Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cognitive Therapy For Writers, Part II: Revenge of the Smart Brain

Raaaawr! All right. So, we've established that everyone has a Sneaky Brain, the part of you that whispers all sorts of nasty things that make you feel bad.
You know, like:
  • If I don't get an agent or get published, I freaking suck as a writer.
  • Because that agent/editor rejected me, I am a failure.
  • I got a few rejections this week/today/in the last hour, so that means no one will ever want to represent/publish me.
  • I wrote one book/chapter/page/sentence, and now I can't think of what to write next. I've run out of words FOREVAH!!!!! AAAAAAH!!!!!!!

Let's pause right here and acknowledge that not everyone who writes is going to end up a published author. Not everyone who writes is even good enough to be published. Period. That's the way it is. Language is powerful, but it can be difficult to wield. The art of storytelling adds another level of difficulty. And then there's marketability ... whoa.

SO, taking into account that I, or you, might be among those who reach as far as we can but still can't close our hands around that elusive prize, how do we keep feeling OK? How do we keep our Sneaky Brains from sapping us of whatever talent and energy and creativity we have? How do we stay on track and keep writing, keep telling the stories we want to tell?

We all have Smart Brains, too. We should use them.
Don't be afraid to fight dirty.

 1. Recognize those sneaky thoughts. Listen hard, my loves. You have to HEAR and recognize what Sneaky's saying, because those thoughts can become pretty automatic over time, meaning you stop hearing them and just skip straight to the drinking-Wild-Turkey part of the equation. Don't. Listen. What do you hear?

If you hear any of the following words, perk up and slap on those boxing gloves:

If you find yourself thinking "sure, I had some success a year/month/day/hour ago, but THAT DOESN'T COUNT ... ", do some pushups, man, because you've got some work to do.

Or if you hear "since she rejected me, that means EVERYONE will", strap on some brass knuckles. You've got a fight on your hands.

After you've recognized what the Sneaky Brain is saying ...

2. Recognize Sneaky as a bully. Sure, it's inside your brain, but that don't mean it speaks the truth, baby. When I work with kids, we "externalize the problem". Picture me (see stick figure above) talking in funny voices with puppets strapped on my 18-inch fingers.

Just like this dude.
But probably not as ripped.
 OK, don't. Instead, picture Sneaky sitting in front of you--and see what a liar it is. Those things it's whispering are a one-way ticket to depression. Despair. Giving up. What right does it have to do that to you? What right does ANYONE HAVE TO DO THAT TO YOU?!? I don't care if the bully resides between your ears. It's still a bully.

Once you recognize that:

3. Confront the bully and talk back to it. Because, seriously, logic is not its friend.

If someone's done something to upset you, like they rejected you or gave you a bit of harsh feedback, and your Sneaky Brain is saying "it's because they hate your writing and think you're a tool", use your Smart Brain to say, "Really? 'Cuz
  1. they only read a tiny sample of my writing--or only a query, or
  2. they had some nice things to say, too, or
  3. I got a request/compliment, etc. from this same person/similarly skilled person(s) before, or
  4. they probably spent a total of 60 seconds looking at it because they had 300 other queries waiting, or
  5. the idea probably just didn't float their boat, but it could float other boats ...

You get the point. Use your Smart Brain to be ... smart? Use logic. Be a skeptic. If the Sneaky Brain says you're a failure because you got one rejection, I mean, WTF? Really? How many agents and editors are out there?

If it says "you should have an agent by now" or "you always mess this up" or "you will never ..." Oh, geez. What does it know? This process is frustrating enough without Sneaky going to illogical extremes. "Always"? Yeah? Use your Smart Brain to question how that could possibly be true. If you can't, that just means your Smart Brain's out of shape, NOT that Sneaky speaks the truth.

And if it whispers "the only way to be successful and happy is to get published," your Smart Brain should be screaming, "I am more than a writer. And there are many kinds of writers. And I write for many reasons. And sometimes, the end result isn't what it's about. Sometimes, it's the JOURNEY." Then, maybe toss out some obscene hand gestures for good measure. Stupid Sneaky Brain. Gut it with a spoon, my friends. That's what it deserves.

You don't have to be the only one who talks back to Sneaky. I'll bet you have friends or family or beta-readers or intriguing-strangers-you-meet-in-a-coffee-shop who can help you. Listen to their encouragement and don't discount it. But know this: no voice will ever pack a punch as powerful as your own Smart Brain.

So ... confession time. I'll be going on submission in the new year. And you know what? I'm going to be using every single one of these strategies every single day to stay calm and sane and happy. I know it won't always be easy. I know my Smart Brain won't win every round. BUT, I also know my Smart Brain is pretty damn smart. No matter what happens, I'm going to be OK. I'm going to be successful. And I'm going to define what that means for myself--I won't let anyone, including my own Sneaky Brain, define it for me.

That shapeless lump is my vanquished Sneaky Brain.

What about you? What challenge are you facing now? What's that Sneaky Brain telling you? And just how do you plan to kick its a$$??


  1. I'm going to hold you to your own promise when you start the submission promise, lady!

    Oh, and I'll never picture you the same way. *Stick figure with 18-inch longer fingers* Haha!


  2. Good luck with submissions! Hmmm...

    :gives sneaky brain a brutal kick for good measure:

  3. I just read a good post on the same subject (from more of a fantasy viewpoint) here: