Writers Talk About Writing
Five Ways to Silence the Devil on Your Shoulder
Are you old enough to remember TV cartoons from the 1960s? If so (or if you're a 'toon fan), you may recall a miniature devil, complete with pitchfork, who sat on the shoulder of many a main character. This little devil whispered bad advice and spiteful ideas into the character's ear -- egging him on to do the wrong or rotten thing.
Believe it or not, you too have a devil sitting on your shoulder. And he can really mess up your writing. He takes malicious glee in focusing on the negative -- particularly on what he decides you're doing "wrong." Don't believe me? Spend a week monitoring and recording all the negative thoughts you have about your writing, no matter how fleeting. If you're honest the list will almost certainly include comments like:
- Gee, I'm a crummy writer
- In a million years, no one will ever want to read this
- I'm no good at writing introductions [ledes]
- I can't write to save my life
- I'm never going to get any better at this writing business, so why don't I just stop?
With the "help" of the devil, we all tend to be hard on ourselves -- often much harder than our readers. It helps to know that. But being aware of this problem is only the first step. The next step is to take action.
Let me give you five extremely effective strategies for fighting back.
Bully him in return. When the devil starts to tell you that you're a crummy writer, "yell" (silently, in your mind) "STOP!" Shake your head, shrug your shoulder. Wiggle your fingers. (And if, like me, you're a fan of the '50s musical, you could even consider humming a salutary chorus of "I'm gonna wash that man right out of my hair...")
Negotiate. When the devil says your writing is boring tell him: "You may be right, but I don't have time to deal with this right now." If you're feeling generous, you might add: "Can we talk about it later, when I'm not so busy writing?"
Agree with him. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to disarm people when you suddenly and unexpectedly agree with them? It takes the wind right out of their sails and they tend to become very silent. Say to your devil: "Yeah, you're probably right; I'm a crummy writer. But, do you know what? I'm going to finish this writing anyway." Then do it.
Argue with him. Start by deconstructing what the devil is telling you. Notice how so many of his comments are absolutes and over-generalizations: "You always write such boring introductions." Or, "Why don't you ever write anything pithy?" Do those comments make any sense at all? Can you honestly say that every single introduction you've ever written in your entire life, from kindergarten until today, has been boring? Do you know for absolute certain that the word "pithy" does not apply to a single sentence you've ever crafted? Of course not! The devil needs to generalize because the devil doesn't speak the truth. Call him on it.
Replace him. And this is the most fun step of all. Give your devil an alter-ego -- a little white angel who sits on your other shoulder. (They did that in the cartoons, too, remember?) And for every nasty comment the devil makes, have your angel say the opposite. If the devil whispers: "You're a crummy writer," your angel should reply: "You're a BRILLIANT writer." Note: It doesn't matter whether you believe this is true. This is a battle of over-generalizations. Be bold!
Negative thoughts will not only hurt your writing; they'll also make writing slower and more painful. Don't let the devil get away with it. Be sure to fight back.