Everyone who knows me will no doubt find this very funny. To be fair, I do too.
I’m currently doing this author mentoring programme run by the brilliant Sophie Hannah and it involves a lot of positive thinking stuff.
I’m rubbish at it.
The thing is, I never wanted to be good at it. There’s a whole side of this kind of thing that I hate. The dark side of the New Age which blames people’s attitudes for their illness – I’ve had that one laid on me once too often. I love Barbara Ehrenreich’s analysis, Smile or Die – if you don’t know it, I implore you, watch this video of her ideas, animated by the RSA. It will take ten minutes but it’s worth it.
I see various memes shared on facebook that suggest that everything in our lives is affected by our attitude – as if there’s no impact on our health or our life chances other than the stuff in our head. Not nature or nurture. Not any structural inequalities in society. It’s all a matter of the Law of Attraction.
Effectively this crap is saying there’s no such thing as reality – it’s all about what’s going on in your mind.
It’s the ultimate in solipsism.
But, and I hesitate to say this, I threw the baby out with the bathwater.
Of course our attitudes matter. Of course these psychological habits have an impact. They’re not everything, but they’re not nothing.
How could not believing in what you are writing NOT spill into the work?
So here I am, trying to undo a lifetime of talking to myself more harshly and with more judgmentalism than I would ever talk to anyone else.
A recent exercise was to make a list of questions we have about our writing. The one after that was to reframe the questions to get rid of the negativity and to actually make them positive.
It took me a whole week, but this is the result.
My original question – in the voice I use when talking to myself.
“Why would anyone be interested in a memoir about a life like mine, even with all its weird particularities? Isn’t it just a bit self indulgent? A lot… “
My reframing into the best version of my question
“How can I write this memoir so that it tells my truth in a way that might be of help to people, making it unique and interesting through its weird particularities? ”
So I did get there, eventually. I recognise that fundamentally changing how I talk to myself is going to take some time and some commitment.
Off the top of my head, the usual pattern is that I talk to myself as if I do nothing but procrastinate, as if I never put any serious effort into my writing, that any time off is because I am weak or lazy, that even if I’m doing a Neil Gaiman Masterclass or reading a book about writing memoirs, it’s just running away from what I should be doing.
I’ll never be good enough for my inner critic.
Hmmm. That feeling sounds a bit familiar.
There is some truth in it, maybe, or there was. It took me thirty years to finally get my degree, after dropping out twice – no three times. That’s the best, clearest example.
Some of it is probably that I really don’t want to admit to myself even now, that I am constrained by reality, constrained by my health issues.
Yet even for that, when I’m honest, there were reasons and not merely excuses.
Yet it’s ten years since I finally earned First Class Honours in a degree which included a Maths credit and a Diploma in Creative Writing. I can’t begin to express how proud I am of the Maths.
In that time I’ve written two novels and I’m half way through a memoir. I’ve written a handful of rubbish short stories and three partly written novel openings that were just too dull to be worth more words. I’ve put myself through the process of submitting my work to agents and publishers and agonising about it – and no matter how scary I found it I kept on doing it, over and over. I’m still doing it.
I’ve made a few textile art pieces I’m proud of too.
Yet still I think of myself as a procrastinator.
There were reasons it took me so long. No matter, I’m not a procrastinator any more.
Next person who tags me in a meme about procrastination is going to get their head bitten off.
It’s what I think that matters.
So I’m going to end these reflections with a couple of quotations from the Neil Gaiman masterclass which strike fear into my heart, but which offer me a solution.
“On the one hand you need the humility to know that you don’t know yet. On the other you need the arrogance that is normally only seen in seven year old boys. You need that conviction that you are brilliant, that this is brilliant, that this is the greatest idea that anyone has ever had, and that by writing it you are going to set the world on fire. Because THAT is the engine that gets you through the thing than needs to be written. You need to think you’re brilliant. It’s okay that you’re not.”Neil Gaiman
I can manage the humility well enough. I’m always learning. I love learning. I can look back on my work and I can see improvement.
I’m not so sure I can channel the spirit of my inner seven year old boy. “You need to think you’re brilliant. It’s okay that you’re not.” I don’t think I’ve ever had that feeling. Maybe a little bit about the academic stuff. I was good at that. The trouble is, it doesn’t really matter to me, not compared with creating, with writing.
Maybe I can hold these opposites in my mind at the same time, somehow. I can ‘act as if’ I’m brilliant – at least while I’m writing. I can be insanely ambitious about my writing instead of constantly putting it off, trying something easier first, always waiting until I’m ready.
Anyway, I’m going to try.
No, wait, there is no try.
(Hahaha, I just remember arguing with my primary school teacher at age eight. She told me there was no such word as can’t and I wasn’t having any of that. I said “In that case, I can not. Both of those words are in the dictionary.” This has always been me…)
I’m just going to do it. I’m going to – to steal more of Neil Gaiman’s words – “write something so brilliant, so powerful, so good nobody could ever reject it.”
Smile or Die – Barbara Ehrenreich
Find the Neil Gaiman Masterclass here. It covers a lot of ground which I knew already from books and courses but still Neil is always worth listening too.
I found lots to enjoy in the Margaret Atwood Masterclass too. Especially her wicked laugh, which reminded me how much fun writing can be.