Four Steps to a Radically Happier Writing Life (Spring Cleaning for the Writer's Mind)

We've turned April into the month of Spring Cleaning the Writing Life! Because it's too easy to get swamped by clutter... and I'm not just talking papers and old pens. Check Monday's post for a guide to spring cleaning your goals, and when you're ready, read on!

It's easy to accept that we'll always have negative, doubting voices in our heads, frustrating us as we try to write. We *could* accept that. ... Kinda like we *could* accept being poisoned all the time. Let's not. Today, a four-step process for cleaning out the voices in our heads. Leaving us with a radically happier writing life. |

Today's challenge might not be what anyone thinks when they consider Spring Cleaning... But it's way more important than the dusting and vacuuming we'll be doing later. 

You don't need a lot of supplies for this one. But it just might have the biggest effect on your whole writing practice.

Whew! Deep breath.

Today, let's take a look at what we're telling ourselves. 

Yep. We're gonna clean out all the negative, doubting voices in our heads.

What's happening in your mind lately?

What are the voices that show up when you sit down to write, when you take aim at a new challenge, or when you're lying awake at two a.m.

Take a few minutes and jot down what they say to you. As exactly as you can remember.

I know. It doesn't feel awesome to do this. But trust me, you need to haul those invisible little spooks into the cold light of a computer screen. Or onto the beautiful plain of a piece of paper.

Write them down. Because a lot of their BS becomes clear when we're actually looking at the words.

Look at how they're talking to you. (And feel free to get mad about it.) See how they go for our effectiveness, our quality. They pull out small, isolated moments of our pasts, and project a whole bleak future out of them.

This has come up for me a lot lately.

I've realized: it's so easy to just let those voices stick around. 

To think: Sure, I don't like them, but they're there, and that's life, whaddya gonna do about it? 

I've changed my mind.

I've decided that, being okay with negativity in our heads is exactly like being okay with asbestos in our apartment building, or with radon gas in our basement.

You can't just live with it: that stuff's gonna kill you.

And there's nothing especially heroic about breathing that in, day after day after day.

So I'm not going to let them stick. (And neither are you!) And there is something concrete that we can do about it.

(Oh, here I go, getting fired up now...)

How do we do that? Well, it involves an idea that I used to be extremely skeptical about.

So before we get to the good stuff, let's do a quick little mental experiment. 

Imagine that there's a person sitting there on your desk. A real, breathing human being. And what this person does is talk to you during your writing day. Out loud. Face to face. 

And let's say it's a terrible person.

All they do is talk to you about the times you've failed in your writing life. The ideas and projects that haven't worked out. Times when luck went against you. Pieces of your writing that were horribly misunderstood. Missteps. Topics that didn't work out well. 

Based on all that, they forecast your future. They predict how this piece of writing is going to go. They tell you all about the prospects of your dear little work-in-progress.


Seriously, now. 

How the heck could you get any good writing done?

Even if this person takes breaks, and only sounds off, say, once an hour: you would be so alert to every negative indicator. Every bad possibility.

So that everything else in your writing and your life will just confirm the person's bleak outlook.

Even though it's obvious, let's just spell it out: You're not going to get any thing great done. Even if you manage to persevere under that onslaught, it's going to be very, very hard going.

It will be next to impossible to believe in yourself. To attempt any new challenge. And even the normal trials of a good writing life will feel too impossible.


So let's rewind.

Now let's say the person on your desk is me. 

I'm sitting on the edge of your writing desk. And all through your writing day, whenever you take a break, or at chance moments during your work, I just pepper you with examples of when you were amazing.

(And I have SO MANY examples.)

So you sit there, writing, surrounded by all the moments when you got it just right. Memories of when you sat down with confidence and wrote.

I chatter on about the pieces that delighted other readers. The natural way you have with words. The wonderful things your teachers or friends or family have said about you. All your victories.

I remind you of your persistence, your courage, your unique insights, your incredible ideas, and how we need that in the world.

Well... geez.

You would do your writing in a significantly different way. Right?

When you're surrounded by the positives, you would rise to meet challenges. You'd step into hard tasks knowing that you have what it takes to figure it out because, hello, you DO.

Even when a piece "fails," you'd have the gumption to figure out what went wrong, and how, and why. You'd learn from it, and come out of that as a better writer.

See what I'm getting at? In both examples, it's the same writer. Same you.

But the voice is different. 

It matters where our brain is hanging out. What we're hearing in our heads profoundly affects what we do.

And we are better, more resilient writers, when the voices in our heads are on our team.

Which brings us to the new-to-me concept of affirmations.

Affirmations are a way of undoing the damage that the negativity does. Affirmations are that good voice sitting there on your desk, talking to you all day long.

If the horrible, negative doubts are poison, affirmations are the antidote. 

... If you're feeling like this all just got WAY more touchy-feely than you really wanted for a Thursday, I understand. I was incredibly skeptical of affirmations for a long time, but I've been rereading The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. And it is, oh my goodness, SO HELPFUL. 

Cameron is pretty dang strict about applying affirmations to your writing life, and—obviously—she won me over.

Here's how it goes:

1. Take one of the ugly mean phrases that you wrote down. 

2. Create an affirmation that deals with the same idea, but goes in a positive direction, or declares a positive outcome.

So, "You'll never publish anything" turns into I have the skills to publish this project. Or even I am a published author.

"No one's going to read this" turns into I have devoted readers. Or I have an audience that is excited to read my books.

See how it goes? (You can find more examples of affirmations here and here, to get the gist. Like I said, I'm still a beginner at this!)

3. Say your affirmation out loud a few times. 

Or write it down five times. Or ten times! 

Or heck, you can write it and say it!

4. Notice how you feel.

This is what got me. This is what sold me on it.

I felt so silly while I was saying these affirmations out loud. It just seemed so goofy, and it wasn't even close to true yet.

(Here's what I noticed about that supposed silliness, by the way: I could let negative voices stick around, forecasting a terrible future that they couldn't guarantee. But when I even considered replacing those voices with a positive affirmation of the future, that seemed too silly to try. Funny, right?)

So I was saying things like, "I am a brilliant and prolific novelist" (straight from Cameron's book), or "I create wonderful art even in difficult circumstances." 

Even though I wasn't sure I believed what I was saying entirely, it still had an effect. I sat up a little taller. I surveyed my day's tasks with more confidence.

And then I was grinning in spite of myself. 

My work for the day felt a lot less heavy. I felt more aware of all my gifts, and all my resources. And generally, a lot less daunted.

THAT is what we need, right? 

So take a little time today, and DO THIS, even if you feel so skeptical. Even if it is the silliest thing ever.

TRY it. Take one strand of negativity and replace it with an affirmation. And then, keep going down your list! Julia Cameron encourages her readers to do this at the beginning of each writing day—it's the ideal kickoff!

So clean out those voices. Replace them with better ones. 

And just see what happens.

If you want a bit more of a discussion about affirmations, this is a great article.  

Wahoo! We did it. Clearer heads, happier voices, and more TRUTH making room in our minds.


Check back on Monday for a more traditional week of spring cleaning... and til then, have fun making happier spaces in your brain!