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When Dark Emotions Threaten Your Writing

Drama Llama [1]At the time I roughed out this post, twelve hours of unimpeded writing stretched before me. I was slouched in an IKEA armchair, feet propped on a windowsill, my view a boreal forest in the grip of an autumn palette.

“Contentment” is likely the emotion you’d ascribe to one in a position such as mine. Yet my heart was only just settling into a normal rhythm and an uncomfortable layer of sweat negated my morning shower.

What happened was this: for a half-hour, despite my backup system, I couldn’t locate the previous day’s writing—a breakthrough on the work-in-progress which promised to address the main weaknesses found during critique. Once I located the errant file and read it, I discovered it wasn’t the precious boon of my memory.

Further, I was fresh from reading the liquid poetry of another writer’s first draft. Nothing good ever comes from going down the wormhole of comparison, but good luck telling my mind that! So as a familiar cocktail of grief, envy, humiliation and anger sluiced through my veins, I was tempted to blow off the writing session with one of a hundred handy excuses.

Does this in any way sound familiar? I’m betting a few of you can relate. Though the triggers and specific emotions might vary, all creative people endure visits from the Drama Llama.

In other words, we insecure writers are a severely normal species.

There is good news, lest you think that I’m vying for the title of Most Depressing Blog Post Ever. (Or Most Hyperbolic.)

At some point in the past year, I’ve become better at handling such moments of potential derailment. The proof lies within the very existence of this essay, which was a better use of time than a freak-out and silent tantrum, wouldn’t you say? Also, that when I finished penning these lines, I returned to my underdeveloped manuscript and continued drafting fresh words.

How did I get to this new, improved resistance to Resistance? A smidgen of self-knowledge, a pinch of Zen wisdom, and tools cobbled together from various psychological disciplines—the subject of today’s post.

Treat Feelings with Healthy Skepticism

Cognitive therapists have identified several thinking errors which, when indulged, tend to lead to depression, anxiety, and disempowerment. One of these is the error of Emotional Logic in which a feeling’s existence serves as proof of its veracity. I feel X, therefore X must be true. 

Some examples: I feel rejected so I must be unlovable. I feel ugly, so I must be unattractive. I feel invisible so I must be unwanted. I feel like a hack writer, so that must mean my prose is useless.

How about doubling-down to create a self-fulfilling prophecy? I feel like I’m incapable of improving my craft, therefore my present deficiencies are permanent.

Making Thoughts Conscious

The first step in countering Emotional Logic is cultivating some kind of mindfulness process so as to slow and capture our thoughts.

Meditation is a commonly prescribed method, whether taught in video format by masters such as Jon Kabat-Zinn [2], Sharon Salzburg [3], or via an app. (Here’s a set of Free Mindfulness Apps [4] as recommended by Mindful.org [5].

Because it allows me to pin down my slippery thoughts, I’m a big fan of stream-of-consciousness journaling, which I do on an ad hoc basis for as long as required. Once upon a time, I kept a Moleskine journal and used a special pen for this purpose, but I’ve changed to coil-bound dollar-store notebooks. Their informality allows me to get honest, gritty, and real. (The writer, playwright, and creativity coach, Julia Cameron, discusses journaling in this video [6].)

Detachment, Not Suppression

So you’ve identified a process which allows you to notice the thoughts which produce Emotional Logic, and which sabotage your writing. Now what?

You’ve heard the expression that sunlight is the best disinfectant? Sometimes the mere act of identifying a thought is enough to make it lose its power. What once made you cringe becomes inconsequential, a source of amusement—perhaps a source of creativity, as with this article.

But how do you handle painful, recurrent thoughts? The psychological and medical literature are clear: don’t attempt to suppress them.

The reason is our basic biology and mental processing, as confirmed by functional MRI studies. Give your brain a message like Don’t eat chocolate! Don’t eat chocolate!  and what it hears is Chocolate! Chocolate! (Why it’s advisable to state goals in positive language. i.e. “I will” versus “I won’t.” Also why people who make a career out of fighting against vice are often the ones who succumb.)

Instead, try these two techniques, which cultivate the art of detachment:

Lastly, Build Upon Success and Flow

As I’m slowly learning, when the Drama Llama comes to visit, there’s no need to throw wide the stable doors, set out a gilded water bowl, and dodge his spittle whilst serving designer llama food. Rather, with time and practice, we can learn to greet him with a peaceful smile. We can offer a gentle pat and send him on his way with a “Safe journey, Drama Llama.” Then we can return to the page.

Each time we do this, we create a sense of confidence in our capacity to handle writing threats. We gain an opportunity to get taken over by the work and to enter a state of Flow, which is only my second-favorite emotional state in the world. *eyebrow waggle*

Now over to you, Unboxeders. You’ve handled writing derailments before. What restores you to your work? Please share in the space below.

PS: Want to feel old and instantly obsolete? Watch The Llama Song, which I found while looking for a suitable photo.


About Jan O'Hara [10]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [11] (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [12]; Cold and Hottie [13]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [14]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.