Quills: Bolstering Authors Inside and Out
Two days into the 85th Annual League of Utah Writers’ Quills Conference, New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry gave his keynote address. He shared how he became a successful writer and encouraged everyone listening to go for their goals. “Why not you?” He posed this question to the audience over Zoom. The idea reverberated: There is no reason you can’t succeed.
I know what you are thinking. That’s fine for everyone else. But, you may be muttering as you read this, I’m not good enough. I’m a mess. I haven’t even gotten off the couch today. I can’t focus. Many creatives are experiencing blocks during the pandemic, with lives up-ended and children in laps all day with no end in sight. Our nervous systems are all out of whack and we are adjusting to involuntary change. Some days we are grateful just to be alive, let alone creating masterpieces or pitching agents.
But the creative process has bigger problems than a global pandemic. Most writers (most people for that matter) face inner critics; some harsh enough to freeze everything in place. We do battle in our minds, we hide documents from ourselves by losing them, we get bogged down in discouragement. Negativity echoes around in our heads: “I can’t do it” or “I’m overwhelmed all the time.” Whether these messages came from doubtful parents, society in general or some goblin under your bed when you were a kid, they create serious barriers. These messages can keep you from even trying to write, or from submitting anything that you write. They gobble up your success by looming over you with imposter syndrome once you have been published. What’s a writer to do?
Never fear. Quills Con is here. Along with Maberry’s keynote address, three of the pre-recorded sessions in particular addressed these issues. First, Mel Jolly’s pre-recorded session “Get Your Stuff Together: Organization for Authors” spelled out not only techniques for combating negativity but also tips for organizing the nuts and bolts of day to day writing. Second, in another relevant session, author and LUW member Alex Harrow interviewed Joanna Penn (author, podcaster and creative entrepreneur) about “The Author Mindset.” They discussed the need to shift your thoughts from self defeating to self affirming. The interview was pleasant and down-to-earth. Penn shared about having to adjust her writing routine after her favorite cafe closed due to the pandemic. Her human-ness made her advice to focus on the positive feel doable. Third, Sammie Trinnidad gave a presentation entitled “Inside Out Author,” in which she raised the question “Why do we stop believing in ourselves?” I have boiled these three sessions down to two major takeaways: You don’t have to buy into negative thoughts and you can take action.
You Don’t Have to Buy Into Negative Thoughts
“We all have an inner parasite,” said Maberry. This ‘parasite’ tells us we can’t make it, that we should quit, that we are imposters. “I never knew for sure I wouldn’t make it. So I kept trying.”
Mel Jolly recommends simply deciding to leave overwhelm and negative self beliefs behind. More easily said than done perhaps, but her confidence makes you believe it’s possible. Penn uses affirmations such as “I am creative” and “I am an author.” If you try replacing your negative thoughts with positive ones like Jolly and Penn suggest but find it impossible, try simply putting a question mark after them. “I can’t do it” may not be able to transform overnight into “I can do it,” but might be shifted a bit to “I can’t?” Seriously, why not you? Why not question the negative?
In the world of social media and polarization, negativity is unavoidable. It’s bad enough fighting off the internal demons without the external haters chiming in. If you encounter harsh criticisms, Penn suggests balancing it out proactively by collecting positive feedback from fans and supporters. There will always be haters. But don’t forget the lovers.
Our doubts and fears, if we don’t let them stop us, can be helpful. Joanna Penn, in the Author’s Mindset interview, encouraged authors to embrace their inner critics as part of the creative process. It’s possible that what we are worried about needs fixing. Use the doubts to drive you to continue growing. Maberry recommends asking yourself why something is not working, then learning from that. For example, if you find yourself thinking “This writing is terrible,” ask yourself why and learn how to improve it. Maybe you need to do more research in order to do your character justice, or maybe you need some pointers on plot design. This way you can constantly be improving; we worry because we care about the craft and we want it to be the best it can be. Use that to springboard rather than stifle yourself.
You Can Take Action
Apparently, believing that you are going to be a writer but never putting words on a page leads nowhere. Except back around to where you are. In order to change your life, you’re going to have to do something different. The main actions I gleaned are: regular writing practice, organization and community.
Developing a regular writing practice requires deciding to make it a priority, then training yourself and the people in your life to respect the time you have set aside. Jolly and Penn both offer tips on how to do this. Penn talked about carving out time each day during the time you feel most creative. Jolly asked participants to envision their ideal work day and use that as a template for prioritizing tasks. What tasks will get you closer to that? Do those first. She also talked about shutting out distractions. Did you realize your email is a to-do list created for you by others? That’s what Jolly taught me. She also shared tips on “training” the people in your life. We also have to train ourselves; once we decide to carve out writing time, it’s easy to let it slide because the shopping has to be done or there are too many little red icons on our phone apps. Penn put it simply when talking about self-discipline: “just knuckle down and finish a project.” Sometimes that is what has to be done.
Getting organized is a colossal task for many. Lucky for us, people who have it figured out have shared their techniques. Jolly had concrete and specific steps including creating a system to organize your files so you don’t waste time searching for things. Her main point was that you have to design a system that works for you and “let it be easy.” Just do what makes sense so you can get on with writing.
Finally, taking steps toward your writing goals needs to involve community. All these experts recommended seeking support. Penn, in discussing her adjustment to the pandemic lockdown, shared that she sought help from a trusted coach. Trinidad’s strongest message, aside from embracing yourself, was the importance of building a community. From friends to coaches to mentors, a writing community is invaluable. We all need someone to talk us out of our negative headspaces, work through plot holes, or ask how our writing is going. “Writers should always help each other,” said Maberry. If you could use some writing pals, ongoing encouragement and opportunities to work on your writing, you can join the League here. Anyone can join, everyone is welcome. The world is a better place when we come together.
What it all comes down to is there is no reason you can’t do it. Why not step out of the self-defeating narrative and into a new one? Decide you are awesome and start moving forward.