Episode 017 | The Words You Say to Yourself
Last week in Episode 016 we talked about Fear Lists and Stoicism. The main idea there is to put as much energy as possible into things we can control instead of squandering it on things we can’t control. Through this, we can make steady progress toward making peace with the fact that while we don’t have control over what agents, publishers, book buyers, book critics, or movie producers are going to like or do, we do have control over our process and (at least to some extent) how we use our time.
All of these things that we sorted into piles of “get crack-a-lackin‘ on this” and “get zen about this” were likely mostly external things: other people’s actions and responses, your actions and responses.
But what about the internal stuff? The fears themselves? Or the critical or defeatist thoughts? What can we do about them? Well, there’s good news and bad news.
The bad news is that no matter what you do, sometimes crappy and hurtful thoughts are going to arise in your mind. Anyone even remotely familiar with meditation has probably heard the metaphor that your mind is the sky and your thoughts are the clouds. The trick is to be the sky and let the clouds float on by without judgment and fully cognizant of their impermanence. The good news is while you don’t always have control of what will float up, you do have some control over which ones you invest in.
My all-time favorite coach is Tom Crean, who now coaches men’s college basketball at the University of Georgia. Before that, we were lucky enough to have him at Indiana University for almost a decade. My kids attended his summer camp for kids as many times as I could get them there, not because I was banking on their future college basketball careers, but because of Coach Crean’s focus on character, teamwork, sportsmanship, effort, and mindset. You know, all the reasons we have sports in the first place. (He seriously is the best.)
One of our favorite things that he used to say at these camps was “Every dribble counts, campers. Every dribble counts.” Now on one level, he was talking about a basketball skills tactic about making sure your movements are deliberate and productive (much like we might urge ourselves to make every word count).
However, it also reflected a broader mindset. One that dovetailed nicely with another of his oft-repeated expressions: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” It’s important to be mindful of your actions (all those seemingly insignificant “dribbles”) whenever you can and make them as productive and helpful as possible, because all those little actions, those small practices make permanent habits and tendencies.
But, come on, it’s basketball. There’s only so much you can control in a basketball game. You can set up plays and hope your teammates will be there. You can break down film, study the tendencies of the players on the opposing team and have an educated guess about what they might do. But when that ref throws that jump ball in the air and the players swat at it, it’s game on. And anything can happen.
A writing life is like that unpredictable basketball game. You should prepare yourself by practicing habits and learning writing techniques and concepts that will likely help you be productive and succeed at your larger goals. You should equip yourself with knowledge about the sorts of things you’ll need to be on the lookout for (trends in the publishing world, agents submission guidelines, your tendency to overuse certain words, etc.). All those things will go a long way toward helping you succeed.
But sometimes, all of your practice and preparation will simply be outmatched. Sometimes the rejection letter will come. Sometimes the review will be bad. Sometimes the words will hide from you. Then what?!
That’s when you need to remember you still have some control over which thoughts you identify with. The damage from any of these external events (rejections, crappy reviews, etc.) is nothing compared to the havoc that our own thoughts can create. When we beat ourselves up, doubt ourselves, surrender, forget the clouds across our mind’s sky. We’re unleashing a Sharknado on our writing careers.
So remember my old stand-by from Coach Crean: “Every dribble counts, campers. Every dribble counts.” If you’ve been identifying with the self-defeating thoughts, you’re practicing self-defeat. You won’t even need external events to beat you at this writing game. You’re taking care of that all by yourself.
Maybe don’t do that.
There are ways to make sure that you spend less time identifying with those self-defeating thoughts. (Notice I said “less time.” It’s not going to be possible to completely eliminate this habit from your life.) The best way is to actively focus on the thoughts you do want to identify with.
One way to do this is to develop personal mantras or affirmations. The cool thing about these is that they’re so flexible, virtual Swiss Army Knives of positive mindset. Having trouble with your revision? There’s a mantra for that. Struggling to keep the faith when you’ve received your umpteenth rejection? There’s an affirmation for that. Having trouble developing a daily writing habit? Heck, throw a mantra and an affirmation at that sucker.
One way or another, your mind is going to respond to external events (along with more than a few imaginary ones, for that matter). The more you choose the responses, practice the sorts of thought patterns that will help keep you writing, the less damage those inevitable, occasional external disappointments are going to do to your writing career.
Check the resources list at the bottom of the page for links to mantras and affirmations that other writers have developed to help them weather the storms, but here are a few of my favorites pulled from a variety of sources:
Affirmations (Usually I Statements that are helpful to set the tone and/or your mindset):
“I am a writer. It’s who I am. That’s why I write every day.”
“I write with joy and courage.”
“My creativity is ever-flowing. My muse must love me.” 😉
“Day by day, word by word, I get better.”
“I love and accept myself, where I am, right now. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
“I can’t be late for my own destiny.”
“My work matters to me and to my readers.”
“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” -Mary Oliver
Mantras (Usually short and memorable – often helpful in deflecting the inner critic):
“You can’t edit a blank page.” -Jodi Picoult (especially useful with first drafts)
“Done is better than perfect.” (first drafts)
“It’s better than you think it is right now. And if it’s not, you’ll fix it.” (first drafts)
“Every book I’ve ever read was not the first draft. It went through revisions and edits. I just have to get it down, then I can make it better.” (first drafts)
“If I can find it, I can fix it.” (especially useful when you’ve found an astonishing amount of things to fix in your first draft during revisions)
“Professional, yes. Perfection, no.” (revisions)
“Creativity takes courage.” – Henri Matisse (when you’re feeling wobbly)
“You can huff and puff, inner critic, but you’re not gonna blow this house down.” (when you want to quit)
“If ______ can do it, so can I.” (when you are feeling subpar)
“Tomorrow is another day.” -Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (when you’re feeling defeated)
“Every dribble counts, campers. Every dribble counts.” -Coach Tom Crean (multipurpose)
Some people may feel at first that this is all a little “woo-woo” for them. Here’s what I say in response to that:
Existential question: If you don’t believe that words matter, why are you a writer?
And check out this mindblowing scientific experiment* suggesting words do actually matter. If they can affect water crystals this way, how can they affect you and your health? Overall, your body is made up of 60% water, but water makes up almost three-quarters of both your brain and heart. If your writing isn’t coming from a combination of those, I ask again, why are you writing?
It’s a key part of the “Miracle Morning” phenom. Aren’t you at least curious about why people are going gaga over these methods? Here’s one writer’s experience with it.
Besides, what exactly do you have to lose by trying it? If you’re going to have thoughts floating across your mind 24/7 anyway, shouldn’t at least some of them be affirming and supportive of you and your writing career?
Because, listen, we need you to write! We need your stories! I’m going to add just one more interpretation of “every dribble counts” here now: Every word, every page, every time you show up. it counts. It helps you get better, and it gets your work closer out into the world where we can read it and be moved by it.
If using an affirmation at the beginning of every writing session gets you writing more words, better words, then do it! If every time your inner critic tells you that you shouldn’t try (or you should write later or you should quit), you answer it with a mantra that helps you, awesome! Hang on to that mantra. That’s what they’re there for. Put as many tools as you can in your arsenal. Be on your own side. Defend your writing dream from the only thing that can really kill it: the day you decide to quit or to never try.
Happy writing, people!
*Please don’t send me comments about this study. I’m not going to spend time debating whether this is science or pseudoscience. I’m about the larger picture here, which to me is: The words that you say to yourself matter. As to the science/pseudoscience debate on this study, all I can offer up is that In 2008, Emoto published his findings in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, a peer-reviewed scientific journal of the Society for Scientific Exploration. My husband is a professor in a scientific field. He’ll tell you getting an article placed in a peer-reviewed scientific journal ain’t easy 😉
“Affirmations for Writers” by Angelique
“4 Powerful Mantras to Beat Writer’s Block” by Cary, the Friendly Editor
“10 Affirmations for Creative Writers and How to Use Them” by Writers Relief Staff
“15 Must-Have Mantras for Writers” by Mom 2.0
“21 Affirmations for Writers” by The Writer’s Habit
“60 Affirmations for Authors, Writers, and Poets” by Ray Davis
“Discover Daily Mantras to Improve Your Writing” by Albert Flynn DeSilver
“Mantras for Writers” by People of The Last Word on Nothing
“The Most Important Writing Mantra of All” by Book Architecture
“The tao of the Three Little Pigs: Don’t Let an Inner Critic Huff, Puff, and Blow Your Work Down” by H. Dair Brown
“You’re a Perfectionist? These Eight Mantras Will Get Your Writing Done” by David Kadavy