I love satire in general and Saturday Night Live in particular, but there’s one series of sketches I wish I could erase from my mental library: Al Franken’s take-down of the 1990s’ self-help industry in the form of his character, Stuart Smalley.
Have you seen these skits? They feature an effeminate man who dresses in pastel sweaters and speaks with a lisp. Having affixed a goofy smile to his face, he looks into a mirror and spouts several affirmations that are patently untrue, full of psychobabble, or so non-specific as to be incapable of helping anyone take positive action.
Here’s a short example of Stuart preparing to tape a segment:
And if you’re still on Facebook, here he “helps” Michael Jordan.
Why do I regret having seen these videos?
Setting aside political issues about the actor and the cringeworthy reinforcement of rigid gender roles and stereotypes, my objections are two-fold:
- They mock statements and slogans that contain actual wisdom by making them sound woo-wooish. (e.g. “It’s easier to put on slippers than carpet the whole world.”)
- As regards the point of this article, they turned me off affirmations for years, and I imagine had a similar effect on other viewers. As I now consider affirmations to be a huge aid in reducing pre-writing anxiety, that’s a shame.
How I became a convert:
Though I’ve been writing for decades, during 2018, I feel like I finally became a writer—one with modest external success, and with ambitions that exceed her grasp, but a writer nonetheless.
Part of this is a function of experience; having now written three novels, the third of which will come out in February, the writing bug has only intensified. It’s becoming undeniable to the world, and more importantly to myself, that writing is part of my identity.
But part of this is that, while composing my third novel, I finally developed rituals to conquer pre-writing anxiety. Surprise! A big part of that was developing writing-related affirmations.
Given my tortured recollection of the Stuart Smalley era, I started small and somewhat accidentally.
One day, when beginning the book on a tight-for-me deadline and with little idea of where I was headed, I sat down to write my first chapter—only, it wasn’t going well and I was entering a self-perpetuating cycle of blockage and negativity. “What happened to having fun?” I remember thinking. “What happened to my pledge to write with the growth mindset?” (If you haven’t read Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, I urge you to pick up a copy, especially if you are a parent.)
In a state of supreme frustration, I picked up a blank recipe card and jotted down the following:
I write joyfully and with an experimental mindset. I often discover the best material in the spirit of play.
Writing that was like setting a mental goal post of sorts, yes? To my surprise, it helped—immediately and for about a month, until something happened in the real world and I could no longer conjure a playful attitude for the life of me. Suddenly, that single affirmation felt stifling in its own right. I mean, on top of coping with everything else, was I supposed to fake my way into having fun so that I could write?
Obviously that wasn’t going to work.
The answer turned out to lie within another affirmation, which I crafted and now read immediately following the one above: [Read more…]