Getting Ready to do the Best Work of Your Life
In 2009 I went to visit a writer friend of mine who was dying in the hospital. She had notes to herself written on her white board.
One of them read: No more negative self-talk.
I saw it and completely understood what she meant.
Recently I have been noticing other writers using negative self-talk.
I asked a friend and fellow writer to write for a neighborhood newspaper I am starting up. She refused. Not because she was too busy, but, she told me that she wasn’t good at meeting deadlines, and she didn’t want to let me down. I asked another friend to help me run a large artistic project I am working on. He said, “I don’t think I would be right for that. You need a writer who is more well known. Nobody knows who I am.”
In both cases I was the person in charge of the project and I was the one asking. I thought they were good enough. In fact, they would have been great! I asked another friend to take over the planning for a writers’ night. He looked down and said, “I’m not very good at organizing,”
When I was working full time as a professor, I taught a class at UC Berkeley in Critical Thinking. We read Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” All the students pretended to understand the text and looked confident when I asked them if they had any questions. When it came time for discussion, they were silent. One of my students was a woman in her fifties from city college who was living in a group home after recovering from being homeless. She cried out, “This is so damn hard. I am so stupid. I am a cave dweller. I AM LIVING IN THE CAVE.”
If you have ever read Plato’s allegory of the cave, you will realize that that is the point. We are all in the cave looking at shadows on the wall thinking that it’s real, when there is a whole reality going on outside the cave that we can at times, collectively, distort and choose to ignore. She was the only person in the class who understood the actual readings and she didn’t even realize it!
Negative self-talk is bad because it tells a fiction about who we really are and it limits who we can become. This is especially damaging for fledgling writers.
I was not the favorite writer in my MFA program. Most of the things I wrote in graduate school were failed experiments. I was so afraid to get my work critiqued, because I thought I would cry during my classmates’ comments. Another writer in the program took me aside and told me that she felt that way too. She said the best way to combat it was to wear Prada. Another woman in the program overheard and seconded the idea that designer fashion was the way to overcome a harsh critique. I was 24 and bought all my clothes from Ross. I had no idea what Prada was or how to get ahold of it. She called Prada her “personal armor.” I asked her if I could get Prada at Ross she laughed knowingly. I shivered into myself and did some more negative self-talk because I felt stupid that I didn’t know what Prada was or how to get it if my life depended on it.
The advice I’m about to give you is better than any fancy clothing item.
I call it reframing technique.
The reason I get so mad at people who put themselves down aloud is because I do it, too.
I get down on myself all the time for not really writing. For having these large projects I want to work on like a novel. I get down on myself for thinking that I have to stop to do Thanksgiving dinner or to clean, or visit with people, and this will put me even farther from my goal of writing. Then I felt bad for going online and reading stupid articles and then also for spending too much time on social media. I went to my desk to work on my novel. I sat there for hours and I did absolutely nothing. I mean, I did write three pages in my journal, but it was not very literary it was just writing like I talked. It was a list of all the people who annoyed me in my day. I wrote it when I ordered lunch.
Now, I am drinking tea. As I poured half and half into my earl grey and swirled some sugar around, an idea came to me:
Maybe I am just resting.
As artists, we have to take care of ourselves. We have to love ourselves in some way. We have to rest. It’s part of the process.
I reframed my thinking to the following thought:
Maybe I am getting ready to write the best work of my life.
Then I cut off the maybe.
I am getting ready to write the best work of my life.
I am resting and cleaning my home and being lazy in the afternoon and eating healthy, good food because I am getting ready to write the best work of my life.
I am socializing with my friends on another day because it’s good for me and I need to see other people and feed that part of myself so that I don’t feel lonely when I sit down to write.
Reframing is different than making excuses. We all do that. Reframing is always positive.
Before an anxious thought can creep in and tell me well, you know you’re not really writing. You are editing.
I can rewrite the thought to say:
I am editing. I am clearing a space for myself because I am getting ready to write the best work of my life. I am reading books I like. I am eating healthy food that tastes good. I am taking care of myself on a Sunday by winding down and relaxing because I am preparing the do the best work of my life whether it is writing, editing, proofreading, staring into space and thinking, but it will all be in service of this great crazy craft and calling I am compelled to do. Writing and the writing process calls me back to it year after year. Making marks on the page, trying to express some kind of meaning, resting, letting it sit and then circling back to approach it again with a cup of tea are all part of my artistic process.
I am getting ready to do the best work of my life.
When I reframe it this way, it makes sense.
Doing the kind of writing that requires our full attention means that we have to have focus. We have to treat ourselves like thoroughbred horses or Olympic athletes when we produce great writing. So, be kind to yourself in whatever small way it takes.
Believe in yourself. Then, get back to work. The slow turtle wins the race and you can’t be the slow turtle if you are having a perfect experience every time you sit down to write. And you can’t write if you are too tired, not well fed, don’t have a quiet mind. Who could?
A fine wine takes time to mature. So does writing. There is no rush. Enjoy the process. Eat some chocolate, pour yourself a cup of tea, put on your cozy sweats and go slow.