Writing, Pressure, And The Things We Don’t Talk About Enough

Since I’ve updated my competition and subbings list I’ve been musing on a few things.

A few weeks back, I attended a workshop about resilience in the writing life. It was packed, and most of the attendees were women.  I got chatting to some of the other writers about the fact that difficulties  – emotional challenges due to the highs and lows – in the writing life are part and parcel of the whole thing. We all know it’s true. But somehow, we agreed,  these are things we don’t seem to talk about openly enough .

Then, the other day, someone I know shared a great list on twitter of self-care tips for writers that really hit home (I shared them on my timeline). It started me thinking about the deep-seated issues and beliefs that were driving this  and realized just how many self-defeating myths we subject ourselves to.

Often, I think, it’s because writing is so personal. In fact, the better we are doing it, and the more honest we are, the closer to ourselves it will seem. But at the same time, the writing world is not an easy one. Writing, particularly when you are starting to get published and get your work out there, can be incredibly competitive. It can be harsh and unforgiving, and we can be overly hard on ourselves.

Here are some of the pernicious myths that can get under our skin as writers and do damage if we don’t take steps to question them, and give ourselves a little bit of self-care.


Myth 1: Our Writing is Us and We Are Our Writing

Because writing is so personal, and often what we write about is in some ways a reflection of ourselves, it can be very hard to separate ourselves as people from the work. Now, when we are actually writing, and digging deep for our truths, this is often an advantage. When we send our writing out into the world, however, it is a different tale.

It’s important to try to detach ourselves from the work.

A story is not “us” – it is merely from us and is ultimately, just a piece of writing.  It is part of our artistic development, whatever happens. The truth is, it may do well out there in the world; equally, it may not. Yes, we can do what we can to prepare it as best we can, but it is no reflection on our worth as people if it does eitherwell or badly.  Set too much store by it, invest too much of your ego in a piece of work and you can end up either a raving egomaniac, or a quavering fruit-loop. I’ve certainly done both. Easier said than done, I know, but best to aim for neither.

Send work out, and once that’s done, try to forget it – and work on something else as soon as you can.


Myth 2: Our Value as a Person = Our External Success as a Writer

 “Who are you? Are you an important writer? Are you someone I should’ve heard of?”

You may know this drill, or have seen it happen to others

And then there’s  “Ahh, you’re THAT person who did that great thing! I’ve heard of you!”

No pressure, then!

It follows from what I was saying above, really. Of course recognition of our achievement is great. We should be proud when it happens and own it. But don’t let it take over. Don’t become a legend in your own lifetime. (That said,  isn’t it a satisfying feeling to reveal oneself after a very obvious underestimation?  I’ve seen it happen to women writers a lot, especially the older ones.)

I really do think it’s important not to come to rely too hard on getting that external approval. You need to be able to carry on without it. And trust me, a bad review can crumple anyone to the floor, including bestselling authors. Times change; writers have their peaks and troughs. We have to find a way of keeping on whatever happens and remind ourselves we’re playing the long game.

Likewise, what if we worked really hard on something that didn’t get anywhere – have we failed as a person? No. We live to write another day. We tweak it, perhaps, and see if we can send it somewhere else. We rest it for a bit and come back to it with fresh eyes. And you know that old thing about  your last minute emergency back up being “the one that brings it home?” – well. Think on. So no, your value as a person does not rest on your external success as a writer.

We are not in charge of the outside world. We can’t control others’ opinions or preferences. We are not what other people think. We are not in control of Acts of God or the bizarre quirks of fate that get in everybody’s way sometimes.  All we can do is keep the focus on what we’re doing. The work itself is the bit that’s up to us.


Myth 3: Our Writing’s External Value Is Its Only True Value

A writing tutor I know of apparently told their students that if their writing wasn’t published, then the writing didn’t mean anything. As if it was only “real’” when others – him, presumably, or someone he deemed sufficiently important – saw and approved its existence.

I hate stuff like this. Such bullshit.

I understand and agree that the world won’t know us if we don’t share our work, and so we should, when we decide we are ready. But you can’t rely on other people to tell you your work is Important. And should you stop writing completely if you and your work are never going to be deemed Important by some arbitrary measure or decree? Should you give it all up if you never win the Booker, or don’t become a millionaire?

Of course not.

It’s that external validation thing again.

I’ve always cringed when I hear that word “important” being referred to either work, or artists, of any stripe. It smacks of pomposity to me.  “Interesting” yes. “Groundbreaking” yes. And it’s good to have ambition – the ones we set for ourselves, although as I said above, we should avoid having ambitions where we have no control over the outcome.

Written work in all its stages has value. We may not even send it out into the world, but creating it, shaping it, making it something we want it to be, can still be profoundly satisfying. I’d think less about “out there”. I’d think more about “here, this, now.”


Myth 4: Productivity is Everything

Look, some people are designed to churn out thousands of words at a rate of knots. And some people aren’t. Don’t beat yourself up. I know loads of slow but excellent and careful writers. I know highly talented writers who send out two stories a year. And then there are writers who whip out book after book after book super-quickly and I’m amazed at their efficiency. Not to mention jealous.

Also – it’s not all about wordcount. I appreciate that sometimes we get held up by procrastination, but there is nothing wrong with projects that you just noodle along with for the love of them and that you just do for you. You don’t have to do the Protestant-work-ethic whip-whip-whip thing.

We are allowed to play sometimes. We are allowed to take a break. We are allowed to do things just for fun. Everything doesn’t have to be professional,  everything doesn’t have to be published. And remember we’re allowed to give ourselves a rest.


Myth 5: Perfection is Everything

 As above. Everything can’t be perfect all the time. It doesn’t have to be. A need for perfection is one of the biggest causes of writer’s block. What we do doesn’t have to be perfect. The first draft of anything is shit, as Hemingway said. Don’t get it right, get it written. Have fun. Lose yourself in the project itself, not where it might be going and who might eventually be looking at it.

We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t even have to be good.


Myth 6: Write Every Day

OK, so in fairness, I do prefer to do this. And I often feel tetchy if I don’t, although my “writing” doesn’t have to be wordcount-increasing necessarily. I just like to put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – on a daily basis, or I feel like it’s all building up and I find myself annoyed.

But it’s one of those ‘”rules” that gets decreed everywhere and honestly – we don’t have to. Some people write every day. Some people a bit here and there on the train, or at the weekend or on their days off from work. Yes, time can be a factor.  You’re not a useless failure if sometimes life gets in the way.

Nor if we get stuck. There are various ways to get around this, but you are not a quitter if you give it a rest for a few days. Sometimes – and you will know what your own patterns are – it helps to consciously do no writing at all for a day or so. Stick your story or novel or project under the bed, go and have a few days of life and see people and do things. Forget the pressure you put yourself under. Leave it for a bit. Return to it when you are fresh with your batteries and creativity recharged.


I hate Decrees-From-On-High about how we should think and feel,  and it’s pernicious myths like these that we internalise and allow to stop us in our tracks. But we can make our own writing lives by noticing when these kinds of myths come up for us, challenging them, and creating a writing life that works for us.



How To Maintain Confidence in Your Work When Things Get Tough

Who do you even think you are to say you are a writer?

Herein  lies the rub.

So much in a writer’s life can seem to be about confidence and permission. I have had real trouble at times with “lack-of-permissionitis” . This can stem from things like the inevitable rejections, periods of frustration and the odd belittling comment.  I know my sense of myself as a writer can certainly plummet as a result.  Annoyingly,  if this leads to stalling and analysis paralysis,  it can end up affecting the work itself – a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So much can seem to rest on others’ judgements and decrees, barriers and rules. Blocks that come from putting all our focus on things outside ourselves can end up being pretty deep-seated.

It’s a common problem, and one that I’m seeing a lot in my writer friends just now.  I wanted to share some of the things I personally – through trial and error –  have found helpful in ploughing through my most difficult writing times.

Take A Step Back and Take Ownership

For me, this is the key to it all. Ownership of your interests and ideas, your territory, your writing practices and ownership of what works for you in terms of producing your best work and what you know doesn’t.

You are allowed.

Ownership of what the problem, if there is one, feels like to you, and where you think it’s come from. The better you know yourself, the more you can ensure you are giving yourself what it is you need, and discard anything unhelpful. Even if the unhelpful seems to work for someone else.

This may just be a personal quirk of mine, but I’ve often found that it’s the very Things That Everyone Says Are The Surefire Ways To Succeedthat turn out to be the exact things that don’t work for me at all under any circumstances and that flop when I attempt to force myself into using them

As I say, this may just be a feature of my own contrariness, a natural rebelliousness that I turn against myself as a form of self-sabotage. (That’d probably be the official party line.) But I think it should be reframed as self-preservation rather than self-sabotage , When it happens, it may simply be that I’m trying to fit myself in to something, a methodology or rule, that genuinely  doesn’t suit me at all. It pays to know yourself.

 Don’t Give Up – But Keep Writing. Anything.

It’s perfectly permissible to take a break from a particular writing project if you are getting nowhere. Sometimes a break is exactly what you – and it – needs. Deadlines are great for focusing the mind but they can also induce panic. I often find that ‘resting’ a piece for a couple of weeks rather than ploughing on to try to meet this deadline or that, results, after it’s had a chance to ‘brew’ a bit, in the answers to seemingly insurmountable problems suddenly becoming clear. You can always come back to it (and should try to).

But sometimes it helps to move on for a bit to less pressured writing. More personalized stuff. Journaling, for instance. The things you don’t have to show anybody else, but that could easily end up as the roots of future work. I’m a great fan, for example, of Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages from The Artist’s Way as well as the exercises in her book Right To Write, and if I’m having a ‘bad day’, am sure to work on exercises from the latter.

 Develop your own routines

How-to guides and writer seminars can be fantastically helpful for giving you tips and ideas. And it’s always worth finding out what other writers do (e.g. check out the author interviews in the Paris Review). As you’ll discover, writing and art are broad churches. No one method is suitable for everyone, so don’t be afraid to try things out, and to pick and mix. If something doesn’t work for you – ditch it, try something else. I’ve created lots of templates now, for my own use, mixing up methods and ideas I’ve tried from various places. I don’t follow one single methodology; I’ve put together a toolkit for myself of the stuff I’ve personally found works and is useful when I’m faced with particular problems.

Protect your work – don’t share it too early

I do think it’s really important to share your work with others at some stage – whether with a writing group, a trusted like-minded writing friend, an online group or a critique service such as the one I offer here. No matter how good you are at getting distance from and assessing your own writing (and that’s a skill worth learning in itself) there is always  additional understanding to be gained from others reading your work from their own perspective. There are things that you just aren’t able to see when it’s your own writing, although of course, you often find that some feedback you get will turn out to be more valuable than others

That said, I think sometimes that writers pressure themselves to share their work too early – first rough drafts in particular – and so don’t always end up receiving feedback that is appropriate to the stage the work is at. A very first draft, for instance,  is likely still a seedling; letting others hack at it, going mad for strict editorial rather than big-picture changes, treating it as if it is a hardier later draft that is ready to be gone to town on, may well just kill it dead.

In particular, if you are in a bit of what we could call “ a sensitive period”, I’d highly recommend “caving it” – working by yourself and not sharing at all for a while. Write for yourself only. Go back to experimenting, doing basic exercises, exploring, making your writing art, rather than “a thing of excellence to be consumed by other people”. Make writing fun again – this can often seem to disappear when you are after external approval in some way; the acceptance by an editor, the competition win, the good mark from a tutor in a creative writing class, the awe of your writing group at your brilliance. Often, good art is worth doing for its own sake. That doesn’t mean that you should never share, of course – but let it find its own time, when you – and it – are ready.

 Ask for – and make sure you get – the right kind of feedback

This is why I prefer to take a development approach when I’m reading others’ work rather than acting as a gatekeeper, or a teacher with a red pen, saying yes or no. If you want to use a Writer’s Journey analogy (see Christopher Vogler), you’re looking for people in the Friends and Allies camp rather than those standing at the gate, arms folded, doing the whole Threshold Guardian bit, trying to stop others coming through. Think about what you what to know about this piece of writing at this particular stage – and share that with whoever you are asking to read your work. One size does not fit all – try to get feedback tailored that’s useful to where you are at, so you can make the best use of it.

Stop Competing, Start Looking At What Makes Your Work Yours

It’s hard, I know, but – there is room for everyone, honestly. OK, sure, in certain situations, only one person can win first prize, maybe only one will get the award, or the bursary, or the free place on the course. It might be you. It might not. What are you going to do if it isn’t? Seriously – give up? Really? Again, this is another problem associated with focusing too much on narrow measures of external approval. Sure, you might have to work hard to get your work to a good standard; that’s a given. But not everybody writes in the same way or in the same genre and it is not a requirement to do so. Instead of thinking about how everybody else’s work is better than yours, start thinking about how it is different and similar. Think about the other writers you know – what about them? What are the features and peculiarities of their work? What sort of style do they have, what are their common themes and concerns? How do they differ from each other’s and your own? If you had to list some features unique to your work, what would they be?


Above all,  you need to look after yourself and protect your writer self and your writing. Nobody ever said it was easy and it can be a  tough old world out there.

Don’t, whatever you do,  let them get you down.