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

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It’s a Bitch to Grow Up

Far out, man.

I’d be hard pressed to pick a period of time in which I’ve been more hectic than I have been the past few weeks.

In fact, when I sat down at my desk today, I glanced at the papers strewn across it, including a very dated and half-completed to-do list, and realised I had not touched my laptop or sat down in my nice cushy IKEA chair for an entire two weeks!

It’s been that long since I threw together a blog post, too, which is hideous as I try hard to get the weekly blog posts happening with regularity.

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you will know a bit about what’s been keeping me flat out in the writing space: a couple of really big wins that I will dedicate my next blog post to. I’d talk about them now, but it’s already 11pm and I’m knackered.

The other weight on me has been work. Like a lot of authors, I juggle a whole bunch of part-time and casual roles (and, foolishly, some voluntary ones, too). Usually this is manageable, but lately all of them have demanded my time at once, and I’ve found myself feeling like I’m desperate for air but stuck underwater. I am totally overwhelmed and the situation I’ve put myself in is quite clearly no longer manageable.

I blogged in July about this same sense of burnout, and it is becoming really clear to me that I still haven’t learned my lesson.

There is a latter-day Alanis Morissette song (circa 2008) called “It’s a Bitch To Grow Up”, and some of the lyrics are hitting home right now.

Namely the verse:

I’ve repeated this dance ad nauseum
There’s still something to learn that I’ve not

This is really so true. I have burnt out a few times now. As in, ending up in hospital kind of burn out. And like a magpie attacking its reflection in a flying rage, I somehow keep repeating the same mistake ad nauseum.

I’m an ambitious person by nature, so I like to take on more and more stuff, but I really have to come to grips with the fact that I can’t do everything at once. It’s just not possible, especially when I have five different paid jobs, a couple of voluntary positions and a writing career. It’s lunacy.

And as I’ve already established through my musings on this blog and elsewhere, writing is the thing that matters most to me.

So I think it’s time I learn that I can’t do a million things at once without making myself sick. I need to stop. I need to slow down. I need to recalibrate and work out how to run my life effectively in a way that allows me to prioritise my writing career without letting the day jobs and other commitments choke all the air out of the room.

I really just need to learn how to take care of myself, don’t I?

As Alanis said:

I feel done, I feel raked over coals
and all that remains is the case
That it’s a bitch to grow up

Holden

 

 

I’m Not Growing Up, I’m Just Burning Out

Last week I wrote about some crappy days full of mid-level SNAFUs. This week started in a similar vein. My calendar was like a line of sadistic babushka dolls: opening each one revealed a new day filled with even more heinous fuckery than the last.

babushka dolls
Each one just a little more evil than the last. That baby one looks shifty AF.

It was a full-on week because one of my programs at work launches next week, so there was heaps to do. Trying to get my emails down was about as useful as bringing sponges to soak up a flood. Actually, a flood is an apt metaphor: all week, I felt like I was standing downstream from a dam about to burst. I accumulated a constant headache, which I carried all week, along with a mouth ulcer.

These are the body’s ways of telling you to slow the fuck down, so praise be to Rebecca Black that it’s Friday the weekend.

I’ve taken on a lot. July was going to be a break but, even in addition to my day jobs and their deadlines, it’s been an enormous month. I undertook Camp NaNoWriMo, and have so far written 47,000 words of my 50,000 word target so far. I published THE BLACK FLOWER, which is seriously more work than anyone outside the indie publishing game would probably believe. I submitted a whole bunch of applications for writing stuff that kept me up into the wee hours each morning. I smashed through a weight-loss goal at the gym, which has been a long time coming and was a big moment.

There was also an awesome part of the week – involving my first radio performance and

2. The Scroll of Isidor - Cover
Sales of THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR surged this week: it has reached #3 on the iBooks Epic Fantasy Chart.

interview as a writer – but I will blog about that next week, as well as share the recording of the show. As a sidebar, the promo gave me a huge spike in sales, and got THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR to chart at #3 on the Epic Fantasy chart on iBooks – but again, I’ll expand on that another day.

Right now, the point is this: all of those things demanded time and energy, and by the time I got to Friday, I discovered I had nothing left to give.

I was knocking on burnout’s door.

I’m not even kidding. After I did some work at a local library on Friday afternoon, I was meant to go home and get on top of some other projects from my home office.

But I couldn’t. Not ‘I didn’t want to’. I couldn’t. My brain had finally overloaded. I’d hit a wall, like JD in that episode of Scrubs where he tries to do a triathlon.

I started thinking about a lyric from a Green Day song I like called Burnout: “I’m not growing up, I’m just burning out.” Yep, sounds about right. You would think with age comes wisdom, but nope: the older I get the more I realise my growth does not inhibit my capacity to make terrible choices when it comes to taking too much on all at once.

So, instead of working any further, I went into a kind of burnt-out, shell-shocked stupor for about an hour. I sat down and read some stuff in the library, trance-like. Then I had ice cream for lunch (this is what happens when you stop giving a fuck) and sat in the local ice cream parlour staring through the window at the people racing by to complete their errands. I was frozen with inertia, and had absolutely no capacity or desire to join these fools in their rushing panics, even though I was one of them. I desperately needed to plug myself in and recharge before I could do anything the world needed of me.

rebecca black
But it’s Saturday. You’re too late, Rebecca Black. TOO LATE.

I suppose normal humanoids who know how to take care of themselves call this a “lunch break”. I never give myself enough downtime. But, though unplanned, the break gave me enough joules to function again. I pushed through the last series of work and errands for the day, and then, finally, at around 7pm, my day was done. I got my arse to the gym. Running and lifting are the best ways I know to de-stress. Sweating gets me out of my head and into my body.

And I ran fast, like a barefoot bogan on a Geraldton footpath in February.

Rage Against the Machine and Rammstein had me almost headbanging on the treadmill.

And then a steaming hot shower. Denouement.

Self-care is so vital for everyone, but it’s a hard thing to manage for artists in particular – or entrepreneurs – or, really, anyone who’s trying to juggle multiple priorities in their life without losing the plot.

There are two perspectives on this.

One person, who is a bit of a self-care guru, recently looked at my schedule for July and exclaimed, “THAT’S your month off?”

Another person, who is a little more business-minded, said, “Yes, but you’re a writer. You’re the same as an entrepreneur. You’ve gotta hustle.”

I think both are right.

I work hard because I know that I must, if I am to get what I want. My dream will not see fruition if I don’t drive it. The whip must be cracked.

But at the same time, if I crack the whip too hard, I won’t just have a broken whip: I’ll have a broken back.

I don’t want to lead a life that is stressed-out, unhappy, boring and dull – which is what this past week or two has been like. If I wanted that, I would never have quit the 9 to 5 rat race.

replace-burnout
Life goals.

But I did quit it. Because I want something different. I want to live, dammit! I want to have fun. I want to have the energy to do stuff I like doing.

So that means I need to start taking care of myself a whole lot better. It won’t happen overnight, so let’s call this a work in progress.

Are you an artist, or an entrepreneur, or just anyone who works hard at their dreams or goals? How do you find a way to switch off and wind down?

Holden