What if negative self-chatter is wrecking our writing?
I love tough coaching. In my writing life, as in my running life, I’ve often wished I had somebody yelling at me: Get outta bed. No excuses. Stop with the email. Stop with the whining. A thousand words minimum (or three trail miles, or six) today, and don’t expect me to be impressed. I’m gonna come yell at you again if you don’t do your best.
In fact, I just got my first tattoo this summer, while in Los Angeles. In courier font, parallel to my shinbone, it reads: “Don’t settle.”
To me, that means a lot of things: don’t settle for less than the life I want (which has more to do with simplicity than materialism—it’s a more purposeful and streamlined life I’m after). It means don’t settle for writing less than I could. Don't settle for being less physically and mentally healthy than I might be. Don't settle for spending so much time away from loved ones (an Alaskan's complaint if there ever was one).
I’ve got no regrets about the pushy tone of the tattoo—in fact, it’s already reminded me to stay firm regarding some recent decision-making.
But if there are times to be tough with oneself, research suggests there are also times to be tender.
Recently I heard a radio program about the impact of negative self-chatter on test taking. Students who were told encouraging or anxiety-neutralizing thoughts—that a given math test would not say anything about their actual intelligence, or that there was no indication that race or gender would predict poorer performance—did significantly better, especially if those test-takers belonged to a minority group. In other words, implant a message that you’ll probably do just fine, or that a test really isn’t so bad, or that you’re not at any particular disadvantage, and you’re already on the way to doing better—especially if you’re the type of person already burdened with self-doubt.
So what to do about our negative thoughts if we don’t have a test administrator tricking us into a lowered anxiety state with positive messages?
This psychology article suggests a simple, no-cost trick: simply writing down the negative thoughts and then throwing them into the trash. The author of this post warns against writing down worries and keeping them in a journal, for example (something I’ve done without considering the possible effects). The research is still out on whether keeping negative notes may actually be harmful, but in the meanwhile, perhaps caution is in order. "Download" the worries by writing them down, and then dispose of them, this researcher would suggest.
Even if you don’t actually implement this experiment, it’s worth thinking about. No one would dare suggest that writing anything – short story, essay, novel – is easy. In fact, some of our best authors plainly state that each major writing effort is one necessary failure after another, and the best one can do is “fail better.”
This is the truth of art, but when it comes to tricking ourselves into performance, a tiny bit of self-delusion might be better.
What would happen if we truly believed that our artistic aims were achievable? More pragmatically, what would happen if we focused less on achieving the abstract and unmeasureable and instead increased our own confidence in what we can control: Showing up. Putting in a certain amount of time each day, or a certain number of writing sessions per week. Finishing a certain number of pages per month. Doing whatever else we can schedule and verify: attending writing groups, taking classes, reading a certain number of books, and so on.
Reminding ourselves of past successes, we might believe even better in future success. We might quiet at least some of the negative self-chatter and make more mental space in which to simply create.
In the meanwhile, I’m going to try both forms of coaching, the tough and the tender. “Don’t settle,” the tattoo on my shin reads. And in my own head, when I remember to get the self-chatter tape rolling, “Don’t worry. You showed up, and you’re doing fine.”
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour, and is now working on Behave, a novel set in the 1920s about psychologists Rosalie and John Watson. She teaches in the UAA MFA low-residency program and for 49 Writers.