We can talk about outlines, writing schedules, accountability, and proper time allocation all day long, and while these are important aspects of writing a book, they won’t get your book written. If we fail to talk about the mental blocks that can keep you from writing the best book possible, we’re missing a huge component of writing: the mind game.
Writing is, more than anything, a mental game. There is no writing schedule, no accountability coach, no idea that will be good enough to keep you on track with your writing goals if you haven’t at least attempted to conquer the inner demons that keep you from writing, or keep your writing from being as good as it can be.
Since awareness is more than half the battle, I’ve outlined some of the greatest mental foes that come into play when we start to write our books and put them out into the world. Those include perfectionism, insecurity, narcissism, and fear of failure. As you write, you will likely experience every single one of these “four horsemen” of writing, sometimes even in the same day. If you can stay aware of how they emerge for you, you’ll be ahead of the game.
In the last few days before the final draft of the manuscript was due to his publisher, my client called and said, “I need you to talk me off the ledge.”
My eyebrows went up. We were in the final throes of book creation with his publisher, down to the nitty gritty, painful details that no one likes to deal with.
He then proceeded to tell me about the major changes he was thinking of making to the already copy-edited version of his book. He was in the weeds, meaning he’d hit that point in writing and editing and where he was completely over-thinking it and couldn’t see the forest for the trees. It’s a natural result of reading the same words and thoughts over and over again. You might even say it’s part of the process. But the root of the problem is actually something else: perfectionism.
While outwardly it appears to be about getting it right, there’s an internal root cause that drives us to perfectionism, and that is to appear “good enough.” When we’re searching for perfection, we’re looking for some external validation that will prove to us and to everyone around us, once and for all, that we are good enough.
The trouble is that this is a moving bar – a perfectionist is never satisfied, because perfection is relative. As soon as you reach one metric you’ve set, you will spot another problem that you think needs to be fixed, and the compulsive fixing will happen again.
The real problem is how you see your work … and how you see yourself. If you can remember that your work is not you, meaning that any imperfections in your work do not equate to imperfections in you, you will feel far better about letting things go.
“It needs to be mine,” said a former client of mine. “It can’t look like it came from anyone else.” We were in the research stage of the book when my client said this to me. She was a very talented marketer and had spent 10 years building a large following before writing her book. She was seen as an expert in her field, but she didn’t have the professional letters behind her name, that would make her feel like an expert. As a result, she had a huge blind spot. Every time we tried to include the most recent studies or recent methods from her colleagues and peers, she felt nervous and opposed the idea.
The problem? She wasn’t a researcher, she wasn’t a doctor, and she had no intellectual property that wasn’t derived from other people. This isn’t a knock on her – she was a brilliant aggregator, someone who could take complicated information and repackage and explain it in a way that reached an audience hungry for knowledge and advice. But she didn’t want to see herself as an aggregator. She wanted to punch above her weight, so she failed to give credit where credit was due, took the methods of other teachers in her field, and disguised them as her own.
Can you guess what happened? Well, I quit the project for lack of integrity, and she eventually got called out for her lack of citations and sources and her “rebranding” of other people’s methods. It was an embarrassing episode for her, one that she is still recovering from.
Insecurity can rear its ugly head at any time and cause us to make bad decisions. We’re all struggling with impostor syndrome. We’re all struggling to feel as if what we have to say matters as much as what the next guy or gal has to say. Much has been written about impostor syndrome, but my favorite rebuttal to the feeling that you are a fraud is the idea that frauds and impostors never experience impostor syndrome. They know what they are, they know they’re faking it. So, if you’re wondering what the hell you’re doing on stage, or what the hell you’re doing writing a book because you feel like an impostor, the very fact that you’re wondering implies that you are probably not an impostor.
The other thing to remember is that you are not the first expert in your field, nor will you be the last. You do not have to be the definitive authority in a field to make a difference. When you feel insecurity rearing its head, think of the defined audience that you want to write for. You’ve already worked with them and you know you can help them. Focus on what they need to hear and forget about everyone else.
“This is such a big idea that I will be on CNN, FoxNews, and MSNBC. I’ll be on Ellen and Oprah, this idea is so huge. This will be the biggest book of the year, I know it.”
I was in the middle of a call with someone who wanted to hire me to collaboratively write with them. My ears perked when he said this, but not because I was excited – phrases like this are the calling card of someone who tends to think too highly of their idea. Every time I have heard this phrase, they’ve gone on to describe an overly complicated idea that lacks a unique angle. Even more telling, their businesses are typically struggling because the idea didn’t appeal to the audience or because they couldn’t explain it well enough – or someone else was doing it far better.
There’s a big difference between dreaming big and being wildly unrealistic about where your idea, your platform, and your writing skills fall in the world. When your business is struggling and no one is willing to buy your product, it’s a good idea to question whether Ellen is going to call you up and beg you to be on her show. Sometimes this is just hubris and a lack of knowledge about how the book world works, and sometimes it’s straight up narcissism – an inflated view of themselves, a sense of entitlement, and a need for admiration.
No matter where it comes from, these unrealistic expectations can hurt the author because, inevitably, their high expectations won’t be met. They set a standard that isn’t related to the reality of their situation, and that makes it impossible to be successful. Being hopeful and realistic about your book and what you might achieve with it is an essential part of feeling satisfied with the outcome.
Fear of Failure
Failure… ughhh. For many of us, the word alone brings up that sinking feeling in your gut that makes it feel as if your insides are sweating. It brings about the deepest, most vulnerable feelings. It’s visceral. It feels as if we’ll die.
And in some ways, failure is associated with death. When a mother lion hunts for food for her cubs, failure to bring down the antelope she’s chasing means that her babies could die within days. When salmon swim upstream for their annual spawn, they have a certain time window in which to make it to their spawning grounds. If they don’t make it, they have failed their biological imperative and their DNA will not live on past this life. In nature, failure really does equate to death.
When you add in our human insecurities and egos, it’s no wonder we feel like basketcases at the thought of failing. It’s enough to make you want to curl into a ball of shame and quit writing altogether.
But, like that mama lion, one can’t do that. The mama lion can’t just go “Well, that sucked and I’m embarrassed as all hell. Guess I won’t be doing that anymore,” or her cubs really will die. Like it or not, we all have to get back up and go again.
No matter who you are, no matter how big your platform or how long you’ve been teaching, we all fear the specter of failure when we sit down to write. Failure in writing can come in so many forms: failing to finish the book, failing to cite the right sources, failing to cite enough sources, failing to cite the sources that so and so thinks are credible, failing to write the book up to the standards of that critic at NYT, failing to get the blurbs you wanted, failing to get the reviews you wanted, failing to get that expert to let you interview them for your book… I could go on and on, but you get the point. The point is there are so many potential failure points, and the truth is that you probably will fail at some point during this endeavor.
Instead of getting upset about it and letting it stop you before you even start, make peace with that fact that you will mess up, there will be parts of your process that you wish had gone differently. It’s completely natural, and these failures don’t have to mean anything at all about who you are as a person. The only real failure is failing to write the book at all.
These are difficult emotions that you will likely learn again and again, in different forms, as you write, publish, and market your book. But there are ways to mitigate the effects of these behaviors.
First, remember that you are likely a terrible judge of your own work. There will be times when you hit the nail on the head without even trying, and there will be times when you think you’ve created a masterpiece and your reader or your editor think it’s drivel. Either way, you won’t find out where your book stands until you share your work and open yourself up to hearing someone else’s feedback.
Second, practicing non-attachment to your work is essential for sanity. It’s not easy, but it is vitally important. Not everyone is going to like what you create – there will be days that you don’t even like what you create. Rather than chase perfection and continue the rat race that has no end, remind yourself that you are not the final judge of your own work – your readers are the final judge.
Third, stop thinking so much. Many of the problems described above are a result of overthinking. If you’ve ever read The Inner Game of Tennis, you know that it’s not what you know, it’s how you manage your mindset in order to effectively use what you know on the court. Says author W. Timothy Gallwey:
Reflect on the state of mind of a player who is said to be “hot” or “playing in the zone.” Is he thinking about how he should hit each shot? Is he thinking at all? Listen to the phrases commonly used to describe a player at his best: “He’s out of his mind”; “He’s playing over his head”; “He’s unconscious”; “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.” The common factor in each of these descriptions is that some part of the mind is not so active. Athletes in most sports use similar phrases, and the best of them know that their peak performance never comes when they’re thinking about it.
When you can stay out of your own head and in the flow of creation, you (and your work) will suffer much less. And who knows, you might even enjoy it a whole lot more.