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

The Most Violent Word in My Vocabulary

That I put too much pressure on myself is not new information.

In fact, this is one of the oldest things I know about myself. My own expectations of what I should be achieving have shackled a yoke to my shoulders since I was a boy.

It’s the reason I took on five casual jobs last year, and subsequently burned out.

It’s why, a few years back, I made the reckless decision to complete an Honours degree in Writing whilst also doing a Diploma in French and a professional certificate simultaneously, alongside four day jobs. This was the workaholic version of sitting at a table in a burning house and saying, “Guys, I’m fine. This is fine.”

And I can track this kind of learned behaviour back a long way. It’s why I had a massive meltdown in the first few weeks of year twelve: I was trying to overachieve, and take on every opportunity that came my way, and it was utterly unsustainable.

It’s easy to look back on a bright (if slightly neurotic) sixteen-year-old boy and tell him to chill the fuck out, but at the time it wasn’t such an easy task, because I kept telling myself I should be doing more … and I still am.

In fact, the word “should” has always been the most violent word in my vocabulary, especially when I apply it self-reflexively.

I tell myself I should be:

  • More determined.
  • More disciplined.
  • More hard-working.
  • More successful.
  • More celebrated.
  • More productive.

The last one is the real kicker. It’s actually impossible to satisfy my expectations of how productive I should be, because every second I spend Tweeting, or at the gym, or napping, or playing video games, is a second my brain tells me I could have been writing. There is always more I could be doing.

Somehow, my poor brain got snared on a belief at a young age, and I still haven’t ripped the hook out of my bleeding mouth.

The belief is:

If you aren’t as productive as possible, you are not good enough as a human being.

Recently, I’ve realised just how common this self-flagellating behaviour is among fellow writers. A fellow Perth-based author was recently on Twitter having a mild freakout about her own (perceived) lack of productivity. Having just finished a novel a couple of months ago, she felt like she was not really a “writer” anymore because she hadn’t written anything since. She was promptly reassured by many, including myself, that this was totally normal, which was encouraging to see – and emblematic of the supportive culture among authors.

What struck me about this, though, was how very easy it is for me to be kind to another writer, and how hard it is to be kind to myself.

I have a good sense of what expectations are reasonable for an author and what is too much –but when it comes to my own career, I am a tyrant. Nothing I do is good enough. Even amazing steps forward in my career only delight me briefly, and then it’s back to, “Well, what have you achieved lately?”

Sometimes I feel like if I don’t achieve anything substantial – meaning I receive external validation in some way – in any given week, it was a failed week. If a whole month of this goes by, I am a failed author.

This showed up most recently when I did my writing residency at Varuna. The weight of expectations I placed on myself to churn out absolutely phenomenal writing and make shitloads of progress on my third novel was extraordinary, and so cruel.

And it’s happened since I returned home, too. Even though I know my calendar is particularly rammed until June, leaving me incredibly time poor, I’m still riding myself like a meth-fuelled jockey. I should be making faster progress on my third novel. I should be writing some new short stories and submit them to journals and competitions. I should release something new as an e-book. I should blog more frequently.

Should, should, should. Same old mantra.

perfectionism

In one way, it’s heartening to know, via Twitter, that so many other authors are going through these same inner struggles.

But in another way, it’s tragic, because it means we are all being so fucking hard on ourselves.

So, what am I going to do about it?

Well, I already know how to be kind to other authors, so I’m going to make sure I keep doing that. The big challenge ahead of me is to start being nice to myself. To ease the pressure off a little, and be happy with excellence instead of perceived (and unattainable) perfection.

I will never, ever be as productive as I want to be in my mind. I am a human being. I will get busy, and I will get tired, and sometimes what I want to do won’t always be realistic, or reasonable, or kind. Some days, I’m going to get home from work and will be in that general “fuck the world, I’m not doing anything else all night” mood. I think this is okay sometimes.

So I’m going to replace the word “should” with the word “want to”, and use that as the test of whether or not I ought to proceed with something.

Will I continue working hard on my third novel? Of course, but because I want to, not because I feel I must. My ambition and my drive won’t falter, but I’m going to make sure my self-care ranks as just as important as my goals. It will be an eternal balancing act, and I’m sure I’ll fuck it up several times as I learn my way.

But, eventually, I should get it right.

Holden