Monkey

Monkey

Monkeys aren’t always this cute…

Cute little buggers, aren’t they? Adorable as they are, they can also stand for an addiction or a problem you just can’t seem to kick. A bad habit. A burden.

How do you get rid of the monkey, or at least keep it manageable? Like any problem, the first step is to acknowledge what it is. Although I have several that cling to me, correspondence seems to be one that I struggle with on a routine basis. Phone calls, letters, emails, tweets, you name it, I’ve let it slide. A few days or even a few weeks later, I’ll be playing catch-up and apologizing for my absence. That’s a serious problem, because writers need to keep those communication channels open and information flowing freely back and forth.

So that’s the problem. Probably doesn’t seem too daunting to you, but for me it’s a constant annoyance and something I want to change, because it could stand in the way of succeeding as a writer. I could lose opportunities to network, opportunities to submit or publish my writing, if I don’t fix it. The question is not only am I WILLING to change, but how COMMITTED am I? Here’s where you sit down with yourself and really think about what’s at stake if you don’t change. Is it important to you? Why?

Change can be difficult. Period. Please don’t go overboard and try for perfection, here! Set small, manageable goals at first and step your way up to where you eventually want to be. For example, my goal is to post a blog entry this week. Success! And I’m feeling pretty good about that. Perhaps I’ll add another small goal in another area, such as answering tweets within 24 hours, and see how that goes. If that’s too much, I’ll know I stepped up too fast and have to back that expectation down a bit. Even if you don’t make it, treat it matter-of-factly instead of chastising yourself—remember, the goal is not perfection and beating yourself up never helps. You might even want to stay at a certain level for a few weeks and allow that to become comfortable before bumping it up a notch.

And if you totally derail along the way? You’re not alone! Relapse is common when you attempt to make a change. Take a deep breath and give yourself the gift of a clean slate before trying again. Examine what got in the way of continuing your new behaviors and think how you might address that. If you need help, get it—pride’s great and all, but if whatever you want to change is important enough or damaging enough, throw pride out the window. I know it’s tough, how well I know—but you can do it!

All right, no more monkeying around—time to show this monkey who’s boss!

Leggo my ego!

LEGO Eggo

Writers eat criticism for breakfast!

Nope, not a misspelling–I really did mean ego. In this case, I’m referring to it in the vernacular as a sense of self-importance, such that we believe our work and the products of our imagination are unassailable.

This is where the trouble begins. How do you improve your writing? By hearing and acting on constructive criticism. But let’s be honest, shall we? Hearing that criticism can be agonizing, threatening to our egos when we aren’t sure of ourselves. I know I’ve wanted to run away from it sometimes or clamp my hands over my ears as I babble “la la la la la, can’t hear you!” And I know this isn’t productive–not everyone is going to think our writing is the best thing they’ve ever seen, as beautiful and porcelain-perfect as babyskin. If that were the case, all of us would be instant New York Times bestselling authors, right? Well, I don’t see my name on that list. Not yet, anyway.

Writing is an intensely personal process in many ways. Our ideas, our thoughts, and our feelings are poured out into written form, an imperfect translation of the soul, and when someone critiques that translation it can be crushing. We respond violently, defending our ego from the external threat. “They just aren’t able to appreciate me,” we bluster between licks of the wound, “why can’t they see how talented I am?” So we tune out the criticism and slog along, no wiser.

Did you spot the fundamental flaw? What is being critiqued, anyway? Words on a page. Execution. The match with another person’s unique taste. But you, the person? Hardly. It’s like saying a picture of you is the same thing as the living, breathing you and that because someone doesn’t enjoy that picture, you are worthless. And that’s baloney, because there never has been and never will be anyone else like any of us, ever again. As much as we’re all alike, we’re different–and that means you have something to offer.

So let’s turn the process around. Instead of letting our worth depend on someone’s judgment of words on a piece of paper, unhook the two. Start with remembering what you want to say, the joy you take in writing, all of the great things you are. Write it on a piece of paper in fruit-scented markers and hang it over your desk, record it as your mantra and play it back after the twentieth rejection slip comes in, tattoo it on your forearm if that works for you (and please don’t take all my advice literally, thanks very much–I don’t want hordes of angry family members coming after me to demand monetary compensation for the laser removal treatment), whatever works best.

But DO listen to constructive criticism. Does your story’s pace seem slow or draggy? Cut material or use more active verbs. Too much of a trope? Tropes are hard to avoid, but try for a twist that no one would’ve expected. Comma junkie (my personal problem)? Edit the crap out of your piece and yank the commas out as ruthlessly as weeds from your flower beds. Be honest with yourself and consider feedback not as an attempt to brutalize you, but as the means to becoming a superlative writer. How else do you think you’re going to achieve that goal?

And remember, even the most successful writers still receive criticism throughout their careers. Get used to it. It’s part of the gig. Pour syrup on it and swallow it down as you leggo your ego–bon appétit!

Special thanks to Eric Hunter at The Art of LeGogh for the spectacular photo of one of his awesome LEGO creations!

Disciplinary actions will be taken

Discipline. Self-control or orderly conduct, according to the ancient Webster’s New World Dictionary residing on my bookshelf. Extremely useful when you’re a writer, and something that I have trouble with on more than one occasion. As one of my friends has said more than once when we play D & D, “You rack the disciprine.”

Martial-arts movie quotes aside, he may be on to something there. Writing does require discipline–you have to make yourself sit in the chair at the computer/typewriter/paper, for starters. You must then put words on the page to get an idea across, and edit what you produce, if you’re at all conscientious. A market or agent must be selected and the work sent out, and tracked. Even when you’re successful, there’s correspondence and marketing and selling to be done. Without discipline, the process breaks down.

I think my error has been on two fronts–believing that the process should always be easy and fun (which it sometimes isn’t), and that it should only occur when “inspiration” or “the mood” strikes me. I know these ideas are unhelpful and detrimental to getting things accomplished, and yet they persist. The truth of it is, writing can be hard work. Notice how this addresses both fallacious ideas in one fell swoop.

So what can we do? Show up, for starters. Put your butt in the chair and grab something to write with. Set yourself a goal, whether it’s a particular length of time or word count, and do your darnedest to achieve it. A word of caution, here–don’t try to make yourself do 10 pages or 4 hours straight, because you’re setting yourself up for failure and even more problems down the turnpike. Make it easy to achieve, so that you get that feeling of pride and confidence and WANT to do more! If you chronically over-schedule and pressure yourself to complete Herculean tasks, come up with a goal and then cut it in half. Yes, you heard me right, you overachieving perfectionists! Foster a feeling of confidence and trust in yourself, so that when writing is difficult or you don’t “feel” like it, those feelings and the good habit of consistently writing will carry you through the rough patches.

And do try to inject a little fun into it, if you’re struggling with getting started! I hate the thought of anyone white-knuckling it as they grimly peck out each joyless word. Play music, have desk toys to stimulate your creativity, and let yourself follow up on that idea that simply captivates you right now. Be silly, be zany, be gross, but be certain that discipline does NOT mean the absence of fun and individuality. Self-control does not mean you’ll be bringing the iron curtain down and running yourself like a totalitarian regime (besides, no one, not even me, would buy me as a dictator of any kind). We get to write, remember? It’s a privilege, not a duty.

So look upon “disciprine” as the doorway to greater fun, productivity, and rewards of all kinds. Even we flaky writer-types need a little now and then…in moderation, of course.

Pro/crastination ≠ pro/ductive

Hi, my name’s Michele and I’m a Procrastinator. There, I’ve gone and done it, haven’t I? Taken an actual step toward facing one of my worst personal demons. I might call him Mr. Noitanitsarcorp, because trying to work with him inhabiting my soul is like working in reverse (and it’s kind of a cool demon name, you know?). How to exorcise a demon of this particular ilk? By discovering what powers him–and for me, that’s fear.

Fear is an extremely powerful human emotion and is quite constructive under many circumstances, except when it prevents you from being productive and prolific. Procrastination is one manifestation of fear, although there might be other reasons a writer puts things off or makes excuses not to write, submit, network, or promote his or her work.

So if you find yourself not sitting down at your computer/typewriter/laptop and not writing/editing/submitting/answering correspondence, stop for a moment and listen to what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. Are you scared? Bored? Frustrated? Write down the thoughts and reasons that might be contributing to those feelings, then address them.

Do you hear yourself saying “I’ll never make it,” “no one gets my writing,” “it’ll take too long to get a career going,” “what if I fail?” or other negative statements? Fight back! Talk back to that pessimistic voice–“I will make it,” “I believe in my work and so do others,” “doing what I love is worth the time I spend,” and “I will succeed!” Short, sweet, and positive–make it your mantra and thumb your nose at that cranky, grumpy, fearful, uninspired part of yourself.

A few excellent resources are “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron and “A Writer’s Space” by Eric Maisel. These two books can assist you in recovering your creativity, productivity, and self-confidence using a variety of helpful exercises and techniques. And if you need additional help, don’t be afraid to seek it out–during my years of training in psychology, I went to counseling and found it quite helpful in rediscovering my most passionate dreams and working to achieve them.

Moral of the story: well, I try not to moralize! But seriously, if you love writing and creating, don’t let anything stand in your way. Identify what’s getting in your way and remove it however you need to (although anyone who’s not a Mythbuster or trained professional should steer clear of high explosives). May you be pro/lific and pro/ductive!