I co-led a writer’s retreat day last weekend. Six writers and two leaders got together for focused, timed spurts of writing interspersed with gathering to talk about and share work.
We also offered one-on-one coaching sessions. As a long-time writing coach, I love this. I learn so much from them about how writers struggle to get words on the page.
This time I worked with a woman who had developed a particularly bad habit around her writing. She had a huge backlog of work — twenty or more complete stories, six novels in various stages of completion. And from what I heard her read and talk about, I’m assuming she was good. She read an opening with a compelling piece of description, and noted a particularly encouraging rejection from the New Yorker.
If that doesn’t say something about the quality of her work, I don’t know what does. But the problem was this: much of this work had been completed years ago and needed a fresh edit.
And every time she started working on her writing again, the raging critic inside her reared its ugly, roaring head.
She couldn’t establish a positive mindset for writing because she was so caught up in the negativity of her judgey thoughts.
So she started nitpicking.
Rearranging sentences that didn’t need rearranging.
Obsessing over word choice.
Telling herself that her work was terrible.
Engaging in destructive negative self-talk.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? It sure did to me. I know I’ve done all of these at various points in my writing career.
But she was doing it to such heights that she could not complete the work. She’d be so overcome with angst at the awfulness of her writing that she closed her computer and walked away.
And this, my friends, is what happens when you fail to cultivate a positive mindset for your writing. Yes, I know I sound like Pollyanna. But the truth of the matter is that if you are mired in negativity about your work, you’re not going to get much done.
Enter the Pattern Interrupt
And neither was my client. And so we set out to find ways to mitigate the problem. (This is the part I love the best.) In talking together, we came up with the idea of a pattern interrupt.
A pattern interrupt is a way to change your behavior. It’s something unexpected or different, that shifts you out of your usual mental state.
In the case of this writer, we needed to find a way to snap her overwhelmingly critical self-judgement.
I made the simple suggestion that she think about submitting her stories for publication. Clearly, they had been edited extensively and were likely more than ready. So why not start sending them out?
In this case, the pattern interrupt was to suspend judgement by side-stepping it. Her stories were ready to go; in order to send them out she didn’t even need to look at them again.
To my surprise, she thought this was a marvelous suggestion and I sent her off with a list of the top literary journals and instructions on how to research submissions to them.
Make It Work For You
That was a pattern interrupt that hopefully will work with her. But every writer needs to design their own pattern interrupt. Here’s how you can work with the concept:
What are your unuseful patterns? Where do you get mired in negative thinking?
Do you, like my client, get so riled in judgement that you can’t move your work forward?
Do you have a hard time getting your butt in the chair to write? Do you stop yourself before you even get to the page?
Or maybe you start strong but soon the negative voices from your childhood chime in.
When first beginning this process, simply watch out for what it is that stops you. All you have to do is observe, okay? No judging. You do enough of that already. Make a note of it if you are so inclined. If not, don’t. (We want to make this as simple as possible for you.)
What might be a good pattern interrupt for this bad habit of yours?
Would getting up from your writing spot every time you begin obsessing break the habit? Would taking a break to brew a pot of tea or a cup of coffee work?
What about something as simple as wearing a rubber band on your wrist that you snap every time your mind wanders into dangerous territory? Or making a mark on a page, or taking a few deep breaths.
Do you have a writing friend you could text to help get you out of it? A family member who might help? Would getting outside for a quick walk around the block do the trick?
Put your chosen pattern interrupt into play. Try it for a few days and see how it works for you.
You can actually choose several pattern interrupts and work with them. You might find that a quick jog around the block does wonders for your mindset, but texting a friend just distracts you.
Decide which patterns actually do work for you. Make a note of them. And then:
Rinse and Repeat
Here’s the deal: in order for a pattern interrupt to work, you have to use it. I know, duh. But it is easy to fall out of the habit of doing something good for yourself.
A case in point: I find that I do excellent work, staying incredibly focused, if I listen to the music on brain.fm. Yet over and over again I forget this. I don’t make the effort to open a tab for the website, put my earbuds in, and choose a focus track. Once I remember, I implement this habit regularly and my productivity improves.
And if all else fails, watching the following Bob Newhart video (which we play at every workshop and retreat) never fails to make me laugh. And there’s a lot of truth in it as well.
Sometimes, when my brain spirals into negative self-talk, I just tell myself to stop it. And often, it works surprisingly well.
You just read another exciting post from the Book Mechanic: the writer’s source for creating books that work and selling those books once they’re written.
If you’d like to read more stories just like this one tap here to visit our page.