The Invisible Monster of Self-Criticism by Rosamund Hodge
This post nearly included productivity tips.
"I'm writing about anxiety and self-criticism," I said to myself. "And if you're feeling like you're a terrible writer, obviously the answer is to become a better writer by working harder and more efficiently! . . . Wait."
And that right there is why I'm writing this article.
The Invisible Monster
In 2013, I thought I had the writerly anxiety thing pretty much beat. I had learned to finish novels. I had learned to revise them. I had survived getting rejected by 65 agents, and as my reward I had found an agent and sold my novel. I had completed all the revisions; in six months, Cruel Beauty was going to hit shelves and I would be a really-for-real Published Author. Life was great.
Then it was time to write the second novel.
I had heard, of course, about the Dread Second Novel, and how terrible it was. "That won't be a problem for me," I thought. "I've already written multiple novels! Cruel Beauty is technically #4! No Second Novel Syndrome for me!"
Ha. Ha. Ha.
Long story short: I wrote the novel. Then I rewrote it nine times. I added, removed, or added-then-removed-then-put-back-again characters, sub-plots, chapters, a prologue, a plague, a giant serpent, and a neighboring country. This list is not exhaustive.
The end result was a novel of which I am now extremely proud. But at the time? It nearly destroyed me as a writer. And yes, I have a career in being dramatic, but I am not exaggerating. As long as I have been writing (nineteen years, if you're curious), I have struggled with anxiety and self-criticism. And over the years, I have dealt with that better or worse.
But by the time I finished revising Crimson Bound, it was different. This wasn't feeling burnt-out sometimes, or about a particular project. This was feeling like I had an invisible monster--heavy, slimy, malicious--sitting on my shoulder all of the time, telling me that my book was worthless, that everything I wrote was worthless, that I should just stop. I couldn't read a sentence from my novel without getting depressed. I couldn't enjoy writing--not just working on the novel, but writing anything.
Writing had always been my passion, and more than that, my freedom. No matter what else was going wrong with my life, I could still write. I could still have that joy. You can’t take the sky from me!
. . . Except the invisible monster can. He took the sky away from me: that’s what it felt like, when writing suddenly became a burden.
Since this blog post is not titled "How I Quit Writing, At Last I'm Free," you can probably guess that I got better. But it took a while. It's still something that I'm working on--perhaps because my Second Book Trauma wasn't an Attack Of The Foreign Neurosis. Writing the second book, because it was so challenging, forced me to confront a lot of really old fault-lines in my coping skills.
Which leads me to my disclaimer: I think I have some pretty good advice in this blog post. But there are plenty of times when I don't follow it myself. I can't claim to be actually good at this stuff, just to have been forced to think about it.
I have a long and complicated history with self-loathing. When I finally started finishing novels in 2009, it was because I threatened myself with complete public humiliation: I signed up for NaNoWriMo and told everybody I knew that I was doing it--including a bunch of much-admired professional authors I had just met at World Fantasy Convention--and then posted my word-counts every day on a blog. Failure was unthinkable. So I succeeded: I wrote 50,000 words in less than thirty days, and wrote another 170,000 words in the next eight months.
It was magnificent. I had never felt so confident in my life.
Clearly, I decided, guilt-trips and the threat of humiliation were the answer to all my writing problems.
And for a while, they were the answer. I kept writing, and I kept finishing novels, and I kept feeling good about myself. But the threat of seething self-hatred works as a motivator only when you're already succeeding--when you normally feel good about yourself, and therefore you have something to lose. When the problem is just that you don't feel the project is urgent enough.
But when the problem is that you already hate yourself? When you hate your writing to such a paralyzing degree that you can't write anymore?
Trying to hate yourself out of self-hatred supremely doesn't work. Trust me; I really, thoroughly tried. I only started being kind to myself because I didn't have any other options left. And it was really scary, because by that point I had programmed myself to feel that self-hatred meant getting things done meant safety.
But facing that fear was worth it. Because it turns out that when you start being kind to yourself, you can start to heal.
Don't Talk to the Monster
Probably one of the most helpful things I ever did was learn to think of the invisible monster as an invisible monster. I've always had that voice in my head--I think we all do--but I'd always seen it as intrinsically part of myself. If it was my own logical judgment that I was worthless as a writer and a person, how could I fight that? All I had to use against my own logic was my own logic, and there's a kind of psychic entropy that prevents that kind of bootstrapping from working.
But then I learned to imagine that voice as something separate from me: an invisible monster talking to me. And for the first time, it occurred to me that maybe I should tell him to shut up.
I'd always tried to argue with the monster--he would tell me that I was worthless, I would try to come up with reasons why I wasn't so bad, and then I would conscientiously try to evaluate each one. Logic and intellectual integrity demanded that I consider each time whether or not the monster had a point.
The problem with that approach is that the monster is a lying liar who lies. He hates you. He wants to stop you from writing. He is your personal demon, and he tells the truth only to make you believe his lies.
Don't listen to him. Don't argue with him. Don't talk to him. He is not even worth fighting.
Do you know who taught me to think of my invisible monster as something separate? My therapist.
PSA: Therapy is really great! I think a lot of us have the impression that it's only for people who are:
- trying to save their marriages
- self-absorbed, over-entitled yuppies.
But this is not true. Therapy is not magic, arcane and mystical and completely unrelated to normal life. Talking to your friends is therapy. This article is an attempt at therapy. And if one kind of therapy doesn’t work, it is completely normal and rational to try a different form. Like talking to a professional, licensed therapist.
I didn't start seeing a therapist because of my writing problems; I was already seeing one because of some other (not entirely unrelated) anxiety issues. But when my writing fell apart, that therapist really helped me a lot with putting myself back together. If you have already read all the motivational articles, and you have already tried changing your writing habits, your sleeping habits, and your eating/exercise habits, and you have given yourself plenty of time to work through things and recover, and you are still feeling really sad and anxious about your writing . . . you might want to consider therapy.
Of course, therapy is not an option for everyone, whether because of location, or finances, or you just can’t stand the idea. If so, I would strongly advise finding somebody whom you both respect and trust, and talking to him or her about your problems. I have gotten a whole lot of help out of therapy. I have also gotten a whole lot of help out of talking to my mom. Sometimes, all you really need is to tell somebody you trust about the crazy thoughts, and to have the person assure you that (a) those thoughts really are crazy, and (b) you are worth something anyway.
I would rather be self-loathing than humble.
This sounds like a contradiction, but it's really not.
I've always wanted to be perfect. I don't really consider that a flaw. There is never anything wrong in wanting to be better, and to keep becoming better.
But it is a flaw when you want to be an omnipotent goddess of writing who completes her exquisite, entirely-on-time novels without any sort of outside assistance. And it is a flaw when you decide that if you're not perfect, that means you are the worst ever, and your terribleness is of such an epic degree that nobody in the world can help you.
That kind of willful despair is not an excess of humility. It's a form of pride. It's the determination to be more special than anyone else, no matter the cost. And it's deeply attractive.
But here's the problem: if you value something more than happiness? You are probably going to get something that's not happiness.
And that's where humility comes in. Because happiness is humble. Happiness is saying, "I am small enough that writing this deeply imperfect story delights me."
Humility is saying, "I need help. I can be helped."
I don't like being humble. At all, ever, for any reason. I would much rather be the Supreme Princess of Despair. But I love writing even more than I love my own pride. When the only way I could keep writing was by losing my pride . . . I chose to keep writing.
And here is the magic, the special secret: when you let go of your pride, people can help you. People can love you.
This past month, I was struggling with a deadline. I wanted to believe I could do it all on my own, but I couldn't. So I told some of my writing friends. And you know what? One of them sent me animated GIFs every morning to remind me that I needed to keep writing. One of them read every chapter as I finished it, and told me what she loved about it.
The Rosamund of two years ago would never have admitted she had those needs. And she would never have received that loving support.
It still hurts, every day, when I choose to be humble. Or when I try to be humble. But I keep trying. And I when I do succeed, I never regret.
Several months ago, I was telling my therapist how I'd had a lifelong problem with perseverance. Ever since I was twelve, I'd been trying to write, but I kept starting stories that I failed to finish. I had completed novels, but every time it had taken a cataclysmic effort that turned my life upside-down. I was a terrible person and nobody should ever respect me as a writer.
She looked at me and she said, "So what you're saying is, despite sabotaging yourself with self-hatred for years at every turn, you've still kept writing."
I had literally never thought of it that way before. And hearing it honestly changed my life, or at least how I felt about my life.
So this is what I really want to say, and what I want you to hear, if you pay attention to no other part of this blog post:
If you're struggling with writing; if you keep trying, and you keep failing worse and worse; if you can only sometimes manage to try anymore--if you are even just barely hanging onto this life by your fingernails--
Then: you are already strong. You are already brave. You have been fighting for years, and if you are still here? That makes you a hero.
About the Book:
Three years later, Rachelle has given her life to serving the realm, fighting deadly creatures in an effort to atone. When the king orders her to guard his son Armand—the man she hates most—Rachelle forces Armand to help her find the legendary sword that might save their world. As the two become unexpected allies, they uncover far-reaching conspiracies, hidden magic, and a love that may be their undoing. In a palace built on unbelievable wealth and dangerous secrets, can Rachelle discover the truth and stop the fall of endless night?
Inspired by the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, Crimson Bound is an exhilarating tale of darkness, love, and redemption.
Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads
About the Author:
Visit her on the web at http://www.rosamundhodge.net or follow her on Twitter: @rosamundhodge.
Website | Twitter | Goodreads
-- posted by Susan Sipal, @HP4Writers