This is a guest post by author Marcy McKay. Marcy McKay is an award-winning novelist, and her nonfiction stress book hit #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases. If you want to learn how to overcome your creative monsters and writer, join her email list. Connect with her on Facebook or Instagram.
How do you overcome creative resistance? How do you handle that big, blank screen staring at you from your computer? The cursor just blink-blink-blinking its mockery.
When it comes to your writing time, do you avoid it? Choose to read celebrity gossip online, or maybe wander over to your empty refrigerator multiple times? Have you ever written one paragraph but think it sucks, so you delete it? And instead of writing more, stew in self-loathing.
Whatever your creative challenges are on and off the page, you’re not lame or a loser. There’s actually a scientific reason behind your creative resistance.
The even better news is you can change your writing progress so it is progress.
3 Top Reasons You Struggle Writing
Years ago, I had a blog called Mudpie Writing. Here, I helped writers overcome their creative battles and surveyed over 1,000 people about their biggest challenges.
In this survey, the top three struggles for writers became very clear:
- Perfectionism, and
Mentoring others helped me practice what I preached, and my debut novel was published in 2015. The book won awards, has over 300 Amazon reviews and still sells well. Little did I know this book was only the beginning of a bigger change: one that would really educate me about my own resistance to completing my creative work.
In 2017, while home alone working on the sequel, my family house caught fire.
That’s when my life fell apart.
Overnight, it’s like a switch flipped. I suddenly battled insomnia, anxiety, and depression. I couldn’t find help with the “traditional” fixes (therapy, yoga—hell, I even drank kale juice), so I went on a journey to Humpty Dumpty myself back together again.
What I learned transformed my life. It’s why I want to help you with now.
So that you can be a writer that does the work—and is proud of it.
Your Stress is 100% Real
If you were to google the word “stress,” you would receive over one billion results. Stress is your body’s response to life changes.
Since our lives are constantly in flux, we all face worry and anxiety. It might be BIG stressors, like marriage, death, divorce, disease, or debt. FYI, your body and brain don't know the difference between “good” stress (a new job) or bad stress (you’re fired).
Little stressors add up, too. The daily drama of our fast-paced world, such as an overflowing inbox of emails, juggling work and kids, all while trying to pursue your dreams.
When repeated enough, these stressors become patterns inside, which aren’t necessarily reasonable or rational. Think about your buddy who always dates the wrong person. It’s also why you give or receive the same staff evaluation every, single year. Wherever you’ve tried so hard to change, but keep staying the same (write the book, lose the weight, manage money better)—that’s probably a stress pattern.
But what does this have to do with writing—or your creative resistance to write?
Well, your survival brain says it’s not safe to write, query, publish or market—whichever part is hard for you. Those subconscious thoughts don’t know the difference between fighting to the death, and:
- A sucky first-draft.
- A rejection from your dream agent.
- A one-star review on your book.
It’s not just a matter of “mindset,” either. You can say positive affirmations every day, follow all your favorite authors for inspiration, and still struggle with self-doubt, perfectionism and procrastination.
Because this is happening at the subconscious level. Most people don’t even realize they’re sabotaging themselves. It goes much deeper than that.
As backwards as it seems, your survival brain perceives your author hopes and dreams as threats, so it sets out to stop the very things you so desperately want.
Knowing this can help you calm it down, and do the work you need to do in order to achieve those writing hopes and dreams.
The Science Behind Your Stress
Your brain and your body work together as a team. As an author, your mind thinks up creative ideas, then your body reacts to them. You research, imagine and write, while also sitting for endless hours as you do the manual labor of creative work.
Your Brain + Your Body = Your Nervous System
These fibers start at the nape of your neck, then work their way down your spine, through your arms and legs. Your brain serves as a memory bank that records every event you’ve ever experienced, even the ones you’ve long since forgotten.
Cutting-edge research now shows your body physically does the same. Think about it, your body has been there for all your highs and lows. The good, the bad, and the ugly. It absorbs every stressor.
You sense the difference. When you’re having a great day, there is a skip in your step. Anything seems possible.
However, when life is challenging, your body feels heavier. Burdened, as if you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.
Heard of fight/flight/freeze?
That’s your nervous system. Have any of these reactions happened to you when you've tried to write and/or publish your book?
- Your stomach turns queasy when you even consider querying that literary agent
- You have a monster headache when you enter a writing contest
- You just cannot seem to gain confidence even though you've written for years
All the above are stress patterns.
Where Did Your Stress Patterns Begin?
Your self-doubt, perfectionism, procrastination didn’t just happen. They are patterns hardwired into your body and brain.
These patterns probably started years ago. Each stressor stacked upon the other inside, which are called by various names: emotional blocks, childhood wounds, trauma.
Most patterns started in childhood.
What was going on in your home when you were five years old or younger?
You don’t have to have grown up like Oliver Twist. You can come from a loving home, be a nice person from a kind family, and still have experienced stress.
Why does this matter?
A Case Study of My Stress Patterns
Here’s the order of my patterns: Perfectionism. Self-Doubt. Procrastination.
I can look shiny all day long, while drowning in my own private not good enough. Achievement was important in my childhood home, so I delivered.
When the fire alarm rang in my house, I was home alone working on my sequel. There was no smoke, no fire, no burning smell, so I waited two minutes and thirteen seconds before I called 911.
Please note, the house did not burn to the ground. They were able to save over ninety percent of our belongings, so we were beyond lucky. Still, the smoke and water damage destroyed the interior. It was a ten-month ordeal dealing with insurance and debating what to do next. We raised our two kids there for seventeen years, then one day, we never lived there again.
It was traumatic.
My perfectionism ties back to my loving, but chaotic father. I both adored and feared him. He could be fun or turbulent—depending on his mood at the moment.
As an adult, I understand how hard it was to be the sole breadwinner for a wife and three kids, but three-year-old Marcy didn’t get that memo. I just learned to walk on eggshells and do whatever to keep him happy.
My dad died alone of a heart attack in his hotel room when he came to visit me in college in 1987. That was the first time I didn’t crash there to order room service, but I had a late-night study group.
My childhood family lost our dad on my watch.
I waited 133 seconds before calling 911 about our fire.
My adult family lost our home on my watch.
Don't you think those two life-changing events could #$%@-up a perfectionist like me?
Consciously, I knew I wasn’t to blame, but the thoughts beneath my consciousness punished me dearly. That is why I fell to pieces.
It doesn’t have to be a crisis to trigger you. Pay attention to anything that feels not right inside—emotionally or physically.
Knowing these triggers will probably also help you get back to writing with a healthy approach.
You. Can. Change.
I want to offer you a cup of hope. I thought our fire was the worst thing to ever happen to me, but it ended up being the best thing. Why? It forced me to deal with my perfectionism.
Because of my fire—and what I did to face my perfectionism after it—I’m a happier wife, mom, writer, daughter, sister, friend, and human.
I have two successful novels out now, and my nonfiction stress book hit #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases.
I know that when you address what's holding back your life's work, you'll be able to overcome your inner creative battles, too.
4 Tips to Overcome Your Creative Resistance
Awareness isn’t enough to combat these patterns. Remember, they’ve probably been around for decades and can show up in multiple ways. This is not a one-and-done process. It takes hard work and conscious effort.
However, each time you show up differently, it actively rewires your brain and body to change.
Here are four tips to help:
1. Practice Makes Progress
The more you do the very thing that scares the bejeezus out of you, the less scary it becomes. Write, query, publish, market your work. Do it ugly. Do it afraid. And understand your brain and body do not like new since that feels weird and dangerous.
Do it anyway.
You might have heard about this fear from author Steven Pressfield in his book The War of Art. In this book, Steven Pressfield refers to “resistance” as what I mean by our brain's stress response:
Creative resistance is something we all face—and also something we all want to take down.
Beating creative resistance means embracing our inner power. It means sharing our stories in a way that inspires something as big as social action and simultaneously social change, or maybe even just entertaining a reader.
But to accomplish this, you need to embrace your fear and write your book. Share it, too. Even if creative resistance tries to prevent you from doing this.
How to Practice Today
Maybe writing or finishing a complete novel seems too daunting right now. Try writing a short story of about 1,500 words instead. Sometimes taking baby steps and lowering the bar for our writing goals is a great way to help us practice.
Start small, then go big.
BONUS: When you change in one area, it transfers to another. For example, when you set firmer boundaries around your writing time, you’re more apt to have more successful sessions. I’ve always loved Joe Bunting’s writing hack I use to this day: This Creative Writing Exercise will get You Unstuck Every Time.
2. Focus on What You Can Control
Bring your best author self to the page: eat healthy, go easy on the booze, sugar and carbs, move your body several times a week, get enough sleep.
This is similar to the note above that suggests starting small if big goals initially intimidate you.
When goals become manageable, they become possible.
Plus, it's important to take breaks from writing in order to write better. The trick here is making sure that those breaks aren't procrastination, but chances to refuel.
How to Focus Today
What is something within your control when you sit down at your computer? Is it establishing a routine that sparks your creativity? Is it making sure to get in a thirty-minute workout early in the morning because that puts you in a better mood—and gives you more energy—when it is time to write?
Pick something within your control today and focus on it. Make sure you do it, and see if that makes a difference when you do start writing.
3. Find a Community
Writing is such a solitary process. Family and friends don’t always understand your dreams, so connecting with like-minded souls at places like The Write Practice to stay motivated is crucial.
I can't emphasize this enough.
Only you can write your book, but you don't have to write it alone. You need other kindred creatives to help you take the next step.
How to Find a Community Today
Find a writing community that works for you. That might be one like The Write Practice (they'd love to have you!). Maybe it's a community brought together by genre, like WFWA, or a Facebook group.
Don't be afraid. Join them today. Start talking and connecting.
4. Consciously Change Your Mindset
Now you know that your survival brain is hardwired for negativity, it’s reasonable that your thoughts will still default to some version of not good enough. There’s nothing wrong with you, just get back on track when you get off track. Detours, setbacks and failures are part of the creative process.
BONUS: The more important something is to you, the more afraid you’ll be. Your fear is good. I wrote an article for The Write Practice about this very subject years ago: Why Your Writing Success Demands T2.
How to Consciously Change Your Mindset Today
Don't let the idea that “you're not good enough” consume your thoughts.
For every negative thought about your creative work, come up with a positive one that counters it. When the thought creeps into your mind, take five minutes to meditate with a countering truth.
For instance, if you think “I'm not good enough,” spend five minutes telling yourself a positive thought instead: “I am a good writer” or “I am a growing writer with potential” or “I am working hard to be a good writer, and that's what matters.”
You Can Overcome Your Creative Resistance
Identifying your default that holds you back from producing creative work is important.
Reflect on the four tips shared in this post and I believe you'll start turning creative resistance into self-empowerment.
I hope this information has opened your eyes, given you hope, as well as shown you the path leading to your own happily ever after.
Which is your biggest writing struggle: self-doubt, perfectionism or procrastination? Let us know in the comments.
For today’s practice, set a timer fifteen minutes and write about where you think your pattern(s) began. Don’t overthink it. Write like you’re on fire. Don’t edit or read what you’ve written until you’re finished.
Need a prompt? What was your childhood like when you were four years old? If you cannot remember that far, write about some of your earliest memories. How was stress or conflict handled at home?
You do NOT have to share your practice in the comments since this can sometimes bring up personal, painful memories. However, I’d love to hear an overview of what you learned. I also encourage you to start connecting the dots between your struggles today and where they started in the past because that’s your path to change.
And if you have some time, give some feedback to a fellow writer who has shared!