I nearly added “Writer’s Block” to the title of this post. The only reason I didn’t is because there is no such thing as a generic malady that stops writers cold. “Writer’s Block” is a collective term for a whole heap of issues that writers have to deal with that, if they let them get out of hand, can sidetrack getting words down.
But if I was ever to write about the cure to Writer’s Block, this post would be it.
I suspect that the post will end up being a two-parter at least, because there are two major tools to dissolving writerly issues and getting the words down, and lately, I’ve had to reinforce both of them for myself.
If you’re already a prolific writer, you’ve probably successfully dealt with a lot of issues that can rise in a writer’s career already. It’s what lets you write so much. But there are still others that can derail you.
What issues are they? There are too many, and they are too varied to name. They’re unique to each writer, too. But they do all tend to fall into the two categories I’m about to explore.
And for career writers, this stuff never goes away. Just when you think you’ve got your schedule licked and all your blocking issues resolved, a completely new mental wrinkle will pop up to knock you off balance. It sometimes feels as though the brain is just looking for an excuse to not write. And sometimes it is–which is another issue for you to deal with.
As I implied, above, I’ve just dealt with a round or two of new issues for myself, and I’ve been at this for over twenty years.
Welcome to the life of a professional writer.
If you aspire to be prolific, or to even write full time, learning to deal with blocks and issues is a critical skill to develop.
It can be uncomfortable work, but it’s not difficult.
So let’s tackle the first major category of blocks and issues.
External Validation versus Internal Validation
This one can kill careers. It’s that destructive.
First up, what are external and internal validation?
They’re the opposite of each other. “Validation” is a psychological term, that Dictionary.com defines as:
- the act of confirming something as true or correct:The new method is very promising but requires validation through further testing.You will be prompted to enter your new password a second time for validation.
- the act of officially or legally certifying or approving something:The proposal will be prioritized and put into action after it undergoes validation by the government.
- the act of affirming a person, or their ideas, feelings, actions, etc., as acceptable and worthy:Recognition and validation of minority cultures by classroom teachers is crucial to student wellbeing and success.
It is the third definition that applies to writers (and other creatives).
Isaac Asimov loved writing. He enjoyed the act of putting words down on paper, and couldn’t wait to do more of it. When he was asked what he would do if he learned he had only six months left to live, his answer was; “Type faster.”
Asimov was driven by internal validation. He did win awards and honors and was a best selling author, but while those things were nice, it was the act of writing that made him feel valuable and gave him pleasure. Writing was its own reward.
On the other hand, Dorothy Parker wrote:
“I hate writing, but I love having written.”
The quote is a classic example of an externally-motivated writer. I don’t know if Parker was purely driven by external validation, but the quote implies that external values and rewards were important to her to some degree.
A purely external validation-driven writer feels as though they are only “real” writers when they’re published by someone else, or when they sell a ton of books. They haunt their review pages and if they get a one star review, writing is screwed for the day. They enter contests, and are depressed if they don’t win.
Do you still have a deeply hidden belief that self-publishing isn’t “real” publishing? You might be dealing with external validation issues.
Having a book manuscript picked up by a New York based traditional publisher does not automatically confer legitimacy upon you as an author. It simply means you’ve won a lottery with extremely high odds. Your book is just as likely to tank as the average indie title. And chances are good you’ll make far less money than the average indie author in the long term.
Ditto with winning awards (which are limited to traditional published authors from a small handful of publishers).
Reviews are for readers to figure out if they want to read a book. They aren’t written for you. If your writing gets derailed from reading reviews, then 1) stop reading them, and 2) work on building internal validation. (more on how to do that, later).
One of the classic symptoms of external validation is professional jealousy. And it’s a doozy.
Kristine Katherine Rusch said of professional jealousy:
“Professional jealousy is an extremely destructive emotion. It serves an excuse for the jealous person to avoid learning something new or taking a hard look at herself and figuring out what she’s doing wrong. It can devolve into something much uglier than that, which I explore in that earlier post.”
Jealousy is a symptom of searching for external validation. You are looking at other writers’ achievements (which you can only measure by external evidence) and comparing yourself to them and finding yourself lacking. In other words, your external measures don’t match theirs.
Professional jealousy can sneak up on you. And me.
I dealt with jealousy very early on in my career and thought I had it nailed. At first it showed itself as “she’s published and I’m not!!” (in those days, there was no such thing as indie publishing).
But I’ve since had to deal with jealousy sneaking in a catching me by surprise. Even after I was published I had to deal with comparing myself to authors published by the big NY publishers as opposed to my regional press publisher.
Then I had to deal with envy over authors writing full time while I was still working.
I’ve also had to slap myself upside the head for getting frustrated with indie authors’ best seller status, mega sales, and monster email lists, which made mine look pathetic.
And just lately, after having dealt with the whole indie versus traditional publishing thing, I found myself resenting short story writers whose stories are published by traditional outlets, who receive all the glory, awards and publicity, get carried by libraries, are talked up on genre fiction sites while I, well, don’t…
This jealousy shit can come back to grab you in the most unexpected ways.
If you only feel worthy and like a real writer if everyone else says nice things to you about your work, and only as long as every other author is doing as well or worse than you, you’re going to be miserable. Sorry.
If your writing is ever derailed because of a bad review, because sales aren’t doing what you think they should, or for any other reason that comes from somewhere other than you, then you have a problem.
How to switch your locus of validation.
It takes a shit ton of work to switch from external to internal validation, because a lot of this stuff is buried so deeply, you won’t know its there until it rises up and bites you.
I gave you my 20 year struggle with jealousy, above. And I consider myself nearly 100% internally focused, these days. I’d say 100% completely internally focused, except I keep tripping over new issues.
It’s the job of a lifetime to identify and dissolve blocks and issues.
But there are steps you can take immediately and in the long term (and long term is the second part of this post, so check back next week).
- Develop self-awareness.
You have to catch yourself when you’re being bogged down by external validation issues. This is the biggest trick of switching your locus of validation. Just being aware that you’re having an issue can sometimes be enough to dismantle it. But if awareness isn’t enough, then:
- Talk it out.
My version of talking things out (classic introvert, remember) is journaling, but lately, I’ve also learned that actually discussing the issue with the two other writers in my household can bring swifter resolution, because they can offer unexpected insights and clarity that my bogged down thoughts can’t.
But pick someone to talk to who won’t judge, and won’t ridicule. They just need to nod in sympathy and try to help you nut out the base issue. That’s it.
Whatever your version of talking things out takes, do it. Try to remove all the emotion from the issue and see it for what it is. Are you waiting upon someone else (or lots of someone else’s) to reward you for being a writer? More often that you think, the answer will be “yes”.
- Forgive yourself
Believe me, once you’ve figured out the root cause of your block or issue, you will feel stupid. I know I do. I even felt pretty uncomfortable outlining all the jealousy issues I’ve dealt with over the years, above. They’re petty, embarrassing things to admit to, but I absolutely know I am not the only one who struggles with them. Stick “professional jealousy” into Google and brace yourself.
But beating yourself up for not being perfect, or for falling for this stupid, petty embarrassing shit yet again won’t help you let go and move on.
So be nice. Forgive yourself for being human. Agree that you’ll watch out for this in the future and detach the whole issue from your writing.
- Move on.
Get back to your writing schedule as swiftly as possible. If you have been struggling with the issue and still writing, then pat yourself on the back.
- Watch your self-talk
Especially in the short term, for the next few days or weeks, watch to make sure your thoughts aren’t falling back into the patterns that originally wrecked your writing.
Here’s a classic way to switch your validation locus: If you ever catch yourself saying “I have to…” for anything: “I have to write 2,000 words this morning.” “I have to upload this book before the deadline.” “I have to <insert your personal poison>” — there are a million variations on this. When you catch yourself thinking “I have to…” for anything, immediately correct yourself and rephrase it as “I get to…” “I get to write 2,000 words this morning.”
This builds an internal reward into the work you’re facing. It’s a simple trick but super-effective.
Next week: The tool that will resolve nearly every issue you might face.