Ten Books to Help You When You're Discouraged, Blocked or Feel Like You're Not a 'Real' Writer by Janet Boyer
What are the true enemies of writers—those monsters that haunt, harangue and harass?
After twenty years of writing—the last decade spent as a traditionally-published non-fiction author and Amazon.com Hall of Fame Reviewer—I’ve chased down those [email protected]#$!% fiends and took names.
Turns out that there are only two, if you can believe it.
Yeah, I know. And here we thought we were dealing with Legion…
Without further ado, meet…Comparison and Perfectionism. (Oh wait. You’re already BFFs! That second “F” being “Frenemies”, of course.)
Now, procrastination likes to borrow their masks and play boogeyman (or lull us to sleep), but he’s just a lackey—a symptom, really—of those two main monsters.
Here’s the real kicker:
Those monsters? They are us.
Both comparison and perfectionism are narratives—stories we tell ourselves about our writing (or even our “brand”)—that involve words like “should”, “must”, “always”, “never” and “best”.
Humans are control freaks. And writers? Arguably, doubly so.
So we try to control our “optics” (how we appear to the world). Our clout (how much influence we have—often confused with followers, “likes” and retweets). Our marketability (visibility and productivity). Our profitability (sales).
If we become particularly neurotic, we may lash out at other writers in envy—wondering why they get all the attention and success. (Or, at least, hold some pretty profanity-laced imaginary conversations with them—or their fans—in our heads).
And dealing with internet trolls, stalkers and haters on top of it all?
Good Lord, no wonder many of us are emotional wrecks!
Although there are many wonderful writing craft books out there [looks at her bulging shelves and counts over 100 of them]—not many focus on primarily the emotional aspects of writing.
Fear. Disappointment. Jealousy. Loneliness. Discouragement. Frustration. Anxiety. Confusion. Existential angst. Anger. Sadness. Despair.
Not including physical/medical causes, those feelings tend to coalesce from what’s between our ears—i.e., the unexamined thoughts, assumptions, mandates and judgments we hold (often without realizing they’re fueling our emotions).
The good news? There are some high-quality books on creativity out there—many, writer-centric—that focus on commiserating about dark times, identifying the root of painful emotions, cultivating resilience, persevering with your craft, inviting uplifting states of being, forcing life to mean and recognizing what’s really important to us (NB: it’s not the same for everyone).
Here are the books that helped me the most. I hope you find them as the equivalent of a hot cup of tea. Or a soft pillow. Or a bracing splash of cold water. Or, like The Hermit’s lantern, a brightly-burning flame that will lead you back to your truest, most empowered Self.
Rather than giving mini-overviews of each book—they would probably sound pretty similar, anyway, since my Top 10 address parallel themes—I’ll share highlighted passages from my own copies.
1. Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life by Bonnie Friedman
Envy is a con-man, a tugger at your sleeve, a knocker at your door. Let me in for a moment, it says, for just one moment of your time. It claims to tell the truth; it craves attention. The more you listen to it, the more you believe what it says. The more thoroughly you believe, the more you think you must listen. You must get the info on who is out there, how young the competition is, where they’ve been reviewed, what they’ve won, and what that means about you. The antidote to envy is one’s own work. Always one’s own work. Not the thinking about it. Not the assessing of it. But the doing of it. The answers you want can only come from the work itself. It drives the spooks away
2. The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression by Eric Maisel, Ph.D.
You are what you think. Meaning-making is impossible if your thoughts lead you about by the nose, if you have no way to dispute your negative thoughts, and if you can’t penetrate the real thoughts and feelings behind your customary expressions. Train yourself to hear what you’re thinking. Train yourself to confront your negative thoughts and to replace them with self-friendlier ones. Train yourself to look behind your words to discover what you actually mean. As with the other tasks I’m describing, this is a lot to ask. But asking anything less of yourself is a recipe for enduring depression.
3. The Artist’s Way Every Day: A Year of Creative Living by Julia Cameron
Festivity breeds creativity. Rigidity breeds despair. When your high spirits are straitjacketed in the name of virtue or discipline, the vital and youthful spark in us that enjoys adventure and is game for invention begins to flicker like a flame in a draft. Creativity responds to nourishment and warmth. If we are forbidden to be childlike—told perhaps that is “childish” or “selfish”—if we are urged to be too sensible, we react as gifted students do to an authoritarian teacher—we refuse to learn and grow. Our considerable energy is channeled into resistance and over time solidified into a hard-to-penetrate shell of feigned indifference. The universe is alive with energy. It is fertile, abundant, even raucous—so are we. Most of us are high-spirited, humorous, even pranksterish with the least encouragement. What is lack for so many of us is precisely the least encouragement.
4. Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod
If you can accept the pain, it cannot hurt you. The pain of making the necessary sacrifices always hurts more than you think it’s going to. I know. It sucks. That being said, doing something seriously creative is one of the most amazing experiences one can have, in this or any other lifetime. If you can pull it off, it’s worth it. Even if you don’t end up pulling it off, you’ll learn many incredible, magical, valuable things. It’s not doing it—when you know full well you had the opportunity—that hurts far more than any failure.
5. Chapter After Chapter: Discover the Dedication and Focus You Need to Write the Book of Your Dreams by Heather Sellers
From writing my memoir, I learned everything has to be about two things. Along the way, I learned that having too many writing projects at once is not appealing to the muse; it’s slutty, and she has Standards. Writing a book is exactly like love. You don’t hold back. You give it everything you have. If it doesn’t work out, you’re heartbroken, but you move forward and start again anyway. You have to.
6. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon
Keep a praise file. Life is a lonely business, often filled with discouragement and rejection. Yes, validation is for parking, but it’s still a tremendous boost when people say nice things about our work. Occasionally, I have the good fortune to have something take off online, and for a week or two, I’ll be swimming in Tweets and nice e-mails from people discovering my work. It’s pretty wonderful. And disorienting. And a major high. But I always know that high will taper off, and a few weeks down the road I will have a dark day when I want to quit, when I wonder why the heck I even bother with this stuff. That’s why I put every really nice e-mail I get in a special folder. (Nasty e-mails get deleted immediately). When those dark days roll around and I need a boost, I open that folder and read through a couple e-mails. Then I get back to work. Try it: Instead of keeping a rejection file, keep a praise file. Use it sparingly—don’t get lost in past glory—but keep it around for when you need the lift.
7. Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People by Camille DeAngelis
If we don’t acknowledge what we feel—if we don’t process it in a similar manner to an invoice we receive in the mail—those feelings with take up residence inside us. Your envy and frustration become part of your fabric of muscle and bone and tendon. You carry your disappointment in your blood. It courses through you and keeps your stuck…We can’t do anything about other people’s rage and sorrow, but we owe it to ourselves—not to mention our family and colleagues—to deal with our shit, to see it and let it go…These stores of stale and unproductive energy accumulate over a lifetime, so releasing them is going to take awhile too. You have to be patient with yourself
8. You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams by Elizabeth Sims
Remember you are more than your head. Be sure to pay attention to your feelings as you go. Maybe some fear is coming up, maybe some anger about what you’re writing. Whatever emotions come, never resist them. Allow them to be. Notice them, and neither suppress them nor go drama queen about them. As you write, ask yourself: How am I feeling now? Is my belly nice and loose, is my breath coming freely? Are my neck and shoulders loose? Am I having fun? Have I smiled in the last few minutes? Have I smiled at all since I started doing this? Am I taking myself too seriously?
9. Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within by Dennis Palumbo
I would argue that, painful as it seems, it’s actually easier to endure feelings of inferiority than to challenge yourself to grow as an artist. If fact, in my own life, when I’m tempted to devalue my work in comparison to others’, I’ve learned to see it as a red flag, a kind of warning beacon alerting me to look back at myself and see where I might feel stuck, unmotivated, uninspired. Invariably, if I explore my working process honestly, I’ll find that comparing myself to others was triggered by a lack of excitement or commitment to what I was working on.
10. Toxic Criticism by Eric Maisel, Ph.D.
Self-criticism is a mental mistake rooted in the way that the mind readily turns mere problematic information—such as that you are speaking at a certain high-decibel level—into self-chastisement: that you are speaking too loudly. Because you are built to make this mental mistake, you regularly commit what philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy: you turn an “is” into an “ought”. “I am speaking at XX decibel level” is an “is”, a natural fact. “I am speaking too loudly” is a statement about right and wrong, about what is proper and what is improper. To move habitually from a fact to a negative self-judgment without noticing that you have cavalierly attacked yourself is the epitome of neurotic self-harm. The truth will set you free. But smacking yourself in the mouth as you tell yourself the truth will only break your teeth.
Honorable Mentions (other books that have been extraordinarily helpful to me on the creative path):
Loving What Is by Byron Katie
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
Why Your Life Sucks (and What You Can Do About It) by Alan Cohen
Janet Boyer is the author of Back in Time Tarot and Tarot in Reverse, as well as the co-creator (with her husband, artist Ron Boyer) of the Snowland Deck and the Coffee Tarot. Janet's third traditionally-published book, Naked Tarot: Sassy, Stripped Down Advice, releases into the wild from Dodona Books September 2018. The Coffee Tarot Companion Book also launches this month. As a respected, trusted Amazon Hall of Fame Reviewer (there’s only 159 of them), she's penned over 1,200 reviews, and several articles have been featured in print magazines. A radio co-host (Tarot Insider) and podcaster (Naked Tarot) she’s been a guest on the nationally syndicated radio show Coast to Coast AM with George Noory, Jim Harold’s Paranormal Podcast and other metaphysical programs. She invites you to visit her online at JanetBoyer.com.