The Danger of Self-Deprecation

The other night, we were watching the new Queer Eye on Netflix when the episode about the stand-up comic came on.

I think stand-up comedy is incredibly difficult, and I admire anyone who can do it. It takes a special kind of courage to get up in front of an audience of strangers and attempt to make them laugh. But I found myself a little uncomfortable with the Fab 5 helping this adult man who was still living in his childhood bedroom in his parents’ house pursue his dream of being a comic. 

Not for the reasons you might think. Not because the goal was unrealistic or that I thought he should give up on his dreams and get a ‘real job’. But because his brand of humor was self-deprecation.

The episode ended with the comic getting a bachelor pad makeover of his parents’ basement as his own apartment and a well-received set at a comedy club. Even better, he wound up with a woman he was interested in and said all the right things. A very satisfying show.

Only I turned to my husband to voice my concerns. “His whole routine is about him being a loser. How will he ever be anything else if that’s what he keeps telling himself?”

I probably would have forgotten all about this except the next night we watched Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special, “Nanette.” I don’t want to steal her thunder, so I’m not going to say what it was about, but Variety describes the show as “Startlingly frank and personal, it blends stand-up with art history and incisive commentary on the very nature of what comedy is. It also features the Tasmania native declaring she is quitting comedy, something her legions of new fans are sure to take issue with.”

And one of the reasons she gave for quitting was that telling her story over and over again in comedic form over-wrote the true version of what happened to her. It trapped her in time and prevented her from being able to move on and to heal. It’s a powerful special. You should watch it if you can. Yes, it’s comedy, but it’s so much more than that. It’s angry and it’s painful. It’s raw.

And I completely understand why she feels she must give up comedy as a result.

See, I’m the queen of self-deprecation. I learned at an early age that if I cut myself down with wit and humor, beating anyone else to the punch, I would deflate and diminish the impact of whatever derogatory statement someone else might make. As a coping mechanism, this is highly effective. The problem is, after years of playing that same song over and over, the groove is dug so deep the needle skips if you try to play a different track.

I struggle with the concept of positive affirmation. I can write down my ‘wishful thinking’ affirmations, no problem. I just don’t believe them. The more outlandish I think the affirmation is, the more I roll my eyes and snort. 

“I will be a USA Today Bestselling Author.”

Yeah, right. Okay, I’ve read the stories about people like Meryl Streep and Jim Carey who believed in themselves when no one else did, and became mega-successes as a result. I just don’t know how they did it. Because if I don’t believe something, I can’t tell myself it’s the truth.

Recently, I received an age positivity workbook. I have a hard time with aging. I grew up hearing how getting old was horrible and that I just shouldn’t do it. (Um, the alternative doesn’t sound so hot, either…) For years I thought my mother was simply vain–she’d had multiple cosmetic procedures and refused to tell anyone her age–but then I found out she kept her age a secret to avoid mandatory retirement which was age-based. That added another whole level of fear and distrust to the mix, which only worsened when I became a caretaker to my parents during their final years.

So yeah, time to work on my negativity toward aging, hence the workbook. Only on the second page, I was faced with the first exercise: list three positive things about your belly.

WHAT THE HELL? No, seriously, this was my reaction. It felt as though I’d been sucker-punched. You’re just going to throw me off the deep end like that, workbook? No swimming lessons? No life jacket? Sink or swim?

I literally could only come up with one positive thing to say about the roll of fat overhanging my belt: At least I won’t be the first to die in the coming apocalypse.

I’m pretty sure that’s not the chipper response the workbook designers were hoping for.

More and more I hear people advising that we need to stop self-deprecation, that the danger is we’ll believe that part of the story and sabotage anything that doesn’t fit that narrative. Especially we as authors, should understand the power of words, and telling ourselves that our stories suck and we’ll never make it as a writer is one of the worst things we can do. I’ve written about this before. I know this to be true. I find it less easy to resolve. 

I say terrible things to myself all the time. I avoid looking in mirrors because I see a fat, frumpy, middle-aged woman who has nothing to show for her time on this planet. See, that part of this paragraph rolled out without any thought whatsoever. It’s the song I know by heart.

When I attempt to say nice things to myself, they usually come out with as, “Huh, not bad for an old broad.” I mean, I can’t even tell myself something positive without adding the negative qualifier.

But if I want to change the playback, I have to learn new songs. Part of me wants to suggest that I not start with something too big to accept–that instead of telling myself I’m going to hit the bestseller list, I should remind myself that everything I’ve ever envisioned about myself has come true–and that I should start with smaller goals. The negative soundtrack is too loud. I can’t drown it out with songs I don’t believe.

But the funny thing about the subconscious is it doesn’t know the difference between lies and the truth. I’ve been lying to myself for years–that I’m not smart, or pretty, or intelligent, or worthy. That song plays 24/7 without my even being aware of it.

Maybe it’s time to belt out a new song. I don’t have to believe it–not completely. I just have to sing it over and over again.

 

 

Ten Things Writers Need to Stop Telling Themselves

More than any other group of people, writers should get the power of words.

Words move people to stand behind a leader. To willingly go into battle, knowing death is likely. To fight to protect the weak and innocent.

Words make us laugh, bring us to tears, and the best, the most powerful words, are engraved on our hearts. We quote them when we need strength, or to show love, or evoke sympathy.

So why do we as writers so often neglect the power of words when it comes to our own work, our own self–esteem?

It’s not just writers. I’d hazard to say it’s a widespread problem–perhaps a little more so among women than men. It’s not that men don’t internally belittle themselves, but I believe many more women are raised to verbally–and publicly–abuse themselves than not. Call it what you like. An appealing ‘humility’ or whatever. The truth of the matter is many of us constantly run ourselves down and we are scarcely aware that we’re doing it.

Lately, I’ve been running into all kinds of conversations, blog posts, and Twitter threads about the power of words and why in particular, we as writers shouldn’t denigrate our work and abilities, lest the repetition of our negative words becomes the truth. I understand this concept, but like knowing I should eat vegetables and choosing pizza instead, positive affirmations are difficult for me.

I grew up in a religious household. Many religions drum into you your lack of worthiness as part of your need to be redeemed. Most religions are patriarchal in nature, which adds an additional layer of unworthiness if you happen to be female. My family was also full of over-achievers. Doctors, nurses, psychologists, pastors… if you weren’t giving back to society in some way, you weren’t worthy. Standards were often impossibly out of reach. If I brought home less than straight A’s from school, I was under-performing to the family standard. If I got straight A’s, well, anyone could get straight A’s at a public school.

So reading books like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was encouraged. But even as I read it, a burning resentment smoldered inside. Thinking positively wouldn’t get you out of a bad situation. It wasn’t going to cure chronic illness, or make you smarter, prettier, more talented. I read the book and rejected the message.

Same with the body positivity movement. No, I’m not saying the movement is wrong. I think it’s high time we rejected the fashion industry’s standard of beauty (artfully enhanced by Photoshop, which means not even their own standard-bearers live up to the hype). We should all embrace the notion that women come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and physical ability–and not erase the less-than-impossibly perfect because they somehow don’t measure up.

But that concept of equality that I will grant to everyone else comes harder to me. Why? Because I don’t believe it. Not as it applies to me.

I’ve been hearing negative commentary about my looks, my intelligence, and my abilities my entire life. It’s still ongoing today: from my family, my co-workers, the man on the street, society as a whole. I have a book of ‘positive affirmations’ that is practically empty because I can’t think of anything to put in it that won’t make me roll my eyes and snort.

I get up in the morning and note the dark circles under my eyes and how my hair is thinning. I curl a lip at the roll of fat around my waist. I point out how unattractive I am, and how I should do something about it when I’m not so flat-out exhausted. I frequently say things like “I’m too old for this crap”, meaning “I’m at a point in my life where I should be treated better than this” but all my brain hears is I’m too old.

So I join a body positivity group, but drop out because I can’t complete the exercises. I routinely say things to myself I’d never say to a friend–not even a stranger, for that matter. I know better. But like Steve Martin’s character in Roxanne, I’ve perfected the art of running myself down so well, I take the wind out of anyone else’s ability to do so.

When Katie Masters (are you following Katie? If not, you should) posted on Twitter about not belittling your own work because doing so would make it true, I tried very hard to internalize her advice. I’m really struggling with that right now–on top of the never-ending loop of negativity that tells me I’m too old, too fat, unattractive, not sexy enough, not smart enough–I also bemoan the fact my writing is Not Good Enough. It’s not terrible. But it’s no where near where I’d like it to be. When I read stories by people who are hitting it out of the park, even as I clutch them to my chest because of the magic they evoke, I’m crushed because I’m not in the same league. Hell, I’m not even in the same country.

See, I’m doing it again.

And likewise, Neil Gaiman has said some wonderful things about writing, impostor syndrome, and comparing yourself to others. But when I went looking for a specific quote to share here, I fell down a rabbit hole of impossibly excellent quotes, which might just turn out to be a blog post all of its own. But suffice to say, enough people out there that I like and respect have been telling me to stop undermining my work. There’s a difference between self-deprecation and self-denigration and I think too many of us choose the latter thinking it’s the former.

Ironically, what finally made me see what I was doing was harmful was the far right. Um, yes. You heard me correctly.

See, they get the power of words. Make them illegal aliens, not people seeking asylum through legitimate channels. Call them rapists, drug dealers, terrorists, animals. Make them less than human, something you don’t want in your neighborhood, and you will turn a blind eye when they are rounded up and placed in concentration camps. 

It works because on some level, the people who believe these things want to believe them. It fits their internal narrative.

But one thing I’ve learned as a writer is we have the power to change our own stories.

So here are some things I’m going to stop telling myself. I hope you’ll stop saying them to yourself as well.

  1. I’m Not Good Enough. Here’s the thing, everyone has someone they look up to as better than them. Better parents, better writer, better friend, lover, person. There are people who are prettier, smarter, and more talented. All you can do is be the best you there is. That’s all that’s required of you. And it is a heckuva lot easier to do that if you stop beating yourself up at the same time. You may not be as good as “them”, but everyone is at a different point on the same path and no one else walked it the same way you’ve done. Cut yourself some slack–and keep walking.
  2. I’m not productive enough. What the hell does that even mean? Productive enough for what? To build a following? To make a killing on KU? Are you a writer? Do you put words down in the format of your choice? Then you’re productive enough.
  3. I’m not successful enough. Frankly, this is garbage thinking. If you go into writing because you want to be rich and famous, honey, there are easier ways of doing that. What are your criteria for success? A bestseller ribbon? Winning awards? Being featured in Oprah’s book club? Making a gazillion dollars? Your definition of success should be dependent on the stage where you are right now. Sometimes that means simply putting words–any words–to paper. Sometimes that means self-publishing a story that got rejected. Sometimes it means putting the rejected story in a drawer and coming back to it in a year or so to see what it needs to fix it. Sure, you’re going to keep moving the bar higher. Just don’t place it at unrealistic heights that discourage you from even trying.
  4. My writing sucks. Does it really? No, seriously, is it the worst thing you’ve ever read or are you just being hard on yourself? Have you eaten today? Taken a shower? Walked the dog? STEP AWAY FROM THE KEYBOARD. Take a break and do something else. Because you know this isn’t really true. You may not be as good as you’d like to be, but there are people out there who like your work, who (oddly enough) think you’re a good writer and they wish they could write like you do. I know, there’s no accounting for taste, but if you truly sucked, no one would like your stories. So just don’t even go there.
  5. I’ll never _____________. It doesn’t matter what you put here. Top the bestseller list? Win a prestigious award? Make enough money writing to quit the Evil Day Job? It’s both easy and true to say, “Not with that attitude you won’t” but the question you should be asking yourself is “Does it matter if I don’t?” If you have none of those things now, how will your life materially change if you never achieve those goals? Spoiler alert: it won’t. So are you going to let that stop you from writing?
  6. That one bad review is somehow more accurate than the fifty glowing ones I received. Ouch. Bad reviews hurt. But if the comments in a snarky review are outliers, then let it go. If you’re hearing the same things over and over again from beta readers, critique groups, editors (all of which should have assessed your work before you publish it), and readers, then that should be a heads up that you’ve done something wrong and you need to change it. But when you get that nasty gif-laden review that seems to come out of nowhere, keep this in mind: there are only two reasons why someone leaves that kind of review. Either they have a following because they are the Simon Cowell of reviewers–and therefore their fans hang on every gif with glee to see someone else be destroyed–or they want to make you feel so bad you quit writing. Are you going to let some soul-sucking vampire make you give up on your dream of telling stories? No? Then ignore this kind of review. Don’t read it. Don’t acknowledge it. Don’t let it have any power over you.
  7. My stories will never change the world. Oh cupcake, you don’t know that. Sure, on the whole, I would hazard to say most stories don’t change the world–at least, not in ways that we can see. Maybe there will never be theme-parks where kids of all ages dress up as characters from your stories and buy story-themed items, but I wouldn’t let that get you down. The vast majority of stories written won’t be read thirty, forty, fifty years or more down the line either. But your story can change the life of the one person reading it today. Maybe you gave them hope or laughter on a day they needed it most. Maybe you snuck in a little enlightenment and made them see things in a different manner than they had before. Maybe you represented ‘self’ to the reader who’d never before recognized themselves in a story. Don’t discount that. Most world changing events–for good or bad–happen in incremental steps over time.
  8. Everyone on social media seems to be doing so much better than me. Ugh. If you’re going to sit around comparing yourself to others on SM, just turn it off for a while. Keep in mind, SM is where people either tend to post about the best, the worst, or the most mundane in their lives. I don’t know about you, but I seldom feel envy at seeing pictures of what someone had for dinner–so let’s cross those out. That leaves the I won the lottery-went to the Bahamas-became a bestseller-lost thirty pounds without trying crowd vs the my life is SO bad you’ll never be able to top it crowd. Remember, those people going through stuff both good and bad are merely at different points on the path as you. You’re seeing a snapshot into their lives that doesn’t reflect anything else that might be going on. And the person with the new cover art/new release/award-winning story might be YOU next week, month, or year. Celebrate wins with your friends. Comfort if there are losses. But if you can’t stop comparing yourself, then walk away from SM for a while–put that time into writing the next story.
  9. My stories don’t matter. This is another version of ‘won’t change the world’ but on a smaller level. So I ask you, is it necessary for them to matter? There is nothing wrong with telling a story for the sheer entertainment value of telling a story. Don’t sell that short. It’s worth more than you think it is. 
  10. I’ll never be as good as so-and-so. This may well be true. On the other hand, I bet that author has someone they feel the same way about as well. Recently someone listed one of my couples among their top favorite pairing–along with my ALL TIME FAVORITE pairing in the same genre. No joke. I’d never been as flattered in my entire life. Never in a million years would I have put my characters on the same page–but someone else did. So maybe we aren’t the best judge of our work.

What it boils down to is this: words matter. The words we tell ourselves on a regular basis matter a lot. If we’ve spent a lifetime running ourselves down, we’re not going to change that soundtrack easily–the grooves have worn deep. But in order to change we MUST stop playing the old soundtrack. We must challenge lies whenever we hear them–be it from ourselves, our families, or people in positions of power over us. We must stop accepting negative feedback as being the only right message simply because it’s the message we believe.

I really struggle even saying things like, “that’s not so bad.” Believe me, I know how hard it is to reprogram your thinking. But I’m going to give myself a month of NOT running myself down. Of stopping the negative feedback loop whenever I hear it playing and countering the conditioning by telling myself positive things about myself that I believe every day. I think if I start with things that won’t make me snort coffee out of my nose, then I can progress to things I want to believe.

I challenge everyone reading this to do the same–and come back here in a month and let me know what changes you are seeing in your life. Let’s do this together.

 

The Power of Creating Your Own Talismans

Long before it ever became a thing, I was in the habit of declaring “This would be my year of living ____________.”

One year it was fearlessly. Another was without doubt. Once it was passionately. As with most things, I would start out with good intentions that will fizzle along the way.

I tend to do a bit better if I can put my intentions into a form I can keep in front of me as a frequent reminder.

I also firmly believe in the power of talismans. Even more so if you create them for yourself.

Even as a child, I had a vivid imagination. My parents, imminently practical people, would come into the bedroom once to show me there were no monsters hiding there, but after that, it was up to me to deal with my fears. I used to lie awake quaking with terror over the hump of clothes piled in a chair (which I was sure was a gargoyle, just waiting for the lights to go out) or the shadow in the corner that was probably a burglar.

I finally conquered my fears when I decided I had the power to seal the monsters in my closet. Each night when I was sent to bed, I would round up the imaginary horrors, chase them into my closet, and cast a spell to contain them there. Problem solved. I was able to go to sleep without fear. The funny thing is, to this day, I’m unable to get a good night’s sleep unless my closet door is closed. If it is open even a crack, I have nightmares.

It illustrates the power we have within ourselves to overcome certain kinds of fears and doubts if we put our minds to it. Not everything. But many things. Especially the kinds of restrictions we’ve put on ourselves in the first place that keep us from being all that we can be.

As an adult, I find I still reach for objects I can imbue with strength when I need something to carry with me as a reminder. I love polished stones with words carved into them. As a child, I used to assign words to stones and carry them in my pocket as I needed them. One day I might carry courage. Another, hope. Today I carry joy.

These days, it’s much easier to find stones with words carved into them, but I still have the stones from my youth. I can grant them any word I wish. I love putting my hand in my pocket and coming across the smooth stone, rubbing it as a reminder of the word I wanted to keep near my heart that day. I’m not particularly religious or spiritual. I just find comfort in these small acts.

As an adult, I’ve frequently found strength in fandom, in a favorite character’s courage or behavior. I’ve taken to having iconic quotes made into bracelets or necklaces to remind myself the kind of person I want to be. I seem to need a lot of reminders! I think this is because my negative self-speak is so strong and has been honed over a lifetime of insecurities. So yes, I need to create my own talismans. Not as wards against evil, though sometimes they feel that way, but to offset the self-hate that’s been in place for so long.

For a while I had a ring that said Never Surrender. I bought a bunch of them and wore one until I found someone who needed it more than I did and then I gave it to them. I’ve given them all away.

So imagine my delight when I found out that declaring your intent for a year is a thing now. I noticed people on my timeline talking about what their word for the year might be. And then too, I’ve been seeing people get encouraging phrases stamped on aluminum bands like the one I’ve shown above. I love what I’m seeing. The Etsy store The Broken Circle has all kinds of great phrases on metal bracelets–like “Doubt Not” and “Slayer of Words”. And I recently discovered a website called MyIntent.org that will make a custom bracelet or necklace with the word of your choosing. How cool is that??

So what are you waiting for? You can assign a word of power to ANYTHING. Or you can search for the right phrase that will lift you up every time you see it and create your own talisman–or have someone make one for you. I ordered a bracelet from the My Intent project that said “Persistence.” That’s my word for the year. It’s to remind me of my favorite Calvin Coolidge quotation.

Kill Your Muse

I have to admit, whenever I read someone speak of their Muse’, I cringe inside. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with having an outside source of inspiration for a creative project. Most of us have been there. We imagine a specific actor playing the role of our hero, or we see a photograph that lights up our imagination. I have no problem with that. My problem lies with those who speak of their muse as a somewhat capricious being who abandons them willy-nilly, or leads them on wild goose chases, or shows up in the middle of the night like a bad house guest who parties for three days straight only to disappear for months on end.

No. Just no.

Let’s look at the Merriam Webster definition of a Muse. If capitalized, as most people do when referring to their Muse, then it comes from Greek mythology and is attributed to any one of the nine Goddesses that preside over songs and poetry. It can also mean, as we’ve already discussed, a source of inspiration, a guiding genius.

More interesting to me is the definition of muse when it is not capitalized, which is ‘a state of deep thought or dreamy abstraction.’ I think that is a better representation of the writing process, don’t you?

Because here’s my problem with ascribing your writing to a Muse: you are giving all the power of your creativity to something outside yourself. You are absolving yourself of responsibility for an inability to sit down and tell your story, but you are also robbing yourself of the right to claim achievement over your successes, too.

I’m often amazed at the great lengths people go to describing their Muses—giving them names and detailed descriptions and character traits. I would suggest to you if you’ve done that to take a hard look at your creation and ask yourself why you’ve given your Muse these attributes. I think you’ll see that a lot of what you feel about your writing process is tied up in this artificial construct.

I also think this fabricated being is holding you back.

So I say to you: kill her. Kill your Muse.

Or if you can’t be that brutal, show her the door. Tell her that she no longer has any power over you. She is not the one that decides when you are going to write, you are. You don’t need her to come hold your hand, or whisper in your ear, or show you what’s in your heart. You know this to be true. You know that all you really have to do is start writing the words, and more words will come. They may not be the best words, but you know what? That’s what editing is for. Whatever you do, stop giving her all the credit and responsibility for your writing.

Sure, it may be easier to say, “My Muse has abandoned me,” rather than admit that you’ve been playing Minesweeper or wasting time on Facebook again. It might make you feel better to think, ‘if only my Muse would come back, I could write that bestseller I know is in me.’

One of my favorite quotations is from Calvin Coolidge: Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

If you’ll notice, there’s not one word about a Muse in there. So free yourself of the tyranny of your so-called Muse and start writing again. You’re better off without her. You don’t need her.

So get rid of her. You’ll be happy you did.

 

 

 

June Recommended Links on Writing

Hah. I need to find a better image for these ‘links’ posts! This is the first of what I hope to be monthly posts where I share useful links to posts on writing, marketing, and any aspect of the business I found useful.

Starting right off the bat, the first article I wanted to share dealt with impostor syndrome. It was written from the viewpoint of a photographer, but everything the author said applied to writing as well. Unfortunately, the link I’d saved no longer works, but I found another one: 5 Tips for When You Feel Inadequate.

If you’re not already following Chuck Wendig’s blog, terribleminds.com, you should be. He has one of the best blogs out there on writing. This post is a gem: Wrestling with Writer’s Block by Maurice Broaddus.

Thinking about creating an audiobook? This post by Isobel Starling walks you through the process on ACX: Indie Authors: Using ACX to Find a Narrator.

One of the terrific things about indie publishing is the ability to make your own rules. Kristen Ashley shares her success story here: The Secret to This Romance Author’s Success? Breaking All the Rules.

Jane Friedman is another author who posts excellent advice on writing. This one here about How to Spot Toxic Feedback is something we all should read and understand.

The Write Practice also had some words to say on How to Give and Take Better Writing Feedback.

I have a confession to make here: despite the fact I’m a romance writer, I sometimes struggle to write kissing scenes! Face it, when you write a lot of such scenes, you have to find new ways of keeping it fresh! Ride the Pen has a nice little post here about How to Write a Kissing Scene.

Molly Wetta posts about the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, which is a handy reference guide, as I write both! Urban Fantasy for Paranormal Romance Readers.

Kristen Lamb is another writer with a fantastic blog on writing, marketing, and social media. I’ve said before, I don’t always agree with everything she says, and this post is an example. Her post: Shame, Shame, We Know Your Name. Or Do We? Shame and Fiction had some interesting things to say about shame as a driving force in all great stories. I quibbled a bit with the argument that all great literature had shame as a central impetus for character behavior, but I was hard-pressed to think of stories that did not… 

And last but not least, Lit Hub posted an essay constructed out of quotes from Jamaica Kincaid on How to Love and How to Write. I wasn’t familiar with the author when I read the post, but I found the quotes to be pithy, amusing, and thought-provoking.

I wish I had time to read all the posts I bookmark for future reference! Ah, some day. In the meantime, I’ll share the ones that resonated with me. And I’ll keep searching for a better link image!!