I recently read The Awakened Woman by Dr Tererai Trent. It's an amazing book and I highly recommend it. Trent was living in an impoverished rural community in Zimbabwe and a victim of forced child marriage when she made five dreams: to go to America, get a Bachelor's degree, a Master's degree and a PhD, and finally to give back to her community. She achieved all of her dreams. Her story is incredibly inspiring, but part of another woman's story featured in the book struck a chord with me.
Leah Campbell inherited her grandmother's art paraphernalia and among the paint, she found journals. Each journal followed a pattern: they would start with ideas, but enthusiasm and creativity gave way to self-criticism and then empty pages. None of the journals had been filled.
Why did this strike a chord for me? Because I have the same tendency. I'm getting better, but empty pages reign in some of my notebooks. In particular, the notebooks which chart my attempts to write a novel. Despite completing drafts of two separate novels, one of which I have redrafted more than seven times, I lost confidence before I could even consider crossing the final hurdle and submitting my work.
Yet, in other aspects of my writing, I have filled my notebooks. My general writing journals, for instance, are full of story ideas, prose fragments, observations, notes and complete short story drafts. What made me keep writing in these journals and not others?
Accepting that most of my writing will never be used in a finished story.
During my Creative Writing MA, our lecturer showed us a photo of an early draft by George Orwell. It was covered in notes and corrections. Saturated. The lecturer's point was that redrafting is an integral part of writing. Even great writers have to put in the work, turning their raw material into polished pieces. Writing a "bad" draft isn't a sign that we are bad writers: it's the first step in producing something worthwhile.
By that point, I had already accepted that multiple redrafts are part of most writers' processes, but seeing George Orwell's draft emphasised the point. I could no longer deny that talented writers had to follow the same process as me. Good writers are made, not born.
From that point on, I gave myself permission to write utter rubbish. My only requirement was to keep writing. By producing mountains of dross, I was increasing the chance that I would find a gem hidden within. Most of my writing will never be exposed to a reader, but it all contributes to the work which does get published.
Keep writing, no matter what.
The same goes for everybody, whatever your version of writing. This might mean creating pieces of art, developing new recipes or persevering with a business idea. Whatever your projects, commit to working past the negative self-talk. Fill all of your pages, even if the project doesn't work out in the end.
Filling your pages doesn't mean ignoring genuine concerns; it means trying to solve these problems and giving your project a fair shot before you abandon it. Put your negativity aside and try to reach a neutral position from which you can evaluate your project.
Ways to keep filling your pages:
- Persevere with projects until they reach a natural end point, not as soon as difficulty sets in. Everyone faces problems and they are not reflections of your ability or value.
- Try out different options. If you think something isn't working, approach it from a different angle and in the spirit of experimentation. You will learn and develop skills each time you do this, so it's not a wasted effort.
- Take pleasure in the process, rather than focusing on results. I was asking my friend's five year old daughter about some of her paintings which were on display. "What's this?" was my standard (albeit unoriginal) question and when I asked it about one painting, she replied "Sometimes it's just a painting. It's not anything." She's right. There is no need for everything we create to "be" something. We can work on projects for their own merits, seeing where they go without being hung up on the destination.
- Value yourself and what you do. When our confidence flags, it can be easy to lose perspective and beat ourselves up. Work on enhancing your self-esteem to withstand these battles. If you struggle to pinpoint your positive contributions, ask a supportive friend or colleague to help.
- Ask for support to help you deal with any problems which arise. Often, we tend to believe there is no support available simply because we haven't asked. Speak up. Research potential sources of support and consider each one, instead of immediately dismissing it. You might not get what you want, but refusing to look for help guarantees that you won't get what you want.
- Troubleshoot your negative thoughts. A common CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) technique is to search for evidence in support of each negative thought or belief and evidence which contradicts it. Most negative self-talk is inaccurate and weighing up the evidence exposes them. How could you develop your skills to override your negative thoughts? You can also try testing your negative thoughts by taking action in the face of them. It's astonishing how insignificant they become when you focus on doing something, rather than dwelling on negativity!
- Keep writing. Force yourself to fill your pages in any way you can. When you push through, you will find different perspectives and more ideas.
It's important to keep filling your pages, or at least to keep filling the ones which matter most to you. Do you want to leave behind half-empty journals documenting projects you would have loved to complete?
I know I would rather leave full journals, even if most of the projects don't work out as I had hoped.