It’s been a while between posts, and it’s been a bumper time both for my family and for Ghost Bird. If you want to hear more about what that was like you’ll have to subscribe to my email list. I’ve realised one of the main reasons I struggle with these posts, is because I feel like I have to give updates on my life, when really what I want to be doing is tackling a specific issue.
In the interest of making this more interesting for me, and hopefully you as well, I’ll be shifting my personal updates to the email list. Which you can sign up to from the home page (scroll to the bottom). Posts here will still be going up once a month, so on to this one.
Thanks to all that’s been happening with Ghost Bird, I’ve been getting a lot of requests to speak at schools (online) or to write something. It's been exciting and a huge learning curve for me. But also, terrifying, because it’s slowly dawning on me that people might give a shit about what I have to say. Gasp!
Of course, with all that interest comes the dreaded internal voice. The inner critic. Resistance. That bitch. Whatever you call them. Sometimes it feels like she’s chasing me with a whip and I’m too cowardly to face her down. Instead I’m running just in front, on a never-ending circuit.
I’m so busy running, I’m struggling to do my work. And my personal writing is not happening at all. Which gives the whip-wielder more barbs to split my skin open. I go to bed feeling like a raw wound. Worse, cos it’s down past my bones and into my psyche.
The more I hurt the less I work. And round and round we go.
Ironically, a lot of people have been coming to me asking how I deal with the inner critic. I feel like such a fraud giving advice because right now, she’s winning. I frequently tell the questioner that I need a mirror to tell myself everything I say to them. But the question keeps coming up, probably because I keep venting on social media.
Rather than keep doing awkward messages that are heavily influenced by my current emotional state, I thought I’d write this down in one post and I can point them, and myself, to it.
Here’s how I see writing: We’re all on a journey. Most of us have been tricked (by ourselves, that inner voice, a new idea, other people) into sitting down on our path and not moving, or maybe diverting off it entirely. I’m definitely guilty of both. The only real difference between a writer who is published and one that isn’t, is one of them got back on their path.
I say that without judgement because it happens to me. There’s a reason why ‘self-kindness’ is my watchword of the year, and probably for the rest of my life. I think it was Brené Brown who said (I’m paraphrasing), if you can’t forgive yourself for how shit your work was the day before, or for not being able to do it, then you’ll never go back and finish. And the only thing worse than shit writing, is not writing at all.
I believe that innate talent has little to do with writing or editing, because to me they’re trades. Practical skills that people need to get hands on with if they’re ever going to learn. And mistakes are the best way to get there. Sure, there are skills that an experienced person can explain or demonstrate, but applying it is the only way to really soak in the lesson.
Which is my long-winded way of saying: Just Write! No matter what’s going on, or what story you tell yourself, there are places we can find time. Are you choosing tv over your writing? Social media? A game?
Usually I divert into these things when I go into what my partner calls my ‘denial mode’. What drives me there, is always that voice in my head. Even if I’m not aware of her talking, when I start binging on any or all of those things, walking around with my phone glued to my hand and something always on, that’s when I know she’s talking.
There is no one way to eliminate that voice, but there are strategies to deal with them and a lot of authors share theirs openly. Go in search of people who you admire, listen to what they say on the topic. I’ve tested out quite a few strategies, some of them work for me and others not so much, but that was a valuable lesson too.
I’ll put a list at the end of this blog of the works I read and listen to that help me when I’m struggling. And I’d love to hear what you use, because I’m always keen to find more.
I prefer audio because I can put in my headphones and listen while doing chores. I find when I’m doing something like cleaning, I can listen better. In part because my body is working but it doesn’t need my brain to do the work, so I’m focussed on the moment. I’m present.
I’ve recently discovered the joys of walking while listening to different authors talk about their craft. I drive down to the local lake because I find it more restful than walking around our neighbourhood. The water, the trees and the animal life, all of it calms me.
Sometimes I’ll walk while talking to a loved one. Just catching up or venting about my latest problem and listening to theirs. It helps me remember that life isn’t how that inner voice portrays things. And often distraction from a story can help me get clarity.
I walk till I’m back in my body. Till my anxiety slows and I feel tired in my muscles. By the end, I’ve walked enough that all that twitching energy is out, and the inner critic can’t use it to lift her whip arm.
These are all sometimes strategies. As in ‘sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t’. The only thing I know that helps me every single time without fail, is writing.
How’s that for a catch-22?
With her chasing me, how do I ever feel better if I can’t sit down to write? It’s no accident she doesn’t want me to do that. She knows if I do I’ll find that calm space, that place where her voice is still present, but I’m no longer letting her dictate a damn thing. She can’t drive me onwards in an increasing frenzy.
So I force myself to write. Even though work is demanding time, I feel sick, I have deadlines, responsibilities or I just straight up have nothing to say. I make myself write. Pen to paper is best, but via screen can work too.
I used to keep a ‘poison book’ as a teenager. A place where I would pour out all the vile thoughts inside me, vomit it forth on the page till I felt wrung out. Then I’d close the book and walk away. Never to read those pages again. The poison out of me and entombed in those pages forever. But I still thought those thoughts were part of me.
It took counselling for me to become aware of it. When my counsellor first asked me if I heard a voice, I had no idea what she was talking about. Only after some long months did I learn to hear it, stop identifying with it, and understand where it was coming from. I recommend counselling to anyone! Especially creatives.
What I do now is a bit like my old 'poison book'. All my insecurities and doubts, the issues I torture myself over, the mistakes my mind constantly throws up at me. Fool, fraud, imposter.
After that’s finished working its way out onto the page. That is when I find myself.
I wrote a piece for Sydney Review of Books re other ways I calm the beast using techniques learnt through counselling, aptly named Fight or Flight. I talk about my inner critic as my teenage self.
I know in my heart that all the reason she behaves like this is because she’s scared. Nothing matters more than my writing, shows more of who I am. Nothing can hurt me as deeply. How can I be angry at her when I know all these things?
I’ve given up going to war with her. It only makes her come back stronger, kick my arse harder. I try now to embrace her.
But just because I want to hug her doesn’t mean she’s right. And she’s not me.
No, what adult me is doing is something else entirely. I am burying myself in work, the way I always have. Keeping myself too busy to write. I thought I’d stopped doing that to myself when I finally got the courage up to quit my full-time job in 2016, promising myself I’d chase the dream. Instead, I’ve let the anxiety over money and the fear that my writing won’t measure up, force me back into this corner.
And doesn’t my inner critic just love that. More kindling for her fire.
I’ve been down this road. My path of least resistance has always been work. Someone else’s goals, their priorities and deadlines. Never mine. And I know where it leads.
Sickness. Suffocation. Depression. An unbridled feeling like my world is wrong. Or maybe it’s just me.
This week I’m making a promise to myself to stop. I’ll see out the commitments I’ve made, but from here on out I need to start saying ‘no’. While I’m still working on these things, I’m going to use that insane win at the Queensland Literary Awards to fund my time. One day to write, just me and the page.
Brené Brown said, ‘Unused creativity is not benign’. Well for me, it’s nuclear. And I made the decision four years ago that I was done doing this to myself. I need to recommit to that.
So here’s me, on my path. Choosing to walk it. And trying to forgive myself when I don’t, so I can keep going.
People/resources I like to listen to or read when I’m struggling with the voice:
· Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast Magic Lessons and her book Big Magic
· Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection
· Steven Pressfield’s Turning Pro (have The War of Art and Do the Work on my TBR pile)
· Tim Grahl’s Running Down the Dream
· Podcasts: Unf*ck Your Brain and The One You Feed
· Music! In whatever mood I’m in, or that I’m trying to write. I have playlists for emotions and manuscripts.
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