Last month I posted the first half of this article, which suggested some ways of girding our collective writing loins against the Naysayers in our lives. Those ideas revolved around cultivating a writing community, owning our own space and time, and not trying to own the feelings of other people (which we don’t have any control over despite what our current society and countless love songs try to tell us).
Naysayers come in some basic configurations, so let’s look at them closely and see how their influence over us might be mitigated entirely, or at least lessened as we pursue our writing dreams.
The Uninformed Expert
This well-meaning person believes he can guide your work better than you can. No matter that he’s never actually tried to write anything, he’s full of great ideas of stories you can write that will really be successful. Or maybe he has done a bit of writing and now believes he can definitively tell you exactly what you need to know to be a star.
Some folks are very sure of their own judgment, no matter how ill-informed (or non-informed) they are. No matter that they’ve never written a story and have no desire to do so. Or if they’ve written, they haven’t published or even read much in your particular genre, but they’re convinced that if you follow their advice, you’ll be successful.
I run into these folks all the time. They say things like, “Oh, romance. Yeah, I could knock one of those out in a weekend,” or “It’s easy to write fantasy because you can just make up all your own rules.” They like to give advice about the publishing industry they’ve never entered, or how to work with editors when they’ve never submitted a manuscript.
One of the most egregious examples I’ve ever encountered is that of an extended family member who seems to feel that running down my romance writing is a form of “winning” a conversation; she knows nothing about the industry, my writing, or me, and yet feels free to pass judgment on all of it. (Maybe I should rethink that whole “people mean well” thing.)
There are a few ways of handling the Uninformed Expert:
- Focus on the “uninformed” part. These people don’t know, and they actually don’t care enough to educate themselves, so sometimes a quick fact is enough to draw them up short: “Write a book in a weekend? I wish! My 80,000-word book took me five months of full-time writing!” or “I keep a huge chart of characters and world facts to make sure my book is self-consistent. It’s a crazy kind of research, really.”)
- Focus on the (possible) “expert” part. It could be that they have an insight into a related topic that could actually be of use to you. Years ago I ran into an annoying man who was convinced he knew exactly what I needed to do with one of my stories (despite not writing in my genre), and while I felt he was wrong overall, he did come out with a detail about my hero that made a huge difference. Take what you like and leave the rest.
- Ignore them politely. The really obnoxious folks aren’t convinced either by facts or your personal experience, so a polite, “Really?” and changing the subject might be in order. I know a lot of writers specialize in snark for putting these offenders in their place, but that’s not my style. For me, a blank stare with a polite smile is usually enough to satisfy my inner sense of justice.
The difficult truth is that sometimes these people live under the same roof with us, so we get to choose whether we’re going to disinvite them from any conversation about our writing or try to work with them. For me, I tend to simply draw a line for what I’m willing to share with a family member who is a veritable font of bad and unsolicited advice (and judgment). If they don’t know, they can’t comment. Regarding the egregious example I mentioned above, I’ve had to do quite a bit of personal work to let go of my resentment around this extended family member; I would love for her to acknowledge and respect my work, but she doesn’t so I don’t talk about it. Simply put, her words reflect her, not me or my experience, though sometimes it’s difficult to remember that. Do what seems reasonable for you.
The Impossibility Thinker
Bless their hearts.
This person is so overcome by her own fearfulness and stuck in her own limited way of thinking that she’s convinced you’re wasting your time. This person will gain steam over time if she sees you struggling to write or receiving rejection and revision letters. They’re genuinely convinced that there’s no goal too low to be unmet, no award chance too great to be squandered. Their opinion is that the market’s not there, no one ever makes any real money from their writing, and you, in particular – yes, you – can’t hope to succeed.
And they think that telling you that you won’t “make it” is a perfectly reasonable way of “supporting” you. Oh, sure, Nora Roberts can do it, but not you!
They’re trying to help, but they’re very confused about how to do that.
What’s worse is that they’ll interpret any perceived setback around your writing (a tough critique, a rejection letter) as a sign that you’re wasting your time.
How can we deal with such negativity? Here are some ideas:
- Limit the amount of time you discuss your writing with the Impossibility Thinker. Negativity is incredibly draining. The moment you feel that little nudge of discomfort in your gut, change the subject or remember that appointment you’re late for.
- Don’t engage with the negative statements. Arguing with or against an Impossibility Thinker can be like beating your head against a wall. Facts usually don’t matter, so there’s no point in trying logic. A simple, “That’s interesting, but my experience is different. So, what are your plans for the week?” Change the subject rather than engage in useless debate.
- Ask why they care. This might be considered radical, but I’ve had success when I ask, “When we talk about my writing action romance, I’ve gotten the impression you think I’m wasting my time. Do you think I am?” By introducing an element of curiosity rather than blame or defensiveness, people sometimes open up with what’s really going on in their heads. In the above case, the reply was, “I think you’re a better writer than that,” and I was able to tell her in response, “Thank you for saying so, but this is the genre I’m enjoying writing in for now, so I’d like it very much if you’d respect my choice.” Making the conversation about one’s personal choice rather than the writing itself can defuse the situation.
- Drop them. Always the last resort, letting negative or judgmental people drift out of one’s life is sometimes necessary.
The Interrupter usually lives in our household. He doesn’t realize that he’s a naysayer – in fact, he usually believes he’s a great supporter of yours. He wants to support you, enjoys being with you, and likes to tell you so.
He won’t stay out of the dang room when we’re trying to write. Whatever is in his head is the most important thing on his mind and he must share it with you. Or he needs your opinion ASAP. Or any of a million reasons why a loved one will just “pop in” to our writing space and tear our attention away from our writing.
We don’t have to be cruel or hard. A simple, “I’d love to help you right now, but I’ll be available at ten o’clock when my writing time ends,” is sometimes enough to get the message across.
Interrupting is often a habit, and it takes time to break a habit. So your message may need to be repeated multiple times. If it helps, write it on a Post-It® note and stick it to your monitor. This is the only thing you need to say. You don’t have to explain, argue, or equivocate. Just repeat the phrase, preferably in a gentle but matter-of-fact tone, as many times as necessary.
If the interrupter still refuses to respect your in-the-house boundary, it might be time to take your writing off to a local coffee shop or make a “writing date” with one of your tribe members – away from your own writing space. Like to write to a soundtrack? Take your music and pop in the earbuds to support your internal creative space.
A friend of mine regularly takes his work out of the house – his wife is lovely but she has no verbal filters when it comes to saying whatever is coming up in her mind – so he arranged an alternate work space at his church.
The Bossy Critique Partner
Also well-meaning, the BCP is confident that she knows precisely what you should do with your story and lays out the plan in no uncertain terms. She may be published or unpublished, she may not write in your genre, but come hell or high water, she knows.
Remember how the first half of this blog post talked last month about finding your tribe?
Well, the Bossy Critique Partner, the blowhard who thinks he knows everything about the story you’re writing and constantly rewrites your scenes to suit himself, can take the wind out of your sails. The BCP often uses a lot of “you” statements, and appears to leave no room for discussion: His opinion is golden, and you’re wrong. He gets loudly passionate about his critique, and talks over you or your other critique partners.
When you get to the point of dreading receiving a critique from BCP, then he has become toxic to you and it’s time to do something to protect your writing spirit.
This protection depends on your own comfort level and willingness to assert your own experience. And keep in mind that there’s a very, very good chance that Bossy Critique Partner has no idea he’s causing hard feelings, so until the behavior is addressed in a rational and compassionate way, he’s clueless.
- You can call a critique group meeting to discuss generally how critiques are given and the importance of being supportive. You may discover that you’re not the only group member struggling with BCP. (Equally important, you will not get along with every critique partner who crosses your path, and that’s okay.)
- You can leave the critique group. Sometimes the experience of getting a tough, know-it-all critique week in and week out is like being beaten repeatedly with a stick. It’s okay to leave that situation and find another group whose partners provide comments that are both valuable and supportive.
- The critique group can kick BCP out. I’ve never been in a situation in which this step was needed, because normally the critique group meeting has been enough to bring folks into line. The important part here is that the group should present a united front and be able to say, “Thanks for your participation, but we think it’s better for the group if we look for a different partner.” And if you’re in a one-on-one critique situation, you can say, “I appreciate everything I’ve learned from you, but it’s time for me to move on.”
You’re probably getting a sense by now of how important it is to protect your creative space, both emotionally and physically. At times, we may find ourselves having to transition certain negative people out of our lives in order to pursue our writing.
But there’s one Naysayer we can’t just abandon.
The Inner Critic
This someone definitely doesn’t mean well. The Inner Critic is the voice inside our heads that berates us for taking a chance, spending time on our writing, spending money on a class or conference, and tells us many variations on the same theme: Your efforts are hopeless.
We all have one.
It might be the voice of the sixth grade English teacher who pushed us harder than we were prepared for. Or the dismissive college writing teacher who asked, “Why did you bother writing this?” (This happened to me.) Or the critique partner whose nitpicking leaves us with that cold fist of dread in our guts when we face the page.
It might also be the voice that wells up deep within to accuse us of being a failure. A poser. A fraud.
You’re not a real writer. If you were, you’d have sold more books by now.
You’ll never finish this book. You’ve never finished any book you’ve started.
This opening page sucks. No one will want to read this book.
There are as many variations on this theme as there are writers. And I would wager that the vast majority of procrastinators out there – raise your hands – have a louder than usual Inner Critic.
In fact, what we may not realize is that the Inner Critic is calling the shots. It will quite happily point out that browsing Facebook would be more fascinating than figuring out a plot problem, and that bingeing on a Netflix series (research!) is a better idea than pounding out the next scene. It will do so under the guise of excuses like:
- I have plenty of time to get my pages written for this week.
- I deserve a break. I’m almost halfway to my goal for today!
- I know I said I’d set aside two hours this morning to write, but the oven really needs a deep clean.
- I should tackle these edits, but they’re really hard.
Notice anything interesting? The Inner Critic comes in a lot of guises, and those guises can look suspiciously similar to the Uninformed Expert, or the Impossibility Thinker, or the Interrupter, or even the Bossy Critique Partner. We’ve carried the Inner Critic around all our lives, and if we weren’t writers, the IC would be all over us about whatever meaningful pursuit we chose – painting, carpentry, computer programming, neurosurgery, whatever.
Well, we can’t just kick the Inner Critic to the curb because that particular Naysayer is along for the ride. But we can become aware of what the Inner Critic is saying without acting on what it’s telling us.
Try this: When you’re stuck on a scene and that dread is coming up in your stomach, try taking five mindful breaths. Let your brain spin out the story that it’s telling you – that you’re a failure, a hack, or whatever other story it’s concocted. Recognize the story? Great! Then ask yourself, Who, exactly, has just witnessed the story your brain is kicking up?
That person is who you actually are; the story is your conditioning.
With regular practice of recognizing our stories, we often find they have less power over us because stories is all they are. They are artifacts of our past, not predictions of the future (unless we choose to let them be). We generally can’t turn our negative self-stories into positive ones overnight, but we can cultivate a different story – a successful, positive story – for our brains to champion.
While that positive story is getting imprinted, or when we’re under great stress, the old, negative stories may rise up to haunt us. But keep in mind that that’s all those stories are: ghosts. The temptation to turn away from the writing when our stated goal is to finish the book is another way of abandoning ourselves as writers. And we don’t have to do that.
Not anymore. When we recognize the old story or the old temptation, we give ourselves the choice to either pursue that old way of thinking or to turn towards the writing – and ourselves – in a healthy way.
Wrapping it up
Authors who write and publish regularly will happily complain on social media about how difficult their day was, how frustrating the scene was to write, how many pages had to be thrown out because they didn’t fit the novel. But they keep going. They typically don’t make excuses or admit any sort of defeat. (You might think they wouldn’t on social media, but I have seen it happen from time to time.)
Instead, they matter-of-factly say that something is hard or annoying, and they get back to it. Whatever Inner Critic story might have cropped up in their minds, they move forward. Whatever the universe has tossed at them by way of Uninformed Experts and Impossibility Thinkers, they have managed those relationships and have surrounded themselves with like-minded people who genuinely support and cheer them on.
Each of us, published or unpublished, famous or just getting started, can do the same.
Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.