We all wonder this. Anyone who creates anything has this thought every once in a while. I do, as well. I have an idea that I’m excited about, I work on it, maybe a first draft, maybe two. Then that self-doubt creeps in. Is this any good? Will anyone read it? Like it? Tell their friends? Leave a good review?
It can be a downward spiral from there. What’s the point if no one is going to like this story, or even read it? Am I just writing into a void? Should I give up and do something else?
As creators, this type of thinking can kill our motivation. It leads us down a dark path where we get lost amid all the questions, doubts, and fears.
Some of us have it worse than others. It depends on the amount of self-confidence you already have in play, coupled with how much support you receive, and how people have reacted to your previous output. We’re human, we can’t help it. Our brains are both our biggest ally and our greatest enemy.
If you’ve listened to my podcast, you might already know how I feel about this. The problem, in my opinion, is that we put too much emphasis on what other people think of us and our work. We gauge success and failure by other people’s reactions. We base our self worth as artists, even as people, on whether or not something likes our output. We even compare ourselves to our peers. Am I doing better than them? Then I’m successful. Are they doing better than me? Then I’ve failed.
That’s bullshit thinking.
The ONLY person whose opinion you need to worry about it your own. That’s it.
Is this something you would enjoy reading, viewing, or listening to? If yes, then you’re successful. That’s all there is to it. Don’t worry if other people think it sucks. Whatever they may feel or think about it doesn’t really matter. It’s not a fact, it’s their opinion. Art, like humor, is subjective. I may laugh at something that you don’t find funny, just like you may love a book that I found boring. And remember, opinions are like assholes…everybody has one.
This all stems from a recent online conversation I had with someone about a story they’re working on. They wanted to give up because someone else, a friend of theirs, read an early draft and said it sucked. Based solely on that opinion, this writer was ready to give up, chuck it all away and move on to something else.
Luckily, I was able to talk them off the ledge. I basically told them what I wrote above and I reiterated one of my mantras: Write for yourself. Yes, I know, we all want an audience of faithful readers who hang on our every word. The truth is, that may never happen. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of writers out there writing stories they hope will get noticed. Some will, some won’t, but in the end it doesn’t matter if the writers are doing it for themselves. As long as you’re writing something that appeals to you, that you’d pick up in a bookstore and read, then you’ve won.
Writing is a lonely profession. We do it alone, just us and our imaginations, and sometimes we really need the validation of someone else to motivate and inspire us. I get it. I’m the same way. But you shouldn’t base your worth as a writer, or as a person, on what other people think. Make yourself happy, first. A happy writer is a good writer. A good writer will find an audience. Just be patient.
I’ve been a follower of Buddhist philosophy for over twenty-five years. Not the religious aspect of it. I can do without that. But the philosophy behind it, the way to look at life, at the people around me, my perception of my world, that all appeals to me. And although I’m far from perfect, I try to adhere to the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path as best I can.I’ve read quite a few books about Buddhism, as well. Of course, they’ve all been written from a religious angle. So when I’ve worked on educating myself, I’ve had to focus on the rational points and read the spiritual more like mythology. What I’ve been looking for is a book that doesn’t denigrate the religion, but would allow me to better understand the real teachings, the words the Buddha taught without filter and interpretation.
At a simple 115 pages (plus a few more covering sources), Batchelor argues that the Buddha never set out to create a religion. Instead, he simply wanted to help people better themselves and the world around them through a handful of basic tenets. No gods or goddesses, no spirituality, just a focus on understanding how we can improve ourselves mentally and better adapt to the world around us.
Batchelor, a practicing Buddhist, trained in monasteries and has been teaching for decades. I found his insight to be extraordinary. He gently, and without denigration, breaks down the how’s and why’s of Buddhist teachings, stripping away the religious aspects to reveal a simple and easily understood path to understanding ourselves.
Even if you aren’t religious, or are a following of a specific dogma, Buddhism Without Beliefs can still have something for you. Outside of meditation and practice, there is a lot of practical points that can help you to calm your inner turmoil, help you understand your actions and reactions, and maybe even bring you some peace of mind.
I highly recommend this book. Like I mentioned above, it’s a quick read, but even so, there’s a lot to unpack. Give it a try and see what speaks to you. You have nothing to lose, but so much to gain.
“So what are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, consoling, and embellishing in our heads?” – Stephen Batchelor
“Commitment to the most worthy purpose is of little value if we lack confidence in our ability to realize it.”
– Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs
I’ve been reading the aforementioned book the past few days, and this line stuck out to me. I read it several times because it resonated and made me think about my commitment to writing fiction.
I think one thing that many writers struggle with is confidence. Not just with themselves and their ability to tell a good story, but also confidence in the stories themselves, the characters we create, the plots and dialogue. There’s always that little voice in the back of our heads whispering, “Are you sure?”.
I’ve been writing a long time, probably close to forty years. I’ve written a lot of stories, some good and some bad, but regardless of the outcomes I continue to do it. Out of, say, one-hundred stories, maybe twenty or thirty were what I would consider good. The rest, well, I’ve categorized them as practice pieces.
And yet, I still doubt myself and my abilities. Why? Hard to say for sure, but there are arguably several reasons. First and foremost, I didn’t get much support for my writing until I was in my late twenties. Mostly I was told it was a cute hobby and that I should focus on something real so I can set my sights on a ‘real’ job. Either that, or my creative output was ignored.
Despite that lack of support, I continued to write. Doubt was always there, looking over my shoulder, whispering in my ear, but I persevered. The stories and poems were in my head, and I transferred them to the page. Even when I felt no one cared and that I was writing in a vacuum, I kept at it.
Why? Because I was committed to it. I love to write, I love to tell stories, to paint pictures with words. The thing that helped the most was when I decided that I was going to write for myself. What I mean is, I decided to stop worrying about what others thought, or if they even cared, and wrote things that I wanted to read.
That the reason my stories cross genres. My reading preferences are all over the place – fiction, non-fiction, weird fiction, speculative, horror, fantasy, cyberpunk, literary, historical – and in turn that influences my writing.
Once I realized I didn’t have to receive acknowledgement from others I found a new sense of freedom in writing. I became more confident. Sure, there’s still that whisper in my ear, but now I ignore it, swat it away and focus on the page in front of me.
It doesn’t matter where you are with your creativity. Doesn’t matter if you’re a writer, a painter, a songwriter. We’re all going to doubt ourselves, some more than others, but we can’t let it stop us. We have to stay committed, focused, and continue to do what we love. That’s all that matters. Doing something you love.
When you think about giving up, tossing your laptop in the trash, going back to binge-watching something on television, remember this: you don’t have to listen to that negative voice in your head. You have one lifetime, a handful of decades, to enjoy yourself, so why not do the things you love? Be creative, be silly, experiment, try new things.
Don’t let doubt stop you from expressing yourself. Be committed to your creativity.
It’s good to have routines, like writing every day, exercising regularly, doing positive things on a schedule. Routines help us to get things done, stay healthy, keep us on task. The more often we do things the easier they become (usually) and the better we get at doing them. For example, writing every day keeps my skills sharp and helps me to develop as a storyteller.
The thing is, routines can also make us complacent. We know what to expect so we may not try as hard. Like exercising. If we do the same routine three days a week, week after week, we’ll eventually stop trying as hard. Same with writing. Sticking with what’s comfortable, what we’re good at, isn’t going to help us improve.
Using myself as an example, I write in my journal every day – or most every day – but I don’t always write at the same time of day and I don’t always write about the same topics. I used to write in it on a schedule. Every morning at five a.m. I was sitting at the dining room table writing about writing. In other words, I’d write about stories I was working on, ideas for new ones, problems I’d run into with a plot or an ending. After a while I found it harder to write. I went from scribbling out four pages down to two, then found I was struggling to even write one page.
So I started writing about other things, like my state of mind, things I was dealing with at the office, my relationships with my partner and my friends. That seemed to help and my entries grew longer. Then I tried writing at different times of day. Occasionally in the mornings, sometimes in the early afternoon, even right before going to bed. I found this gave me different perspectives on the events of the days and on other topics. In the mornings I was recalling the day before after a good night of sleep so my writing was more restrained and conservative. However, when writing in the afternoons the subject matter was fresher and my writing more colorful.
I’ve been trying that with my fiction, as well. I used to always write at specific times because, well, it seemed like the right thing to do. And it worked. I’ve been productive and written a fair number of short stories. But then I wondered if I could be more productive, and possibly more creative, if I started mixing up my routine and changing the times when I wrote.
Lo and Behold! It did make a difference. A good one. I’ve discovered that a little change in routine – time of day, location, state of mind – makes a big difference in how I write and what I write. I’m becoming more productive and working on multiple stories.
I won’t claim that this is the right thing for every writer, but it might be worth trying. Remember, routine is good. Writing, journaling, being creative every day keeps you sharp and will make you a better writer. But still, mix things up a bit with those routines. Don’t get so bogged down in doing the same things at the same times every day. Maybe write at a different time or different place. Sit on the patio, in another room, listen to a different playlist or drink a different type of tea.
I never realized just how much influence our jobs have on our mental health. I mean, sure, we can get stressed at work, occasionally have to deal with toxic people, clean up mistakes, things like that. It’s a job and it comes with the territory.
I recently read this article that explains how a toxic workplace can increase an employee’s risk of depression by 300%. Wow.
I’ve been working in office environments for nearly thirty years and I’ve had my fair share of toxic workplaces. Not all of them started out that way. Some jobs were great for a while, but then a change in ownership or turnover in management changed everything from the top down. Then there were a couple of places that convinced me things were great, but once I started I realized my mistake and got out. Quick. Looking back, there were warning signs, but I was too trusting.
The thing is, you may not necessarily realize how your job is affecting your state of mind. It can be subtle, insidious. Maybe you have a passive-aggressive boss, or a co-worker who steadily undermines you. Or maybe it’s a slowly increasing workload being dumped on you.
Eventually, you find yourself struggling both on and off the clock. Not only will it affect your performance at the office, but it will also affect your relationships and your physical health. High blood pressure, migraines, stomach problems. It all ties together.
The two things that helped me in these situations were writing in my journal and meditating. Journaling allowed me to vent and get those toxic thoughts out of my head. Meditating helped me to calm down, relax, lower my blood pressure and heart rate.
There are tons of online resources for meditating. Or if you prefer, you can also find apps that offer guided meditations. Personally, I like using the Headspace app. Look around and try a few different options to see what works best for you. All you need is ten minutes and a bit of quiet to get started.
But those are only temporary measures. The only real solution is to find another job, something that’s better suited for you. Will it be easy? Maybe, maybe not. But what I’ve found is that sometimes you have to take a step or two backwards in order to move forward. I’ve done it before and I’m doing it again now.
I’m starting a new job this week. A fully-remote writing job with a company that went virtual last year. They don’t have an office and every employee works from home. It’s much different from what I’ve been doing the past eight years, but I’m glad to be getting back to writing. All the people I’ve met at my new employer have been wonderful and I’m excited to be starting something new, a new path, a new adventure. And I did it for me and my well being.
No job is going to be perfect, but that doesn’t mean you should settle for one that makes you unhappy. It’s not good for you. Look around, take a chance, and maybe you’ll find something that will make you feel good again.
When it comes to acting, I’ve read and watched interviews with actors explaining how they inhabit the characters they play. In some cases, a few of them have had a hard time separating themselves from the characters, even going so far as to seek professional help in order to get back into their own psyche.
This got me thinking about writers and the characters we create in our fiction. It’s said that all writers put a little bit of themselves into their stories. I agree with that. I know that once I’ve finished a story I can look back over it and see little pieces of myself in there, like my experiences and my personality.
But with that, can writers experience the same situation as some of those actors, where we end up having trouble separating ourselves from the characters we create?
I don’t see it happening with short fiction, although I assume it’s possible. With short fiction, we aren’t interacting with the characters for a long stretch of time. It’s sort of like participating in a one-act play. I don’t think there’s enough time to really immerse oneself into the character for it to become a problem.
With longer fiction, however, I could see that happening. And not just novels, but also longer plays and movie scripts. In these cases, the writer is spending long periods of time with the characters, especially the protagonist. For long-form work, we have to get inside the character’s head, figure out what motivates them, what they want, their background, their personalities, their hopes and fears. In a way, it isn’t too far removed from acting.
What I’m curious about is if any authors have been so wrapped up in a story they were writing that they had a hard time separating themselves from the characters. Think about some of the more intense characters you’ve encountered in fiction, movies, plays. Consider Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, or Humbert Humbert in Lolita, or Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. All very intense, conniving personalities. How could an author not get tangled up in their creations?
For actors, in most cases, they are inhabiting a character that was created by someone else. They look at a script as a blueprint, and from there they piece it together. In the situations where the script was based on a novel, they may even read the book to get more depth. But for a writer, the characters begin and end in their heads. There isn’t any separation, no division between the two.
Oddly, I don’t think I’ve ever read of an author having the same issues as an actor when it comes to keeping a distance between themselves and the characters. I wonder why that is? Perhaps writers have more control. I mean, we are the ones creating the characters out of thin air. It’s easy enough to kill them off if we want to, or put them through traumatic experiences to teach them a lesson. Hell, we can simply highlight their existence and hit the ‘delete’ key. A snap of the fingers and they never existed.
I’d be interested to see some research into this, especially if it explains how writers can seemingly get away with having characters live in their heads. And no, I don’t think it’s because we’re all a little crazy.
I’ve always been fascinating with acting. It’s not just people playing make-believe, it takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and commitment. Listen in as I talk about this amazing, and oftentimes under-appreciated, art form.
There are times when I take a moment to simply pause and think about what I’ve done over the past few days. That’s when I realize just how quickly time passes. Sure, there are days (usually work days) when time seems to slow down, or even stop, but most of the time it blows by like a bullet train.
And what gets me is the fact that we have a finite amount of time. There’s no going back for a do-over, no repeats, no mulligans (for the golf enthusiasts). We have a starting point and an ending point. And no pause button.
Not that I’m lamenting this fact. I think it’s important to remember it because it helps me to appreciate things.
At the same time, however, knowing how quickly time passes makes me feel like I need to hurry up and do the things I want to do. There’s so many ideas and projects-in-progress that I feel like I’ll never accomplish everything. It’s similar to the feeling I get when I think about books. There are so many amazing stories out there in the world and I want to read them all, but I know I can’t Still, I’ll give it my best shot.
But rushing through things isn’t a good idea. Sure, I want to write all the stories I have in my head, I want to see them published, I want people to read them, but pushing myself to try and write them all isn’t going to end well. Art can’t be rushed. I’d rather publish a handful of stories I’m proud of than publish a hundred stories I rushed through and are only shadows of what they could be.
That’s why I remind myself to stop, step back, breathe.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to accomplish things, to leave a positive mark on the world around you, but we’re only human and can only accomplish so much in our lifetimes. Better to go for quality than quantity.
Sure, it’s tough to accept that I won’t be able to do all the things I want to do, but at the very least, the creative projects I can finish will be done well and I’ll be proud of them.
Remember, take your time and do it right the first time. In the end, you’ll be proud of yourself and leave behind something beautiful. That’s all that matters.
We all need a little motivation every now and then. Even the most driven individuals can get burned out, frustrated, lose their energy. It’s not a personal failing, it’s just something that happens because we’re human, not machines. Sometimes it may be due to personal issues, physical issues, or mental health. Other times it’s just simple burn out.
I find it happens to me, too. I can get into a fantastic groove working on various creative projects, writing, drawing, cooking, making music. But eventually I’ll run out of steam and have to take a break to catch my breath.
The problem, I’ve found, is that it can difficult to get back to it. Why is it that we find it easy to slip out of good routines and processes, but so hard to get back into them? Just like it’s easier to pick up a bad habit than it is to break one.
It would be wonderful to have a cure-all for when this arises. Pop a pill, drink an elixir, do a funky dance or something like that. But no. As the saying goes, there are no easy answers.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that will work for you. You just have to find it. When you’re in one of those ruts, you have to ask yourself, “What motivates me?”
We’re all motivated by something different. It may be you have ideas in your head that you feel passionate about. Or maybe you have a desire to prove to someone – maybe yourself, maybe a friend or family member – that you’re better than they think you are. Or maybe you want to impress someone, a woman who makes your heart flutter, or a man who makes you feel funny inside. Or maybe you can’t sit still, that you have to do something, keep busy, keep moving.
Whatever it may be, you have to remind yourself every once in a while. I’m not going to claim that this will shake off that funk your in and get you back on track, but I do think it’s a first step. What I mean is, the way to correct course is to take a step back and remember what it is that fuels your passion, that keeps the fires burning.
Once you remember that, it can start a chain reaction, like lighting a fuse. You remember that motivation – the spark – and it gets you thinking about your journey, what got you started in your creative endeavor, made you want to be creative. Then you’ll start to remember how good it feels to create. You’ll remember what it is that you enjoy about the process. And before you know it, you’ll be back in the groove.
Like I note above, there’s no quick fix. Even what I describe about remembering your motivation isn’t going to immediately change things. There’s a process, everyone is different. But I think that this is a good way to begin that process.
Remember, we all need to be creative in some way. No matter what it is, try and do it regularly, get into a routine, follow your passion. It’s good for you.
I’m sure you’ve heard of art therapy and music therapy. In fact, art has been used in therapy for over a century. Initially, it was used as a form of “moral therapy” for psychiatric patients, it’s evolved over time to something that can be utilized in a wide variety of situations, from helping Alzheimers patients with their memory issues to physical therapies where patients are relearning how to use their arms and hands.
But on a more personal level, I’ve found that art therapy, or creativity in general, can be therapeutic for everyday life.
Obviously, I’m not a mental health professional or physician, so take my words as simply personal experience and nothing more. I’m not suggesting you explore this in lieu of seeking professional help. Nowadays, it’s best to clarify before someone gets the wrong idea.
For me, creativity has always been mainstay in my life. From writing and drawing comic books as a kid to writing and self-publishing fiction as an adult, it’s been there for me as a way to express myself. However, it’s also been a sort of companion for me. Those long summers on my uncle’s dairy farm where I was the only kid for miles, my creativity and imagination kept me company. I created all sorts of adventures for myself as I wandered the hay fields and thick Wisconsin forests. That old gnarled tree stump became a troll. The wind whispering through the leaves were sirens trying to trick me into sailing my ship into the rocks. And that old abandon car helped me escape after I robbed the Bist Bank and Trust of all their pinecones.
Trust me, it all made sense when I was a child.
As I grew matured (which is questionable), so did my use of my creativity. The aliens and pirates moved onto the page and became stories, and along with that, so did my hopes and fears. As a teenager I found that writing was a way for me to work through my hormonal angst. I filled spiral notebooks full of poems about unrequited love, dreams of the future, and images from my dreams. I actually still have a few of those notebooks and occasionally take them out to thumb through. It’s interesting to look back and remember how I used to be and how I used to see the world.
Later, in late teens, I began to journal. That’s when I found the outlet I needed, the sympathetic ear, the judgement-free listener. Journaling kept me going through bad relationships, family drama, love and loss. Even now, I still write in my journal almost daily. Sometimes it’s just a page, sometimes it’s several. But regardless, I always walk away from the page feeling a little bit better.
Why is that? Because it’s a way to clear the clutter from the attic. Speaking for myself, it’s easy to get caught up in my own little world, to become self-absorbed and see things from only one perspective. Writing in my journal allows me to work things out, to explore my thoughts, my experiences, and to see them from another perspective. There have been many occasions where I was thinking along one track, only to realize after writing in my journal that I was wrong. And admitting I’m wrong on the page makes it a lot easier to admit it to myself.
Journaling isn’t the only creative therapy I participate in. I also cook. Every day. Most of it is survival cooking, meaning, I cook because it’s time for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner. We need sustenance. But I do like to explore the creative aspect of cooking. I like to try new recipes, or read about different ways to cook something, like a chicken, then come up with my own method.
I find that when I’m in the kitchen, watching something in the sautée pan while deciding what spices to use, the rest of the world falls away. I forget my problems and worries. I lose myself in the motion of manipulating the pan, the smells of garlic and onion, the endless possibilities. Because cooking requires thought, imagination, and attention, it’s a wonderful way for me to unwind in the evenings. Weekends, however, are my prime cooking time. A bottle of wine helps, too.
In my opinion, one of the biggest issues in the world today is mental health care. There’s just not enough of it and there’s often a stigma attached to people to seek it out. That’s why I think encouraging people to use their creativity as a form of therapy could be a partial solution. Just having a way to express ourselves can make a huge difference in how we manage our mental state.
Consider this: You have a terrible coworker or manager. They make your workdays difficult. They make you angry, anxious, frustrated, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Situations like this can take a toll on your mental and emotional state. Some people are lucky enough to have access to decent healthcare and can go see a professional to learn coping mechanisms and ways to deal with these people. Others aren’t so lucky. In fact, I’d wager that most people don’t have that kind of healthcare.
But if you have ‘one of those days’ and arrive home with your head spinning, you can decompress by doing something creative. You can write about it. A journal can be your best friend. Or maybe use fiction instead. Write a story about your nemesis getting their comeuppance. I’ve done that. Or you can immerse yourself in trying out a new recipe in the kitchen, something new and exotic. Or you can pull out some paint brushes and a canvas and lose yourself in a landscape or something abstract. If you’re feeling restless, then put on some music and dance your heart out. No one is watching, so let yourself go.
We all have issues we deal with, and some of us handle things better than others. There’s no shame in needing a release, a pressure valve for your head or your heart. Professional therapy is great, but it can also be expensive and far too many people don’t have easy access to it. Creative, however, really doesn’t cost much. A pen and a spiral notebook. A paintbrush, some paint, and something to paint on, like a piece of scrap wood or cardboard. Music and dancing are free.
No, it’s not going to be for everyone, but there’s no harm in trying something new, is there? The next time you’re having a bad day, you’re stressed out, angry, hurt, confused, try doing something creative. It’s not a perfect solution, but it might just be enough.