What Self-Sabotage Really Looks Like

If I don’t write, I get sick.

I don’t mean physically sick in the guts. Although, that said, some of the overblown metaphors I’ve spun over the years have caused several readers to experience symptoms including head-spinning and projectile vomiting. (Exorcisms were needed.)

And I don’t mean the manflu that my partner accuses me of having every time a head cold knocks me for six and renders me a curled-up foetus watching old episodes of Pokemon and begging for cups of black tea. (“Please, baby, I’m too sick to boil the kettle …”)

The kind of sickness I’m talking about is more like a soul sickness.

A soul disease, maybe.

All I know is that when I spend too much time away from writing, everything goes to shit for me in terms of my mental and emotional wellbeing.

When I’m actively writing – whether it’s my blog or my creative work – there is an aliveness to my entire being – mentally, emotionally and physically.

Mentally, I’m stimulated as I reflect on my own experience and try to create meaning out of it (the blog) or dream up fictional characters and worlds and experiences (fiction).

Emotionally, I feel a certain level of satisfaction and catharsis at writing about certain topics. The actual act of writing itself is also deeply satisfying. Well, okay, sometimes the writing is frustrating enough to make you want to rip each individual hair follicle out of your scalp. But the point is, when a writer writes, we are in the process of flow, and we are doing the precise thing we were put on this giant blue marble for, and it makes us happy.

American poet Robert Hass probably said it best when he said, “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing. The only tolerable state is having just written.” Of course, to get to the state of having just written, you need to slog it out and actually fucking write something. So we’re back to where we started.

quote-it-s-hell-writing-and-it-s-hell-not-writing-the-only-tolerable-state-is-having-just-robert-hass-71-84-52

And when everything is in alignment mentally and emotionally, things work out physically, too: I eat well, I hit the gym the right number of times per week, I sleep enough, and my energy levels are high.

But when I don’t write, this all goes to hell.

And it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that I haven’t been writing this month at all. It’s only today, sitting at my laptop and forcing myself to do something, that I realise what happened.

This little mini-crisis started, essentially, because I am the kind of writer who likes to keep on top of the numbers. I have a number of writer friends who determinedly don’t want to know how their books are selling, but I can already tell I’m not going to be one of them. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a bit obsessed with rankings and charts and classifications and numbers. Even now, the moment I get into a new band, the first thing I do isn’t listen to the rest of their back catalogue: I find their discography online and study it with the intensity of Hercule Poirot. I need to know which singles belong to which album, which ones were certified gold, which ones flopped and in which territories. Only then will I explore further.

Yes, I am a geek of the absolute grandest kind.

And this geekiness translates to how I approach my writing career. I like to check in relatively regularly with my sales and downloads graphs on Amazon and Smashwords. While my short stories A MAN and THE BLACK FLOWER are not big sellers, THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR does occasionally have sales spikes, and when it had some particularly big ones last year, I was also interested to follow its chart positions on iBooks and Barnes & Noble.

I also keep track of my blog hits, and unfortunately, this is what began my unravelling during the entire month of June.

It started at the very end of May. I was looking at my blog stats for the month, and comparing them to previous months, to see how things are tracking. To my delight, things had actually been going really well: my blog hits had increased, month-on-month, since December 2017 – and some of the increases were pretty significant.

The graph looked like this:

Blog Stats Graph - Holden
Blog Hits: Because I’m a geek.

So, from January through April, I was pretty chuffed, because my reach was growing. In fact, I got ahead of myself and I was all like, “hey, maybe I am not a total sphincter of a human being!”

This is bad for a number of reasons, not least because my self-worth really shouldn’t have any correlation to how many people are reading my blog.

Anyway, it was the month of May that ruined me.

Because, as you can see in the graph above, although April and May look roughly the same, May actually fell short of April’s peak by roughly 20 hits.

Your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author – if he exists – would be like, “Gee, that’s swell! I guess this little blog is doing A-OK.” (For some reason, my mythical well-adjusted author talks in the same voice Eddie Murphy uses when he is parodying white people from the 1950s.)

But I am not your mentally-balanced, well-adjusted author.

The fact that May fell just short of April was just not good enough. I had failed to continue to grow my blog. This meant not only was the blog a giant pile of steaming failure, but I was, too. The old hydra of perfectionism reared its multiple heads.

And so I self-sabotaged. Without fully realising I was doing it, I kept putting off doing my next blog post, which I had been writing weekly until that point. And suddenly two weeks, then three, then four had passed – and my brain would not let me even entertain the thought of blogging.

Around the same time, in early June, I received a rejection for a short story I’d submitted to a prestigious journal. Now, being rejected is absolutely not a new experience for me, but this one stung me more than usual for two reasons. Firstly, I thought that particular story might have been a perfect fit for that particular publication, and it wasn’t. Secondly, I was already in a vulnerable, self-doubty kind of space, so it just layered on top of that.

The outcome? Not only did I continue my blogging hiatus, but I now stopped writing fiction with my 5am Writers’ Club as well. I was nearing the end of a new short story titled CRUMBS, and I just left it hanging mid-sentence. And interestingly, I stopped on the 12th of June – the same day I got the rejection. So I stopped writing at all, and I stopped getting up at 5am to work.

And, like I said at the start, I got sick in the soul.

I was no longer writing in any form, and this persisted for three weeks. I was completely self-sabotaging my career as both a blogger and a fiction writer. It was the classic “if I don’t write anything at all, then there won’t be any way to be told that I’m not good enough”.

I’m not good enough. It’s a sentence almost every writer has said to themselves at least once, if not at least once a day.

This is paralysing for a writer, and it ultimately comes down to self-doubt: a perceived failure of my blog to continue to grow, combined with a rejection of my fiction, had me back to square one in the confidence stakes.

On top of this was the weighty gravity of expectation. I had recently had some positive feedback about my blog from multiple readers, and it seemed to be doing well. The resultant expectation I placed on myself was twofold: one, that I had to continue to grow without a single dip in monthly hits, and two, that every single blog post had to be fucking amazing and insightful.

The writing paralysis continued until this week. I attended the Penguin Teen Showcase on Wednesday night, which took place in Perth for the first time ever. During the Q & A panel at the end, authors Dianne Wolfer, Fleur Ferris and Emily Gale spoke about how long it takes them to write a first draft of a novel. Later, on Twitter, I was chatting to some authors about how I have written both of my first drafts in about 3 months each. When someone expressed surprise at how quick that was, my answer was simple:

quality tweet

It was only when I looked back on that Tweet today that I realised what has been missing from my writing practice: permission. That is, permission to write total horseshit. Giving yourself permission to write freely is extraordinarily liberating for a writer because it dampens the little spot-fires of self-doubt.

And frankly, giving myself permission to write badly is what made me become a serious writer in the first place. I spent all of 2013 – the entire year – paralysed with fear at the thought of starting my first novel because I was worried it – and consequently, I – wouldn’t be good enough.

When I gave myself permission to write whatever I wanted, with no expectation of quality, I churned out a whole novel, and then a second one, and then a regular blog and a whole litter of short stories.

So, now that I’m aware of what’s happened – and why I’ve been so frozen this past month – it’s time to make a change.

I’m giving myself permission again. Permission to write freely, in both blog form and fiction form. Maybe my blog will tank and become wildly unpopular, like the latest Sharknado sequel. Maybe my fiction will become utter drivel, like literally anything with the word Sharknado in the title.

But perception and reception are ultimately beyond my control.

What I can control is what I write, and how often I write. I can’t control whether or not people will like my stories, or whether people will enjoy every single blog post I put up, but I can control whether or not I do these things at all. And the reality is, I do them because I love doing them, not because of the feedback – positive or negative – that I receive.

So, it’s time for me to cowboy up and get on with it.

I’m committing to writing a regular blog again, so stay tuned for regular updates again.

I’m also committing to a regular writing practice again. And I’m kind of excited, because I’m about to dive into writing my third novel. So this is probably the right time to loosen the burden of expectations from my shoulders, and just write freely, and fast.

I have to remind myself that I am only human and I can only do my best.

And my best is good enough.

Holden

Author: Holden Sheppard

YA Author from Western Australia.

17 thoughts on “What Self-Sabotage Really Looks Like”

  1. Far out, I was nodding in agreement with so much of this post that my head felt like it was on a spring. Once I stepped away from Amazon and Goodreads, I felt so much better and the words came back. Like you, I need to writeβ€”it’s my substance and I’m addicted.

    Really, we have no control over our sales or our readers opinions or our rejections. We can only control what we put out there to be read, and we do that by giving our best. That’s all we can doβ€”give the deepest, purest, most honest parts of ourselves to everything we write, and what a huge gift that is. You do that, Holden, and there’s no greater gift.

    I’m so glad you’re writing again! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I absolutely love this comment, Louise – thank you. I agree – it’s my duty, and my pleasure, to give the “deepest, purest, most honest parts” of myself to my writing – and it’s now time to do that again.

      Thank you for all your encouragement. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Happy to see your blog post pop up in my inbox πŸ™‚ *waves* We are here reading and enjoying your honest thoughts, Holden!

    I can totally relate to the ‘not writing’ sickness. I’ve been a bit out of the blogging loop too in recent weeks 😦 As writers, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves and sometimes it weighs us down so much that we can’t even lift those hands to the keyboard to write! I wrote hardly anything in June so I’m hoping July will be better!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey Lauren, thanks for the comment and for reading! *waves back* I did start to tell myself that I would have lost any readers by now, so it’s nice that you’re still here and reading. πŸ™‚

      I’m glad this resonated, but also not glad that you’ve been going through the same stuff. You’re right – there can just be so much pressure, and so much of it inflicted upon us by our own brains.

      Here’s hoping for a productive July for us both. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m sorry to hear that you’re struggling, Holden. It happens. And sometimes it is just so hard to give yourself a break. You’re such a kind soul and you’re always cheering on other writers, whether it’s online or in person. I wonder if it might help if you talk to yourself and think about your own work the way you do with all of us? Sending you good vibes and I hope you’re too busy to reply to this because you are madly scribbling away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Emily for reading and for reaching out with your comment – it means a lot. You actually really have me sussed out, you know … I like to support others but I am not quite as kind to myself, and that extends beyond just the writing career. I can beat myself up pretty bad. You’re definitely right, and being kinder to myself is something I’m permanently working on. It does help to have a gentle nudge from you to be nicer to myself, so thank you for being a friend (yes, deliberately used those words because it’s the theme song from The Golden Girls, bahaha!).

      No mad scribbling for me today – hope your day 2 has gone well though!

      Like

  4. Such an honest post, Holden. I can relate to so much of what you said. Self-doubt can certainly make you feel like your work is not good enough. That you’re not good enough. But from what I’ve seen and read, you are a talented writer and an open, kind and warm human being.
    Try not to listen that voice of self-doubt. You never see yourself the way others do. Trust in your ability and know that you are good enough. Write from the heart and the rest will follow.
    Look forward to reading more of your writing 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Suzi, cheers for reading this and for commenting, too – it means a lot. You’re right that I am too harsh on myself and I am trying to get better at being kind to myself. It comes easily for me to be nice to others but cruel to myself, unfortunately – but I’m trying. Thanks for the encouragement and the kind words. I feel like we have a similar outlook when it comes to emotional intelligence and personal development so I look forward to reading more of your work, too.

      Let’s just keep writing from the heart and trusting the process. πŸ™‚

      Like

  5. Thank you for writing this Holden. It is so heartening to hear that we are all in this together, that self-sabotaging-paralysis-do-anything-else-but-write-thing is so familiar but I feel encouraged by your post today. This is my quote of the day from a book I’m reading on vulnerability by Brene Brown:
    β€œDon’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ― Howard Thurman
    Your post is a re-affirmation of this sentiment. Keep writing xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Elizabeth for reading and for reaching out with your comment. Glad my post helped encourage you wrth your own work. I love that quote, wow. It’s so true. Keep writing, too! πŸ™‚

      Like

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