Speak Kindly to Everyone (Including Yourself)


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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.

Bullshit.

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.

 


Categories: Anxiety, Life, Writing
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3 Responses so far.

  1. Owen O'Neill says:

    Thanks for the cookie! : )

    If you aren’t healthy, how are you going to write? Or (which is more important, I think) write well? We all need to take time to create the proper “environment” (mental & physical) to write. That’s as much a part of writing as writing is.

    Speaking of writing well, I’ve always wondered why I hear so much emphasis on writing to a “schedule” (so many words, etc) and not whether you want to preserve those words for posterity?

    A fellow I used to know who taught creative writing at Stanford was a big proponent of “writing garbage” — his feeling was that too many people right “word by word” and thus never establish a creative flow, get frustrated and quit, because they worried about each word/sentence as they wrote it. I think he was correct, but I always wondered what happened after NANOWRIMO — is there an EDIMO to go with it? Maybe there is.

    But anyway, one thing I’ve learned on the writing front, is that when I’m not writing, it’s often because I’m about to do something dumb. This is a little different than working out problems the way we did last month — it’s about problems we didn’t know we had. Last night, I finished a draft of the new chapter and was struck by the fact that something we thought was sorta buttoned up, but haven’t written yet, was totally wrong. If we’d pushed ahead “ruthlessly” we would’ve written something really silly. This happens a lot with me: it’s almost like I go into a “holding pattern” that is actually a warning that there’s something I don’t understand, so we’ll “circle” until I do.

    Now my brain works in mysterious ways, and if we were more organized and more meticulous, maybe we’d figure all this out beforehand (and some people probably do), but we don’t work that way. The larger point is that (I think — speaking kinda notionally) our brains give us feedback all the time, and when we get stuck in a creative endeavor that often means we’ll be wasting our time trying to “muscle” thru it.

    So I think there’s much to be said for asking: Am I really writing the way I want to write? Or I am just writing because I think I have to write?

    Hope you keep feeling better! And, thanks — I very much enjoy these exchanges. : )
    Owen

  2. As it happens, I wrote much less than I would’ve like to in April, but if I start thinking about “should,” what will inevitably happen is that I won’t write much in May either. And that would be bad. So the best I can do is keep my mind free of clutter and worry and go forward as best I can, which may mean (and often does) doing things that aren’t writing.

    COOOKIE!

    This deserves a cookie. Many cookies. Because, yes. As of this moment I am right there with you. In fact this hits on the blog post I intend to write today. I am currently about 3200 words “behind” my intended goal of 11550, and I’m consciously not letting it bother me.

    Why, you may ask? Because right now, my biggest goal for the year isn’t actually writing. (This is blasphemy to my inner critic.) My biggest goal is getting my mental and physical health in a better state. So, for the past two weeks, that means writing has taken a backseat.

    And, as you so wonderfully said, I know if I obsess about how much I “missed” recently, I will write even less in the weeks to come. I’m trusting myself that when my mind and body are in a comfortable state (they’re currently in flux) I’ll be able to fire away at writing again. That might not happen for another week or two, and that’s okay with me.

    I would much rather be healthy and behind than sick and on target. If that means it takes me longer to complete my goal? Too damn bad. I’m going to run myself ragged while simultaneously trying to heal 10+ years of mental illness. It’s just not worth it. To quote you, “Right now, I need to stick with right now.” I’ll deal with everything else when it comes.

    I’m so glad to hear that you’ve had a breakthrough with the vexing chunks! It’s such a relief isn’t it? When those missing pieces can finally fall into place and you have forward motion again? Congratulations on the announcement of the fourth book in your Loralynn Kennakris series! 🙂 That’s great news.

    So enjoy hearing from you,
    Jessie

  3. Owen O'Neill says:

    I want to add a bit of an exclamation point to all your great words in this post, and maybe add a little of my own perspective. The income my co-author and I now derive from our writing has reached the point where it’s quite important to us. And this has changed things in ways that throw what you said above into high relief. And what I mean by that is that “should” and all those words that go along with — and rules and Nanowrimo-type goals (and word debt — an excellent expression) — are, in essence, a luxury.

    I don’t mean they are bad for everyone, or never work, or anything like that. I think they might help some people and one can learn from them, but in most ways, the fixation on process and the fixation on numbers are things you can only do when you aren’t depending on writing for your income. If you are, you need to find what works for you and quit listening to other voices, be they all that “helpful” advice or one’s inner nag. In other words, you don’t have time for “should”. You only have time for “do.”

    As it happens, I wrote much less than I would’ve like to in April, but if I start thinking about “should,” what will inevitably happen is that I won’t write much in May either. And that would be bad. So the best I can do is keep my mind free of clutter and worry and go forward as best I can, which may mean (and often does) doing things that aren’t writing.

    At the moment, I’m feeling pretty good because in the midst of all this non-writing, I think we finally got a handle in two big story issues they have been vexing us for more than month. So I think we can start to get back into gear. Now, in a month some other knotty problem may come crashing down across the path to a finished draft. But I can’t worry about that either — if does, we’ll deal with it when it happens (and cuss a lot!). Right now, we need to stick with right now.

    Sometimes, it’s pretty amazing what you can do, once you stop worrying so much about doing it.

    : )
    Owen