I grew up in a home where words had weight. There was a period of time where my elder siblings and I had a habit of saying mean or hurtful things, and attempting to cover our butts by saying “it was just a joke”. Now, this didn’t last very long before my Mother got wind of it and laid down a rule that I still live by.
If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.
Much like other virtues I try to live by, I believe that words matter. That what we say off-handedly can often wield the most pain, and more often than not these things are said unintentionally. Thoughtlessly. These days I do my best to take care with how I speak to others, but I’m just beginning to learn – at nearly 32 – how to speak to myself.
I’ve grappled with perfectionism and self-criticism tendencies since my teen years, to the point that my inner critic would become so loud that I became paralyzed by fear of failure and disappointment. Not because I’d failed or disappointed myself, but because I might. I was living in fear of something that a) every writer goes through and b) a fear that hadn’t even happened yet.
It’s incredibly difficult to be open and vulnerable – and integral part of any creative endeavor – if I’m anticipating negativity. It’s like waiting for a blow, that comes from within. As you might imagine, it’s a pretty unproductive and unhappy way to live. Over the last few weeks, with the help of my psychologist and lots of reading, I’m starting to see the flaws in my old logic and working toward a more positive approach.
One of the first things I’m learning, is to be aware of the words I choose.
Should. Must. Need to. Have to. Duty. Obligation. Constriction. Failure. Not enough.
These are words and phrases can circle around my head in a never-ending loop, if I let them. They carry a lot of weight and pain within them, and “should” is by far the worst offender. If I spent the entire day gaming – which I totally did earlier this week, and it was great – I often feel I should have spent that time writing. If I’d been more dedicated and – basically – a better human being more worthy of love, I would’ve slavishly written like a fiend every day. I would be more “dedicated” or “professional” or “insert descriptive serious word here”.
To which, I have but one rebuttal.
I want to write, I enjoy writing, I have a goal that I have chosen and I aspire to maintain it. Notice the word choices there? They matter. Because the words I use to describe writing influence how I feel about myself and my work. They influence whether I’m being proactive, or being led around on a leash by my inner-critic. If I’m constantly telling myself that I’m not enough, that I must do something or I should be better, how the hell can I expect to find motivation in that mindset? While it’s certainly dramatic to say, “I can’t live, if living is without you …”
Wait. No, wrong quote. [Stop sniggering, you know you think I’m funny as hell. Unrelated, I really miss her curls. Oh Gods, now I’ve been distracted by more videos … shiny! squirrel!]
I know a fair amount of writers who would probably sing this from the rooftops, lovingly, to their current work in progress. I love writing. It’s one of many ways I express myself as a person, and it’s often a tool I use to understand the world, but it doesn’t actually define me as a person.
Writing – or any goal on my list, for that matter – isn’t a must or a need. The world will not end if I don’t write this week, I won’t actually die. Sure, I might be disappointed in myself, but I can shake it off and move forward. Because as my wonderful therapist says, even the most dedicated people take vacations. It’s okay to cut myself some slack and to – gasp! – even enjoy other things that aren’t related to my goals.
Also, flogging myself for my “failures” won’t make me a better writer.
One of the worst things Nanowrimo
programmed me with “taught” me, was the idea of word debt. If I missed a few days, or week, I could make up for it by adding the missed writing – herein simply called “debt” – to my regular weekly goal. By using this tactic the goal of Nano quickly became impossible for me, because the debt was always bigger than me, and it never stopped accumulating.
I can’t succeed in a scenario like Nanowrimo, or other such systems, that consistently punish perceived failure. Because all too often that “failure” is simply my humanity shinning through. It’s when I put down the writing to spend time with family, read a book, go for broke on video gaming, play outside in the sun, sleep in because I feel like it, or indulge in a long hot bath.
I am not perfect, I’m not going to write every day. I’m going to miss blog posts. But I’m not going to punish myself for having more than one passion, for having family I want to be with it, or just being human. I realize that if writing is your bread and butter, and you require it to put said bread and butter on the table, my methods might not work for you.
But I’ve stopped playing the numbers game.
Word debt will not hang like a specter over my 1925 experience. If I miss a week and that puts me behind “schedule”, bummer, but I won’t lose sleep over it. My goal is 1925 word, every week. Regardless of any outstanding debt. Chances are I’ll make up the difference, because I tend to overachieve [at least a bit] on a regular basis. But even if I don’t? I’ll live and my book will too.
Kind self-talk is something that I’m learning, it’s still very new and I’m sure I’ll stumble into old paths even as I begin to find newer ones [there’s that humanity again]. But if you should find a curly-haired writer in a dark purple wheelchair wandering down Negativity Alley, do me a favor?
Gently, gently nudge her back towards towards Kindness Road. While you’re there, check your own map, and make sure you’re headed in the right direction, too. It’s never too late [or too early] to course-correct and point our internal voices in a more helpful direction.