There’s a one-mile circular route in my neighborhood that I’ve been walking for twenty-four years. I began by waddling its length when we moved into our home in my late third trimester and it was all I could manage in terms of exercise. After open-heart surgery for a faulty valve, I did the loop with a pillow clutched to my chest, seeing my ability to complete the circuit as a sign of imminent healing. I’ve used the route in a pre-nap ritual to tire my children. Of late, it’s become a quick way to perk myself up between writing spells.
But to whatever purpose I trod this path, until this summer I’ve always accessed it by turning left out of our cul de sac.
World-narrowing Mindsets Can Begin for Good Reason
There are good reasons for that consistency. If you complete the loop in a counterclockwise direction, you are granted a better view of a man-made lake.
It’s easier to peel off to get a cold drink, access a bathroom, or buy a treat—critical considerations when you’re hauling little people along with you.
But the biggest reason of all, and a clear illustration of my order in the pack hierarchy, was that turning left made it easier to walk a dog. This was a matter of sidewalk and grass placement. Walking counter-clockwise meant fewer canine temptations, so that after my pooch had a chance to complete their business, I wasn’t being jerked to a halt every few steps while they sniffed vegetation.
Hope Enters the Scene
I have been dogless for over a year, though, and this summer something broke my conditioning. When it did, and I turned the opposite direction, I discovered a strange and enticing land.
Houses which seemed “meh” from one angle turned out to be carefully tended and picturesque. (The converse was also true.) One particular home, which I considered strictly utilitarian, turned out to have vines entwined around a mullioned bow window and woodland plants beneath, like a cottage from Hansel and Gretel.
How This Connects to Writing
Turning left was a such a minor change to make, yet the results were both disorienting and hopeful. It was as if I’d been a forest dweller my entire life and suddenly discovered the existence of moss.
For me, moments like these crystallize the understanding that with the tiniest shift in perception, left can become right, up can become down, and insofar as writing goes, a serial non-finisher can end the year with not one but two publishing credits to her name. (I had the joy of being a contributor to Author in Progress in addition to independently-publishing my debut novel.)
An Accidental Weaponization of Vulnerabilities
So what happened to allow the necessary changes in my life? I’ve given this a lot of thought because I have no intention of regressing to the less-than-productive writing pattern of the last many years.
My conclusion is that, quite by accident, I created a new environment in which the very things formerly preventing me from writing became the forces driving me inexorably toward it.
In other words, not only did I stop fighting my nature, but to borrow Lisa Cron’s favorite adjective, I endorsed it with a full-throated Yes!
Harnessing the Caregiving Impulse
For example, I’ve spoken before about my tendency to get into caregiver mode and place others’ needs above my own. I use acts of service as a way of showing esteem and affection. When in this mindset, taking the time to write fiction can seem the ultimate act of selfishness.
But what if the desire to serve can be harnessed for the good of the book? What if the desire to caregive can be fed directly into the creative impulse?
In my case, because I was participating in a writing cooperative for my fiction, and because my book was the second in a series of standalone novels, failure to complete my contribution would mean negative consequences for ten other people.* And we’re not talking about their inability to pursue money or “fame”, which hold value to many, but don’t trigger an answering thrill in my psyche. I’d be sabotaging their ability to express themselves. To self-actualize.
I couldn’t be responsible for that.
Also, early in the process I understood that my novel’s secondary characters would largely be comprised of senior citizens. (Fifty-one of them, at one point!) So while writing meant being less available to my elderly parents for a time, I could envision the look on their faces when they read the book and saw their peer group represented.
In this way, writing became bigger than an act of self-indulgence. It could be an act filled with purpose and generosity.
Make Use of Your Disconnect with Reality
Let’s take another personality quirk which I know many of you share, and which can get us in trouble at times: a willingness to live in an idealistic or fantasy world.
When I started writing my novel, I had zero confidence in my ability to complete it. After all, it’s hard to argue with the years spent writing myself in circles, or the five unfinished manuscripts on my hard drive.
My inadvertent solution? Despite writing the book in an eleven-member cooperative, and using an editor, and confiding in a few friends and family, I allowed myself to believe the myth of total secrecy. I told myself I could write the book I wanted, publish under a pseudonym, and trust that my two identities would never merge.
Oh, and while I was concocting improbable scenarios, I’d somehow discover the time and energy to build relationships under two authorial names when I could barely manage under one.
Obviously those beliefs are unrealistic, but by allowing myself to cling to them, I harnessed my mad day-dreaming skilz for the good of my writing.
Indulge Your Obsessive Nature
Another trait of mine is that I strongly dislike being late. As I am married to a man with a Type B personality, trust me, this can be a drawback at times and the cause of many stressful moments. It can also make me inflexible and rigid.
Committing to the group, though, involved commitment to deadlines—in writing, no less—about when I’d have my synopsis complete, when I’d have my first draft done, when my book would go live, etc.
I can’t stress enough how helpful it was to have those concrete, chunked, and time-sensitive goals.
I’d known my Resistance was multi-faceted and nebulous. Sneaky. Based on perfectionism. But with a deadline, I had no choice but to fight my way through analysis paralysis and make the best decision possible in the moment.
Celebrate your Lack of Ability
Lastly, in the world of writing, I’ve always fought a sense of incompetence which only grows as I learn about craft and understand how far I fall short of mastery. (I’m not talking about humility, which is a trait I greatly admire, but about crippling insecurity even when gifted with compliments and resources, like the Writer Unboxed community’s support.)
So fine, I decided. I was inadequate to the task. But if I was going to claim my incompetence, why not do it on steroids? Maybe I was so incompetent, I couldn’t be trusted to understand the boundaries of my incompetence. What if I were secretly competent, but was so clueless I couldn’t recognize it?
If you can follow that last paragraph, congratulations! And…er, sorry?
Watching Little Changes Disseminate
I have always wondered how I would feel if/when I was finally published. There have been occasions in my life when I’ve accomplished a long-term goal and the results were less than satisfying. In this case, I’m happy to report, the converse is true.
I had realistic expectations about book sales as a new, self-published author with little marketing savvy, and I’ve been careful to keep my self-esteem disconnected from the marketplace. My goal is to greet each reader and each review with a sense of gratitude and wonder. For the most part, I’ve been successful in this endeavor.
In addition to gleaning all that joy, though, every day I feel progressively lighter for having shed the self-imposed label of non-finisher. It feels like a change that’s still propagating through the system. Each day reveals pleasant and unexpected results.
For example, I’m finally making decisions that preyed on my mind for years. (e.g. Should I start a Facebook author page? Should I go the traditional route first? Would I ever advertise and in what venue? Would I bother with putting out a print version of my book?) I’ve stopped wondering and considering and debating, and am now into action. I can’t describe how ultimately freeing that has become, how fun it is to make a choice and watch the results unfold with a sense of curiosity and experimentation.
Putting It Together
When we yearn for change in our life, there’s a temptation to want to accomplish it by 1) stomping down on our weaknesses 2) making wholesale change.
There’s another approach you’ll see advocated by some lifestyle gurus, and which is gaining scientific support as a sustainable and less intimidating model. That is the decision to make one small change and watch its consequences spread through the system.
Couple that with the willingness to work with your nature instead of against it, and if you’re feeling log-jammed, there is great reason for optimism.
So if you are frustrated, think small. Turn left instead of right. Discover the blessing within the burden. Uncover the productive writer within.
Then, if you’re like me, hope and pray your recent discoveries will stick with you for the next book. And the next. ;)
Do you have a personal vulnerability you can use, with slight alteration, to the benefit of your writing? If you’ve already done so, care to share the results?
*If you’d like to know more about the cooperative, please see my interview with Sophie Masson .