self-doubt

Is Writing Still On Your Bucket List?

It’s late. The only people left in the bar are a couple of tourists. They gaze out the open doorway.

On the terrace, the fairy lights in the overhanging trees cast shadows across the face of an old man sitting on his own. He’s hunched over his table, his brandy forgotten, as he scribes sentences into a moleskine notebook.

“He reminds me of Hemingway,” says the first tourist.

“Who?”

The second tourist yawns. It’s the last night of their holiday. They’ve been on their feet all day and most of last night too.

“ ‘A Clean, Well-lighted Place’. The short story we studied in high school.”

‘Mmm.”

The second tourist pours the last of the cerveza into their glasses. The lights dim. One of the waiters begins to roll down the shutters.

The first tourist stares down into the cerveza, voice barely audible.

“You know, um…I…I’ve always wanted to write.”

***

Writing is on a lot of people’s bucket lists.

The stranger at a party who’s going to write the next best-seller just as soon as he finds the right idea.

The uncle who’s planning to write his memoir when he retires.

The mum who will start a blog once her kids leave home.

Or the friend who confesses her lifelong dream of being a writer in the semi-darkness of a bar after a few drinks.

Are you one of them?

In this post we’ll look at some of the things that might be holding you back and what you can do about them.

Obstacle 1: Fear

When Provision Living did a survey on bucket lists, they discovered 5% of people were not achieving their goals because they were afraid.

I suspect that this figure would be much higher if we only asked them about writing.

After all, if you suffer from acrophobia you’re probably not going to add skydiving to your bucket list.

Unless you want to work through this fear so you can fly overseas.

But it’s not going to be activity you choose to do because you enjoy it.

Writing’s different. It’s probably not going to be on your bucket list if you hate it. It’s there because it’s something you enjoy for its own sake — whether that’s the process of writing or the feeling of accomplishment you get from creating something from scratch.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be just as scary as skydiving.

The fear which comes with writing is the same kind of fear we have when we go out on date with someone we like.

The fear of judgement. The fear of rejection. The fear of not being good enough.

Our ego is at stake. Making ourselves vulnerable is uncomfortable.

Solution:

There is no quick fix for this one, but there are things you can do to start shifting your mindset.

The first thing to understand is that you don’t need to get rid of all fears to start writing. You can begin your story in spite of them. Fear and writing canco-exist.

Think of fear as a bad housemate who you can’t kick out because of some weird clause in the lease. You’re stuck together in the same house, but that doesn’t mean you can’t lock yourself in your room and start typing.

If fear’s trying to follow you in, take a look at my free booklet The Fearless Writing Guide: How to drop your doubts and take off. You’ll find more strategies you can use to keep that door locked!

Obstacle 2: Cost

Writing’s expensive, right? You need to enroll in a writing course, pay an agent, pay an editor, buy a new computer, buy writing software, rent an office…

Solution:

Sure, these things are nice to have. And some of them, like an editor, you’ll need later on if you want to publish a book.

But you don’t need any of them to get started.

That’s the wonderful thing about writing. It’s probably one of the easiest things on your bucket list to start in terms of cost.

If you’re in Australia like me and want to try hot air ballooning, a one-hour flight is going to set you back around AU$500.

Want to visit the Pyramids of Giza? AU$2000. And that’s just the flights to Cairo.

All you need to begin writing your story is a notepad and pen. If you’re using your computer, there’s no need to splash out on expensive writing software. Start typing in Microsoft Word, Apple Pages or whatever program you already have.

Charles Dickens and Jane Austen didn’t have access to creative writing courses or private offices when they crafted their stories. In fact, Dickens had to leave school when he was a child to work in a blacking factory because his father was thrown into debtors’ prison. Austen didn’t have her own bedroom or study. She wrote many of her novels on a tiny walnut table next to the front door.

Start with what you have.

Obstacle 3: Time

The whole idea of creating a bucket list is to make a file of all the things you want to do before you kick the bucket. We like to think that’s a long way off.

Everyday busyness takes over. Study, work, family. Bucket lists get folded and placed at the back of drawers.

That’s why the 2007 movie The Bucket List struck a chord with so many people. In the film, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play cancer patients who have less than a year to live. They discharge themselves from hospital and travel around the world to complete their bucket lists before they die.

As it turns out, Jack Nicholson’s character lives until he’s 81, but the character of Carter, played by Morgan Freeman, passes away shortly after returning from the trip.

None of us know when our lives might be cut short or restricted by an illness or accident.

Solution:

Think about why writing is on your bucket list. How important is it to you? How would you feel if you never got there?

If writing’s important to you, you need to start now. And that’s something we can all do, no matter how busy our lives are.

That’s not always the case with other bucket list items. If you’re in Australia and you want to see the Northern Lights, you’ll need to fly for nearly 24 hours to get there.

It might take you months or even years to write your story, but you can start today by setting aside ten minutes to write.

Obstacle 4: Size

If writing’s on your bucket list, the chances are that you’ve written it down as something like this:

Write a book.

If you haven’t started, don’t feel bad. It’s not easy to begin something that’s going to be 80,000+ words. Especially if you’re not used to writing anything longer than an email.

Solution:

Does it have to be a book? Think about why you’ve put it on your bucket list.

Why do you really want to write?

To help people?

To influence people?

To leave a legacy?

To challenge yourself?

To record your memories?

To reflect on your experiences?

For therapy?

For fun?

Could you achieve the same results by tackling something smaller?

A novella? A short story? A piece of flash fiction? A guide? A booklet? An article? A series of blog posts?

What’s more important to you, the process or the outcome?

Perhaps writing’s not something you’re meant to tick off your bucket list. Maybe it’s not meant to be a one-off experience like visiting the Pyramids.

Perhaps for you, it’s meant to be the start of a new creative habit.

A habit that will provide you with pleasure and fulfilment throughout your lifetime.

***

Need a hand getting started? I’ve created a small booklet that takes you through some quick and practical steps to help you begin writing regularly (and enjoying it!) You can download a free copy here.

Fighting Self-doubt: Act Like a Child - Post 6

I don’t mean throwing your laptop across the room when you feel blocked.

I’m talking about revisiting that curious, adventurous, innovative person you used to be when you were a kid.

In this series, we’ve looked at a lot reasons behind self-doubt, but really, they all come down to one thing:

We grew up.

So let’s turn back the clock.

And start making a list.

Think back to your childhood.

You’ve got five minutes.

What new skills did you learn?

What new things did you invent?

What new experiences did you have?

Photo by  acetpharma  on  Pixabay

Photo by acetpharma on Pixabay

Finished?

Of course you haven’t.

Every life experience is new when you’re a kid.

Here are a few from the top of my list:

  • Exploring the riverbank with my brother

  • Writing stories about our toys

  • Building huts in our backyard

  • Making pikelets with my mum

  • Learning how to ride a bike with my dad

  • Growing sunflowers in my own garden

Not all of these experiences turned out well. I fell in the river. My pikelets stuck to the pan. And some of my sunflowers died.

These things upset me. But like most kids, I looked at them as experiments, shrugged, tried again or moved on to other interests.

It’s only once life loses its freshness that serious self-doubt starts to set in. Past failures build up and society’s expectations begin to influence us. As we start careers and families, our time becomes shorter and more precious. We’re less willing to take risks and ‘waste’ time on something that might not work out.

As adults, anxiety and hesitancy have a nasty habit of turning up when we try something new.

And creative writing is always new. You might have written short stories or blog posts before, but this is your first time with this one.

You can fight this by returning to a child’s mindset.

It’s why so many writers have other interests.

As an adult, H.G. Wells followed his passion for playing war games with toy soldiers and guns.

Writer Colin Middleton Murry describes a childhood visit to Wells in the 1930s:

He rushed round frantically, winding up clockwork trains, constructing bridges and fortifications, firing pencils out of toy cannons. It was all quite hysterical — quite unlike any grown-up behaviour I had ever known.
— Colin Middleton Murry

This interest led to the publication of a rule book for his game called Little Wars. It’s now recognised as the first recreational war game.

You don’t have to write about your hobbies. Wells is better known for his earlier science fiction novels. But Little Wars turned out to be a happy by-product for him.

Kurt Vonnegut was one of many writers who painted. In a video interview in 2000, he stated that:

I’m not an artist, you know, but I also recommend that people practice art, no matter how badly because it’s known to make a soul grow.
— Kurt Vonnegut

Is self-doubt holding your words back?

Try looking at life the way you used to: with playfulness and curiosity.

What childhood activities could you revisit, either on your own or with kids if you have them?

I’ve recently started doodling and colouring. I’m not working on any particular project and I don’t feel the need to finish what I start.

Doing something lighthearted is a great way to reset a tired, anxious mind.

And creating for its own sake is a relaxing and reinvigorating process. I’m always surprised at how many writing ideas come to me while I’m colouring.

Playfulness is not just for kids. If your childhood interests no longer appeal, try something else. There are plenty of adult activities that can take you back to the same exploratory mindset.

I once tried a belly-dancing course. I was terrible at it! I couldn’t get my hips to move the right way, but it didn’t matter. I had a good laugh with the other students and enjoyed expressing myself in a different way.

Here are some other activities I tried for the first time as an adult:

  • Took part in a laughter workshop

  • Watched a live musical

  • Did zumba

  • Went to a speed-dating event

  • Attended scrapbooking classes

  • Was an extra in a short film

  • Learnt how to sail

  • Cooked kangaroo meat

Give yourself time to play, even if it’s something short and one-off.

Self-doubt’s not going anywhere. But that doesn’t mean you can’t push it to the back of your mind and get on with exploring.

The more curious you are about life, the easier it will be to approach your writing in the same way.

Write playfully.

Write adventurously.

Write what’s important to you.

Because that’s where stories come from.

They might not be award-winning stories.

They might not be contract-winning stories.

But they’ll be the best kind of stories.

They’ll be your stories.

Fighting Self-doubt: What If I Fail Again? - Post 5

Earlier in this series, we looked at how fear of failure can make you doubt your writing.

But what if it’s not just fear?What if you’ve failed before?

You write regularly.

You submit stories.

Enter writing competitions.

The response: rejection.

Or worse: silence.

One way to deal with failure is not to see it as defeat. Many creative people view it as the world throwing down a gauntlet. Failure becomes a challenge that galvanises them to work even harder.

You may have come across the famous quote attributed to Thomas Edison:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10, 000 ways that won’t work.”

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the invention of the light bulb. But we do know that Edison was responsible for other important developments like the first commercially viable electric light.

This attitude is all very well if you’re inventing the electric lamp. Earlier versions weren’t doing their job. They were too expensive and didn’t last long.

Creative writing is more subjective. You may think your story is doing its job. A publisher might disagree.

Stephen King started writing when he was very young. The Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine turned down his first submission. Unconcerned, King stuck a nail through their reply and hung it on his bedroom wall. By the time he was in his mid-teens, the nail wasn’t strong enough to support all his rejection slips. He had to replace it with a spike!

One of those submissions was a short story called The Night of the Tiger. This one included a short, personal note:

“This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.”

– from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

King describes how he rediscovered this story in a box years later. He rewrote it and sent it back to the same publication who accepted it.

Of course by then he was an emerging novelist. His writing skills would have improved.

But it’s a good example of the idiosyncrasies of the publishing world.

Why had the publication turned it down before? They said it was good. Was it the wrong time? The wrong style? Did it need too much editing? Or were they reluctant to take a chance on an unknown writer?

You only have to join a book club or a writers’ group to see how many different opinions people can hold on one piece of writing.

I remember one time a friend lent me a novel she’d just finished. She said it was the best book she’d read that year. She wasn’t the only one. The novel in question had won the Nobel Prize.

I couldn’t finish it.

As a writer, I could appreciate the beautifully-crafted sentences. But I couldn’t connect with the story.

Are you struggling to get back into writing because you’ve been rejected?

Think back to all the times you’ve disagreed with people over books and movies.

Consider why you and your friends had different opinions.

“Not for me” is not enough.

Go deeper.

Was it something about the plot that didn’t work? Or was it difficult to relate to one of the characters?

Why?

Ask other friends for their opinions. Are there other people with the same view?

Thinking about this can help you evaluate the feedback you receive on your own writing. Is there something you can work on to improve your work? Or is it a question of different tastes?

To return to Edison, the job of the electric lamp was to connect people and illuminate life.

Isn’t a story’s the same?

As long as your story’s doing that for someone, it’s not a failure at all.

Fighting Self-doubt: What’s your story’s shape? - Post 4

What if getting started is the easy part for you?

For many of us, writing the first few pages is not the problem. Self-doubt has a nasty habit of creeping up on us part way through a writing project.

Virginia Woolfe captured this in her diary.

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning of a new book quiets down after a time and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.
— Virginia Woolfe, A Writer’s Diary, 11 May 1920.

I couldn’t agree more. My hard drive is full of abandoned projects.

A few years back, I decided to take part in NanoWriMo as a way of creating a regular writing habit. NanoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month is an annual writing challenge. People from all over the world commit to completing a 50,000-word novel in month. To ‘win’ NanowriMo, you need to write an average of 1,666 words every day in November.

I got to about 13,000 words before I gave up. I didn’t have trouble writing every day.

The problem was that my novel didn’t have “an impending shape.”

My characters wandered around town and had long conversations in cafes. But they weren’t actually doing anything. I’d made the mistake of starting a story without doing any planning. I’d launched into it with a loose cast of characters and vague idea of theme.

It didn’t take long for me to lose faith in my novel.

You might be a panster, a writer who flies by the seat of your pants. Maybe too much structure brings on writer’s block rather than cures it.

But if you’re a planner like me, outlining your story might be just what you need to stay confident.

A plan doesn’t mean you have to write detailed chapter summaries. And you don’t need to know your character’s favourite breakfast cereal before you start writing. But filling in some of the gaps can definitely help.

My plans vary, depending on what I’m writing. Some days they’re a few bullet points. Other times they’re chunks of text I’ve copied and pasted from a freewriting session. For other projects, I use scene cards. At the moment, I’m experimenting with mind mapping and colouring. I find mixing things up can be an effective way to spark new ideas.

These days I plan everything, even blog posts.

Over to you: Is “an impending shape” important for you? If so, how do you plan your writing projects?

Fighting Self-doubt: What If They Don’t Like My Writing? - Post 3

In the last post, we looked at the relationship between self-doubt and comparisonitis.

But what if your feelings stem from a fear of others judging your work?

Because they will.

It’s comforting to know that even established writers worry about criticism.

In an interview with Unwin and Allen, Khaled Hosseini describes going through this. He had recently started his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. His debut novel, The Kite Runner, had sold millions of copies and won several awards. As his fans waited eagerly for his next book, Hosseini began to worry about his literary abilities.

He pushed through by realizing his experience was normal. Numerous authors before him had battled with the same thoughts. As he got further into his story, he was able to focus all his energy on his characters and forget his fears. To help himself get into the zone, he rented a windowless office that he referred to as his bunker.

You might not have the money to rent a special writing room.

But there are a lot of other places you can go to immerse yourself in your writing and shut out the voices in your head.

Try using a spare bedroom as a temporary office. If it’s difficult to find your own space at home, get out of the house and write in a public place like a café or library. We don’t always need silence to write. A change of scene can also be a great distraction from our mind chatter.

Sometimes I write in food courts as they’re much bigger than cafes. I don’t feel pressured to give up my table as soon as I’ve finished my coffee. I can be alone and have company at the same time.

And they have good air conditioning too!

Self-doubt doesn’t stop after you’ve published a certain number of books.

In 2012, journalist Decca Aitkenhead interviewed J.K. Rowling. They spoke about the upcoming release of Rowling’s first adult book, The Casual Vacancy. When Aikenhead mentioned how much she enjoyed the book, Rowling could hardly contain her excitement.

After Harry Potter, Rowling was under enormous pressure from her readers. She explained that she approached this by imagining the worst case scenario.

The worst that can happen is that everyone says, ‘Well, that’s shockingly bad — back to wizards with you,’ then obviously I won’t be throwing a party. But I will live. I will live.
— J.K. Rowling

You might be thinking it’s easy for J.K. Rowling not to care what people think. After all, she is a multi-millionaire.

But she never set out to be one. Before anything, she was and is a writer. After Harry Potter there was no need for her to keep writing, but she did.

As writers, we all have one thing in common:

Our stories are part of who we are.

When someone criticises our work, it’s like we’re being judged as human beings and found lacking.

Push back by imagining the worst. If we put our fears out in the open, we become lighter and freer.

When I’m imagining the worst case scenario, I find it helpful to go back and list all the reasons why I write.

The first one that comes to mind is that life has so many layers to it. I can’t just live it. I have to write about it too. I need to capture tiny pieces to reflect and reimagine.

If people don’t like what I write, will it hurt?

Yes.

Will I stop writing?

No.

Why do you write?

Fighting Self-doubt: I’ll Never Be As Good As <Insert Your Favourite Author> - Post 2

As I write this, it’s 38 degrees here in Australia, which got me thinking about bushfires. We’ve had plenty of those this summer.

When we experience self-doubt, it’s like a bushfire has started in our heads.

They’re both hard to control.

All we need is one spark on a dry day.

One thought begins smouldering. It sets other thoughts alight and suddenly our whole mind is ablaze. Soon all we’re left with are charred and barren remains.

That empty feeling of unfulfilled dreams.

But it’s not all internal. Something sets the spark off in the first place.

Self-doubt is strongly linked to the outside world, or more accurately, to our perception of it.

We read the books and posts of others and wonder if our writing will ever match theirs. Reading about other writers’ successes can either be inspirational or self-destructive depending on our outlook.

As writers, we need to read to improve our craft, but if you’re constantly comparing your work to those who are further ahead, it’s time to take a break.

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron goes as far is to recommend a week’s reading deprivation as a way of refilling the creative well. She claims:

For most blocked creatives, reading is an addiction. We gobble up the words of others rather digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own.
— Julia Cameron

As a massive bookworm, I can’t bring myself to try this, but I can see the value in it.

I know how easy it can be to lose yourself in a good book. Sometimes it seems like the best antidote to a lack of self-confidence your own writing.

Is this something you struggle with?

If you’re like me and can’t bear the idea of not reading for a week, try limiting your reading time.

I do this with social media. When I upgraded my phone last year, I went into every application and turned the sound off. It’s also the first thing thing I do every time I download a new app. When I check my social media accounts, it’s on my terms. I’ll go in when it suits me — not when my phone thinks I should.

My social media time is usually my commute. I know I only have a short window before I arrive at work. Sometimes at weekends, I go for whole days without looking at my accounts.

Social media is not about keeping up with what everyone else is doing all the time. Its real superpower is that we can use it to find kindred spirits and create communities.

I love connecting with other writers and seeing what they’re doing.

But restricting the time I spend in my accounts allows me to do it in a much healthier way.

I don’t feel compelled to read every update that comes through. When I do log in, I can concentrate on the people I’m interested in. I’m less likely to feel overwhelmed by comparisonitis if I’m not being bombarded by constant notifications about everyone’s lives.

You don’t need to be as good as your favourite author. You need to be as good as you.

And sometimes you need to turn everything off to do that.

Fighting Self-doubt: Why We Need To Go Beyond “Just Write” - Post 1

“Just write.”

It’s the most popular piece of writing advice out there.

It’s honest.

It gets to the point.

But it didn’t help me much when I was new to writing.

I knew I had to sit down and do it.

But sometimes my self-confidence was so low, I couldn’t get started.

How do you apply this advice when you can’t even get yourself into the chair?

There is so much more to working through fear than just forcing yourself to write. That might work for a while, but it’s not sustainable. Self-doubt fluctuates. It’s not only something you have to deal with as a beginner writer. Even experienced authors worry about their writing ability.

That’s why you won’t find quick hacks for getting rid of self-doubt. The best way to manage your fears is to shift your mindset over time. Focus on creating the most favourable environment for your writing. If you combine this with healthy habits, you’ll feel strong enough to tackle your insecurities whenever they resurface.

This is the first post in a series about fighting self-doubt. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share different approaches that have helped me. I’ll also look at some of the strategies other writers use, so you can get back to “just writing.”