mention it’s a bad example for the kids. So I swallow it all down with a gin and tonic on Friday night.
When the sale board appears outside her house I grin. No more weird old neighbour, probably been hauled off to a nursing home to stare out of a new window at the world going by without her. Of course I’m much too busy to think that far ahead but I’m absolutely certain that won’t be my future. Gotta keep moving. Don’t slow down, then those troublesome thoughts can’t catch up.
I silence it all, swallow it all with another gin and tonic every Friday night.
I can hear them downstairs, but I don’t think they’ll find me.
Daddy and me played hide and seek a lot. At first he would stamp on every stair so I could hear him coming, but later on he’d sneak so, so quietly. When I found this spot and stayed hidden for ages, he was very proud. He hugged me and gave me chocolate. He said I was his good boy, his clever boy.
So when he shouted Dannyrun and hideright now I did. My nose itches but I mustn’t sneeze or give myself away. It’s dark and too small in here but it’s not time to come out, not yet.
I can hear heavy boots on the stairs. My heart beats so, so fast. Tramp, tramp, tramp. Here they come. My eyes are wet. Please go away. I breathe fast, quiet as I can. Please, please.
Yes! The footsteps are leaving but now I can hear Max barking. He doesn’t like strangers. I’ll stay hidden until they’re gone.
You want to share your secret and at the same time you’ll never tell. What would people say? How would they think about you after they learn the truth?
Well guess what? I carry the same burden, and since you can’t talk about it openly I will.
You’re a writer. There, I said it.
Are you already blushing and stuttering, denying what you know is true? Maybe feeling a bit angry at being exposed? Then read on, because you need to fix this immediately.
But Are You Though?
If you can’t stop thinking about it, don’t stop working for it. Michael Jordan
Most writers realise their calling when still young, though some come to it later. Hobbies and interests come and go but those of childhood have a tendency to remain, even if they’re driven underground by adult responsibilities.
Some avid readers remain just that, while others start making up their own stories. You might not have written a word for years, yet the idea nags at you. You keep a journal or scribble bits of poetry when you feel sad. You read novels and think you could do as well if not better.
These moments can be the beginning of a writing career if you go from thought to action. Dreaming gets you nowhere, you must act. Talking about it, thinking about it, or planning it isn’t enough.
A chef doesn’t serve a raw pie. A surgeon doesn’t down tools halfway through closing a wound. And a writer finishes what she starts, no matter how hard it is.
Stephen King said that if you’ve paid a bill with money earned from writing, then you can call yourself a writer. That’s true for a professional, but we all have different goals and money is only one of them.
A writer has an itch, a compulsion, a need to express themselves in words. That’s you, and you want to know how to own it.
Not in Public
Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards. Robert Heinlein
So you want to call yourself a writer, but something is holding you back. Perhaps you remember being dismissed or ridiculed by someone whose opinion mattered — a parent, teacher or friend. They told you writing poetry was banal and writing romance was pathetic wish-fulfilment.
They told you your words were no good, and by extension, you were no good. The resulting shame caused you to bury writing where nobody could find it and use it against you.
Things are different now. You’re grown, and nobody can tell you what to do. These wounds run deep but you can heal them without therapy.
Recall what was said and who said it
Write it down
Write a letter to that person telling them they were wrong
Burn or tear up the letter
Anyone can write, just as anyone can cook. But not everyone can do it well. Maybe you think you’re not good enough because you’re not Neil Gaiman or Stephen Covey yet.
You must practise. Write a thousand words, then ten thousand more. Make writing a central part of your life so that it becomes familiar. Lose your fear of the thing you love and get good.
No Words to Say
Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. Neil Gaiman
Imagine this scene. You’re at a social gathering and someone you know asks, “So I hear that you write, what are you working on?” They smile encouragingly. What do you do?
Flight — you get away as soon as possible without answering
Fight — you deny it or make some self-deprecating remark
Freeze — you’re terrified and unable to speak
You’re a writer and words are your tools. It’s time to use them.
You need two stories; one for you and one for your work.
Picture yourself as a confident writer. If that’s too difficult, create an alter ego (why do you think authors use pen names? Just for anonymity?) A superhero writer who looks like you but acts like she was born to do this.
Now ask yourself WWSMD? What would Super Me do?
She’d face her questioner and smile. Then she’d say something like, “That’s so kind of you to ask. I’m working on some short stories/ editing my novel/ working on my blog.”
When the follow-up questions come, she’s ready with the address of her blog and an elevator pitch for her book. She isn’t ashamed of who she is. But she isn’t her work either; it’s part of her life, not her whole being.
So use your skills and write those stories. Write the description of you as you are now, making the best of your position. A single sentence should do. Then write the next part, where you answer deeper questions. Be vague; say it’s at an early stage, or in editing, or that you plan to find an agent in the future.
If someone is asking personal questions like how much money you’ve made, don’t get angry or embarrassed. Find words that you can say with a smile, then change the subject.
“When I make my first million, I’ll let you know!”
Writing an elevator pitch is a great exercise for any novelist and forces you to condense your story into its essentials. Try it, and you’ll find it easier to write queries, blurbs, and synopses.
Do not put yourself down by saying that your writing isn’t serious, or that you’re no good. Nobody wants to hear that. Don’t apologise. Avoid any opinion, just stick to the objective facts.
I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear. Rosa Parks
Fear is at the heart of our troubles.
We don’t tell the truth about our work and ourselves because we fear an imaginary outcome. As writers, we’re blessed and cursed with well-developed imaginations, full of monsters and disaster.
It’s never as bad as you think it will be. Practise in low-risk settings first. Try out your routine on a trusted friend, in the same way Chris Rock tests his routine in small clubs before going on tour. Tweak and adjust until you feel happy with it.
As you get more confident, expand your arena. Last year my online writing group produced an anthology of short stories. Each writer was tasked with getting people to be part of the street team who would be early reviewers. Did I want to approach people and ask for something? Hell no.
After I calmed down, I wrote a short Facebook post that started with, “As some of you may know, I am a writer.” Writing it down was much less scary than speaking it out loud. Two surprising things happened.
First, lots of people agreed to be part of the launch, not always the ones I expected.
And second, I introduced myself to my social network as a writer, and the sky did not fall. In fact, it became much easier to say it in person.
Claiming your title as a writer is simple.
Write stuff — and finish it
Release old programming that doesn’t work for you anymore
Write the story of the new you
Practice makes perfect
Soon you won’t need an alter ego because you will become Super Me, proud writer and not afraid to say it.
You found an idea and arranged the words to express that idea before putting them out in the world.
You spent time and effort making sure you’re adding something new to the conversation.
You’ve chosen to share it with the world, but it’s still yours.
Except that the moment you pressed publish, you lost control.
No Strings Attached
We’re trained to be polite when giving and receiving gifts. We learn to navigate the minefield according to unwritten rules, and if someone fails to play the game right we call foul.
When you send your work into the world, you expect it to be received with polite thanks at least, and effusive gratitude at best. But you fear bad things will happen and you’ll be powerless to do anything about it.
Your work, that gift for the reader that you laboured over, gets ignored, thrown to the ground and trampled on, or taken apart until it is shredded beyond recognition. You’re angry, disappointed, and afraid to risk trying again.
You must try again and change your attitude to giving.
We’re all adults and we know that many gifts don’t hit the spot. It’s on the recipient to decide what they do with the gift, and as long as you gave in good faith that’s where your influence ends.
If you’re giving what someone might need or use, give it freely. Don’t be that person who gives money but dictates what to buy with it. Don’t be that person who gets huffy when you don’t bring out their gift every time they visit.
All you can do is put enough time and effort into making sure you’ve created your best possible work.
After that, it’s time to forget expectations and cut the strings.
Lightly Not Tightly
A busy road separates my house from the main residential area. My son, then aged nine, wanted to cross the road and cycle to his friend’s house alone. I was worried; a girl had been killed on that road shortly after we moved in. I was acutely aware of all the potential hazards. At the same time, he was growing up and wanting more independence.
I had several options at that point:
Keep him at home
Let him go but only with a parent
Let him go alone
Many factors played into this decision but eventually, he would have to face the world without me beside him. My job as a parent was to teach him how.
Two of the hardest parenting lessons to learn are how and when to let go.
Stories are like children. You’re responsible for keeping them safe while they develop and giving them the tools to survive. But after that, they’re on their own.
Your story belonged to you. Now you must find a way to set it free with a light heart, rather than holding on too tight. Then, like your child leaving the nest, you give your words and creativity room to grow and fulfil their purpose.
Random Acts of Connection
I know that books seem like the ultimate thing that’s made by one person, but that’s not true. Every reading of a book is a collaboration between the reader and the writer who are making the story up together. John Green
We write with a specific idea in mind, but that idea can spark many different connections in different minds.
Once I wrote a fictional argument between two gay men about authenticity. I received a long comment in return from a woman, married with children, who identified so strongly with one character that she was in tears reading it.
This was not the reaction I intended. But it told me that for one person at least the issues resonated, so strongly that she took the time to reply.
We write to connect. We can’t predict whether we connect or in what way, because each reader is unique. Each reader views the story through a unique lens shaped by personality and experience.
A story is different for everybody who reads it and the writer only owns the first version. The reader filters and changes your words, consciously or not. Their response has more to say about them and where they find themselves at that moment than the story itself.
The glory of a good tale is that it’s limitless & fluid; a good tale belongs to each reader in its own particular way. Stephen King
So consider your story a child of your imagination. Make it as strong as you can. When it’s ready, send it into the world. Your story is outside your control now, and that’s as it should be.
Every child must walk its own path. Every story must make its own way.
Whether people react to your words with delight, anger, scorn, or tears, you’ve done your job. You made a connection. The outcome is not your responsibility as long as the story comes from a place of love, and a desire to share and receive something positive.
That also means that every story has the ability to change someone in ways you can’t predict. Who knows what comfort you can give to a person who can finally say, “That’s me, that’s how I feel.” If you can do that, why hesitate?
That’s the true worth of a story – the possibility of learning, wonder, and growth for writer and reader. Accept this responsibility and use your powers for good.
They say that everyone has a novel inside them. Maybe you know someone who is hard at work on theirs. You read their comments online or chat with them at an event. They tell you they’ve been working on it for a while. “How long?” you ask. They tell you it’s been several years so far. These perfectionists have laboured over this one piece for five, seven, ten years. And they don’t know when it will be finished.
Or maybe it’s your work that has limped on forever. You’re stuck because you can’t figure out the right style of the gowns in your Imperial court, or your research on spring weather patterns in Kansas has led down increasingly arcane corridors.
You’ll publish or submit, someday. But it’s not perfect yet. And so your great work sits on your hard drive and the world never sees it.
What Are You Afraid Of?
Perfectionists are often procrastinators. You believe if a thing’s worth doing, it must be done properly and nothing less will do. So you either rework and edit endlessly, or you don’t even start because you can never get it absolutely right. And you can’t edit an empty page.
You conceal these feelings behind strong psychological defences and sublimate them into pointless activity. But research isn’t writing. At some level, you know that and you’re disappointed with yourself.
At the heart of perfectionism is fear.
Fear of failure.
Fear of success, because then you have to do it again, leading back to fear of failure.
To overcome perfectionism, you need to understand your fear and master it. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is action despite feeling fear. Courage is taking a deep breath and doing it anyway because your desire for something is greater than the fear of what might happen.
If you never challenge yourself to move past fear, you cannot improve or grow. Everything you really want is outside of your comfort zone.
In order to step out there and thrive, you’ll need to let some ideas go and embrace new thinking. We’ll look at how to do this next.
Everybody sucks and nobody cares
Fear is a basic emotion that we all understand. You fear humiliation and ridicule for getting something wrong. Perhaps you replay some old memory of being laughed at for a minor error, and that underlies your current avoidant behaviour.
Here are two reasons why you should leave that in the past where it belongs.
Everybody sucks in the beginning. Every author, actor, artist, or sports person you admire now was once terrible at their chosen discipline. They wrote awful prose, missed more shots than they scored, and forgot their lines on stage. But they carried on and used those early failures to improve over time. Nobody has a perfect score overall.
People aren’t actually watching that closely. They are as consumed by their inner lives as you are by yours. Even if they look your way, they forget you the next moment as their own drama takes over. Though you might feel as though everyone is looking at you, they’re really not. In psychology, this is known as the spotlight effect. Knowing about the spotlight effect is liberating. It frees you to do whatever you need to do without the pressure of a supposed audience.
Act like a baby
Babies are the world’s fastest learners. From zero, they learn to feed, walk, talk, and live in a social unit, all within two years. They achieve this not by being perfect, but the opposite. They stumble, fall, stand up again.
They babble nonsense and parrot speech without understanding at first. Eventually, they achieve a level of competence that allows them to run, jump, and sing a nursery rhyme.
They do not beat themselves up because they can’t yet recite Shakespeare. They simply chatter and listen to adults when corrected. Each time they repeat, they’re closer to the goal of intelligible speech.
You learned to speak, walk, and countless other complex skills in the same way. If you had waited to speak until you were perfect, you would not have uttered a word for years.
Cultivate a beginner’s mind. Understand that supposed errors are signposts back to the right path, and you’re much less fearful of your results. Judge not against some unattainable level of perfection, but against where you were last time you tried.
You already know how to learn and improve. Adjust your aim, and try again.
Less is not more
While you’re slaving over one meticulously crafted blog post, searching tirelessly for exactly the right image and quote, I’m ramping up my output. One post every Friday was my first goal. Having reached that goal and with over 200 posts under my belt, now I’m aiming to post two or three articles every week. I don’t have time to agonise endlessly over a picture.
Oh, you say, but you prefer quality over quantity. People repeat this justification for low output as if it were gospel truth. It’s completely wrong.
Quantity leads to quality
In an experiment, students in a ceramics class were split into two groups. One group was told that they could get an A by turning in one perfect piece. The other group was told that they would be graded solely on the total weight of pieces produced, of any quality.
The results were surprising. The second group produced a large number of extremely good pieces. They were freed from the constraints of perfection and given free rein to experiment without being penalised. I’d bet money they were happier with their work too.
Repeated practice increased their skills and confidence. They weren’t paralysed by over-analysis or worried about criticism. They did not fear the impossibility of lightning striking twice, because they knew how to create a storm. They were able to replicate good work because they understood what went into making it.
Imagine if Dali had refused to let anyone see his paintings, or if Michelangelo had obsessively chipped away at and repolished his David. How much poorer we would be! Remember also that an artist’s most famous works comprise only a fraction of their total output.
Writers learn more from finishing one story than from starting and abandoning ten. You’ll learn where you wrote yourself into a corner, and how to figure your way out. You’ll learn how many plots you can juggle. You’ll learn what makes a good ending. And eventually, you’ll join up all those skills and move from conscious competence to unconscious competence.
In other words, you will master your craft and spend more effort on deciding where to put the ball than how to kick it.
At some point, you have to declare a thing finished and let it go. The more refined your skill, the harder it is. You always feel there is just one more thing you could improve upon.
Let it go. Ship it. Publish, submit, and move on to the next thing. That’s the secret; always have a next thing. Each piece becomes a little less precious when it forms a smaller part of your portfolio. You may still have your favourites and the ones you shrug over, but the totality is what matters.
Confidence comes from improvement. You know that you can make another piece, and it might be even better than the last. And if it’s not, that’s okay too.
That is true creative freedom.
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