Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 25.
If you’re analytically-minded it cannot have escaped your attention that we are a quarter of the way through this programme already. And you’d think a benchmark like that would spur you on, especially if you’re writing a novel. You hit a quarter of your overall word target and you imagine that feels like an exciting milestone.
But, just like with running, where you finish 5 of a 20k, sometimes it has the opposite effect. You think ‘that was only a quarter? I’ve got 3 times that still to do? Yikes.’ And you find yourself catapulted out of the sexy honeymoon straight into the mortgage, three kids and dad bod phase, spooning the food recycling from the indoor bin into the slightly larger outdoor bin at 10pm in your slippers.
So in a way I’m not sure it’s helpful to point out landmark numbers like this. I’m sure some people feel spurred on but it does shift our focus away from the lovely, juicy, exciting work of the moment, the adventure that’s happening right now, this opportunity for growth and hilarious instructive failure right in front of us, towards this distant, extrinsic goal based on numbers. You might think it’s useful to have a big fat writing target to aim for, and if you’ve ever been on the internet – it’s a big system of electronically-distributed human knowledge populated largely by a tribe known as the twats – you may have seen lots of writers sounding off about word count this and first draft that.
And it might even semi-work for you as motivation, although let’s be honest, if it did, you wouldn’t be here listening to me, now would you. But the method you’re using is taking all your lovely dopamine, chaining it up in the dungeon, then saying to yourself ‘right, you can have that in 3 years when you finish your fucking novel’. It’s like heaven forbid you’re happy now. Don’t, whatever you do, feel satisfied with today’s writing for its own sake.
Cos if you’re satisfied – so goes the narrative – you’ll slump into this island of the lotus eaters style stupor, drugged with your own self-acceptance, and never achieve anything. And then maybe on your deathbed you’ll snap out of your trance and go ‘oh no! I’m not really happy at all. And I wasted my life liking myself when I should have been writing.’ Then you come back as the Marley’s Ghost of books or something.
Now let us acknowledge the grain of truth here. Whomst amongst us-t has not lost an evening to a Netflix binge, or been sucked into the Sid Meier’s Civilisation black hole, or just durdled and scrolled away a large amount of time only to come out of it feeling drained and regretful? You and I both yearn to spend our time meaningfully. That’s a positive desire. It’s just that our standard way of trying to fulfil that desire – through guilt, obligation, trying to anticipate and avoid dire mistakes, harsh self-recrimination – all of these strategies are suboptimal, maladaptive, and where they do work they cause so many negative side-effects as to create more problems than they solve.
So remember right at the start I said I was aiming to be a pragmatist? That optimism predicts healthy lifestyle choices but also kills smokers? This is what I’m talking about. Just like yesterday where we practised exposing you to and to an extent embracing some of the traits you’re most fearful of embodying in your writing, I don’t think we can simply peptalk our way out of your doubts, your worries, your blocks and your self-sabotage. You choose these behaviours for positive reasons, even if they are inefficient, they don’t work or they make things worse.
In my experience, trying to shut those voices up doesn’t make them go away – just like you’re rarely insulted into changing your mind, right? If someone calls you names and tells you how stupid you are for thinking something – without actually listening to what you believe or how you came to believe it, without taking the time to understand you – and that person tries to overwrite your feelings with their much better viewpoint, you don’t usually think ‘oh well, that’s a pretty shrewd observation actually’ and change your mind.
At most you might temporarily comply – resentfully, feeling browbeaten and humiliated into it. You probably won’t do whatever they’ve shamed you into doing very well, you certainly won’t enjoy it. And if you do comply you’ll find all sorts of passive-aggressive or deliberate ways to undermine your effort. You’ll show up late. You won’t prepare. You’ll get sick. Anything to claw back a sense of self-efficacy.
I mean, yeugh. Imagine if you accidentally made yourself feel that way about something you really wanted to do?
So today I want you to harness that voice. We’re going to lean into some deliberate, limited exposure. Some of these exercises have parallels with therapeutic modalities like Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. DBT was developed mainly for helping people with Borderline Personality Disorder but most of the moves and ideas behind it are solid for anyone, because they’re all about engaging with your feelings in a healthy, kind way, and building distress tolerance – the ability to cope when you have unpleasant feelings, maybe even to stay with them, turn towards them, and learn from them.
I’m not a therapist but I am an enthusiastic end-user of this apparatus we call the brain and I see in my creative writing teaching that a fair amount of what holds writers back has an emotional and psychological component. There’s loads of powerful knowledge one can develop in terms of craft and technique and in the days that follow I’m going to be foisting heaped basketfuls of craft skills onto you, but it’s all of it useless if you can’t turn up, you can’t train, you can’t bring yourself to do the work and to do so in an open, courageous way where you take risks and tap into the full spectrum of human emotion so that what you write connects with people.
So look. In a moment I’m going to ask you to write for ten minutes about all the judgements you have about yourself as a writer, all the fears and doubts and self-criticism. You’re going to channel that voice for a full ten minutes and then you’re going to stop. But. Instead of writing, for example, ‘I don’t think I’ve got what it takes to stick with this, who do I think I am’, I want you to write it as if it were coming from someone else. ‘I don’t think you’ve got what it takes to stick with this, who do you think you are’.
You are going to be channelling your very own Writing Demon. This is the personification of all your doubts, your fears, your self-criticism, whatever comes up when you feel the worst about your writing. He, she or they probably has a name – what do you think it might be? Is your Writing Demon seductive and eloquent – come now, child, put down the pen. Writing isn’t for you. It only makes you tired. Why do this to yourself? You know it can only come to nothing.
Or are they a crude bully – you nasty little worm. Look at this crap. Who told you you were allowed to write?
Or are they a voice of anxious guilt – how can you write when there’s so much catastrophe in the world? When there are people out there who need you? What’s the point in all this when we’re all going to die anyway?
Or perhaps they sound like a bored child – oh God can we do something else now? Come on, this is rubbish. Let’s check Twitter. Or can we just go downstairs and have a biscuit? This is so dumb.
Or something else? Or maybe a mix of styles? Maybe they switch tack if they feel one voice isn’t working? Do they sound like you? Or do they sound a bit like someone from your life, either now or in your past?
I don’t know. But I’m asking you, a bit like yesterday, to just cede control for ten minutes. This is probably a voice you’ve trained yourself to suppress, ignore and even fear. Oh no, it’s her, she’s talking to me again. So it might feel counterintuitive and challenging at first to let them come through. But – let’s be blunt – suppression hasn’t worked. They’ve just got louder, and you’ve grown more and more adept at picking out their voice. So we’re going to try a new strategy.
So, ten minutes – your Writing Demon, whoever they are, is speaking directly to you. In fact: hello Writing Demon. I’m talking to you now. This is your big chance. Your pitch. You have the floor. We’re not going to shut you up. Make your case why they should never ever ever write again. If you nail this you might well win a final, decisive victory and kill their creative flow stone dead. So please. Go hog wild. As many words as you can, in as much vivid detail as you need. Don’t hold back. Let all your feelings out.
Ready? Write till the bell sounds. Three… two… one… Go.
And that’s it. Stop. No more.
Now for some people, this exercise is mildly amusing. For others, it is literally the roughest, most challenging work they’ve done in the course so far. Depending on the degree to which you felt able to give yourself to the exercise, and how you feel about yourself, it may have brought you up against some tough feelings.
So first of all, just to check in, how were you feeling before the exercise? And how did you feel during? And how about now, in the aftermath? Has your posture shifted? How’s your breathing?
See, if you ever doubted you were a storyteller, if you ever doubted your ability to create characters and dialogue, I direct you to the work you just did, a transcript of the ongoing shitshow inside your head. These things that you say to yourself, may have become so habitual that you have fused with your thoughts. That you find it hard – almost impossible – to recognise that they’re a story, rather than reality viewed through a clear pane of glass.
But they are – and that’s all that they are, really. Just a set of opinions that you are free to pay attention to or, if you prefer, to notice and politely separate yourself from. However mean your Writing Demon may be, they are, ultimately, an aspect of you. In the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, demons are not entities to be destroyed so much as tamed. And because of karma and rebirth, even demons, over time, may engage in more skilful actions and be reborn as kinder, more compassionate creatures.
Your Writing Demon doesn’t need to be your boss, nor need they be your enemy. Either way, they dominate your attention. What today’s exercise is, is the first step in creating progressively bigger spaces for these voices to live in. Today you meet feel like you’re stuck in a service elevator with your Writing Demon. In time, you may find ways of expanding that space, of gaining distance, till it feels more like you’re sharing a living room with them. One day, it may be like you’re both standing in the same cathedral. Sometimes, you may even feel as if you’re just in view of one another across a great rolling meadow, or on the shoreline of a vast ocean.
And when they get that far away, and you can still hear them going on with their anxious, angry, future-oriented, needy, hand-wringing monologue, you might even feel your relationship with them shifting. You might even feel the strangest of emotions. Like… a little bit sorry for them.
Take care of yourself, won’t you. You really are wonderful and tremendously valuable in ways you barely comprehend. Thanks for turning up today, and I’ll see you tomorrow.