writers

Changing Your Inner Narrative About Writing

Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?

I’m not creative enough to tell stories. None of my ideas are original.

I haven’t got the right voice to start a blog. I’ll sound like I’m lecturing.

Writing poetry is too difficult for me. I should stick to prose.

That last thought used to be one of mine. I’ve always liked reading poems. But I didn’t think I had the kind of brain to write them.

I put poetry into the same category as music. Not my strength either. As a kid, I never got past the recorder. When we did school productions, my friends played in the orchestra.

I donned black clothing and waited until the lights went out. Then I’d dart across the stage moving sets and props until it was time to retreat into the safety of the shadows again.


To me, poetry was just as mysterious as music. Something that required a deep understanding of the rhythm of language. Finding rhymes. Counting syllables. Figuring out where to put punctuation. It seemed to constrict. A barrier to creativity rather than a way to express it.

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to challenge my beliefs about writing poetry.

I didn’t plan it that way. It started when I was going through an extra busy period in my day job. Although I still had time to write, I didn’t always have the energy to work on my fiction. I felt frustrated that I wasn’t finishing anything. So I decided to begin experimenting with haiku.

After all, they were only three lines. How hard could they be to write?

What is a haiku?

Haiku (singular and plural) originate from Japan. Traditionally, they focus on the natural world. In English, they’re 17 syllables long. The first line has five syllables, the second seven and the last five. And best of all, they don’t have to rhyme.

How I approached haiku writing



I decided to use travel photos as inspiration. When I was living in England, a friend and I went on a four-day camping trip to the Cotswolds. It rained the entire time, but we loved every minute of it. It was all so different from back home. I was especially taken by the stunning historic buildings everywhere. In New Zealand, the oldest house you’ll find dates back to 1822.

My first haiku was about the Chilean flamingos at Birdland Park and Gardens in Bourton-on-the-Water. Such an exotic sight to see in the English countryside! It took a day to write this haiku, but I wasn’t thinking about it all the time. I let the image float around in my mind between tasks. At the end of the day, I jotted down all the phrases that had come to the surface. The words had spent all day in my head. So it only took about 15 minutes to get them onto the page and arrange them the way I wanted.


Spindly legs splashing

English flamingos forage

Highlights in the grey.


My second haiku was about a thatched cottage we came across in one of the villages. Rather than feeling too tired to create, ideas were coming thick and fast now. I looked at the photo and wrote the whole thing on my phone during a tram ride to work.

On tiptoes we peek

over topiary. Wonder

who calls this place home?

Cottage in the Cotswolds, England

Cottage in the Cotswolds, England

When I started my third haiku, I ran into trouble. I wanted to capture my feelings about a ruined abbey that we’d visited. I struggled for two days. Flicking through a thesaurus, I tried to condense my thoughts into 17 syllables. So much for believing that writing a haiku would be faster than writing a story! I couldn’t get anything to fit.

It was only when I stopped and asked myself a question that I started to make progress.

Why does it need to fit?

I wasn’t writing these haiku for publication. I was writing them for myself. To remember my travels. And to experiment with a new form of creative expression.

So I made my last haiku five lines.

In empty archways

Grass threads through stonework.

At sundown, each blade quivers

To the distant toll

Of long-ago bells.

13th century Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire, England

13th century Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire, England

Two ways to change your thoughts about writing

Changing your attitude to writing is all about tricking that little voice inside your head. The one that’s telling you it’s too hard. You can shut it down by making things easy for yourself.


1. Break it down

Instead of writing a poem, try a haiku or a limerick. Or go even smaller and write a poetic caption for a photograph.

Want to start a blog? Begin with microposts on Facebook or Instagram. Not confident about sharing your work straightaway? Change your settings so only a few close friends can read your post.

If you want to write short stories, choose something that happened to you or a friend. Describe it in a single scene without worrying about what comes before or after.

2. Bend the rules

New writers are often told “Don’t break the rules until you know how to use them.”

Why? Because it's best to stick to the guidelines if you're writing for other people. Other people could mean a publication, a writing competition or a particular audience.

But if you’re writing for yourself, bending the rules can give you creative space. It also stops you from getting overwhelmed when you're trying out a new genre.

Haiku are short. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be quick and easy to write. By allowing myself to use more than 17 syllables, I took the pressure off and finished my last verse.

If you read Japanese haiku in English, they’re not usually 17 syllables either. We're dealing with two different languages here.

Traditional haiku focused on the seasons. But there’s also no limit to the topics covered by modern day haiku writers.

Conventions are constantly evolving.

Creativity comes when we stop seeking perfection. Confidence grows when we allow ourselves to experiment and make a mess.

The results may not always be our best work, but they’re the start of something more important.

They’re the start of a shift in mindset. The start of a realisation.

We’re capable of more than we think.

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.