My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

20 Ways To Sabotage Your Writing

No thank you.
Safety glasses would make this feel like work.
I Lister here.  Today's list has some interesting inspiration if you want to read about it, but I'll get right to business.

Are you tired of facing the work of being a writer?  Do you want to just dream of the talk show circuit and how Colbert will be dazzled by your debonair wit and sparkling charm?  When you think of writing, do you think of fans and money in rather than long hours and low pay?

Are you more interested in the idea of being a writer than writing itself? Do you love that warm feeling that your prose is above reproach and you have nothing to learn about the technical or craft end of writing?  Are pesky people constantly asking you what you're working on right now and what you've written?

Then this list is for YOU!

Being a writer is easy; you just have to write.  The skill of writing can be hard sometimes; spinning all those plates between craft and technical skill can be a pain.  But the way to be a writer is surprisingly simple: write.  I mean if you want to dream about being a writer, romanticize a writer's life, tell people you're a writer, and believe that you are secretly better than most published authors, you are going to have a seriously difficult time explaining why you haven't written anything.  Putting your work out there for the world to see also isn't that hard: you just do it.  You maybe can't control who says yes and publishes you if you go the traditional route, but you can put work out there.  And in today's world of self-publishing you can get your work into the world without ever even seeing a gatekeeper. This isn't about making money, being published.  This is about doing.  Not talking.  Not dreaming.  Not claiming.  Not posturing.  Not wanting.  Doing.

Or rather NOT doing.  Wink wink.  Nudge nudge.  KnowwhatImean!

That's why I've come up with a convenient list of ways you can sabotage yourself.  When people ask you what you've done or what you're working on, you don't want to have to say "nothing." You'll sound like you aren't a real writer. You need a fabulous array of reasons why you claim to be a writer but don't actually have anything out in the world to be read. Whether you're terrified of rejection and failure or just don't want to do the work, this list will help you sabotage yourself.

Everyone wants to be a writer.  You're in a sea--nay an OCEAN--of aspiring writers.  Everyone you meet has a story idea.  Half of them have a few chapters of "their novel" tucked away.  How will you stand out from all those wannabes?  Certainly not by DOING.  That's madness! You need ways to look like your working and putting yourself out there without actually doing it.

How can you do that?

This list.  That's how.

1- Don't write every day.  There is almost no better recipe to sabotage yourself than by not writing daily.  Your technical skill can atrophy.  You can lose trains of thought from your last session.  You can even lose momentum on whole projects.  And if you are working on something, it will take you forever to finish it.  Once writing daily isn't a priority, you will find all sorts of more important things vying for your attention.  You may find after you give up a daily routine that you can go weeks, and even months without writing--and that's without even trying.  Not only that, but if writing isn't a habit, it becomes difficult to do if and when you sit down, and you can tap into some serious writer's block when you finally get back to the page.  Surround yourself with stories of successful writers who don't write every day and don't notice that they usually only have one or two works to their name. (See 4, 7, 8, to some degree 4, or even 11 if you need help sabotaging your daily writing.  However, the absolute best way would be 9.)

2- Don't read.  If you want to struggle indefinitely with the way to put an idea into words, one of the best ways is not to read.  Keep conceptual ideas in your head.  Keep STORIES in your head, but don't forage the kind of relationship with language that you would need to turn those ideas into an effective portrayals.  Watch a lot of "quality television" instead and say you're "studying the narrative elements."  Be more of a movie buff than a book buff.  That way when you sit down to create something yourself, you can SEE what you want to say, but the words won't come.  Heck if you are vigilant enough about not reading, you can even have difficulty with grammar and vocabulary.  Then your writing will be a train wreck and you can blame the prescriptivism of gatekeepers.

3- Read ALL the time.  Everyone knows writers read, so one of the best ways to sabotage yourself is to read so much that you don't have time to write.  It's simple, yet elegant.  You will talk about books like an erudite writer, but you will read so much that you never actually get around to writing.  In terms of excuses for not writing, "I was finishing up this great book!" sounds very writerly.

4- Assume there's one true way and force yourself into it.  If Hemingway wrote on a wooden desk with a pencil and a Moleskine journal at the crack of dawn, you must follow him like a pilgrim past each of the sacred stones.  Forget that you're a night person.  Forget that you write on a laptop.  Forget that you don't have room for a big wooden desk in your tiny apartment.  Forget that you wanted to spoon your own fucking eyeballs out on your third reading of "Hills for White Elephants," and that you think Hemingway is kind of a douche. Focus on the One True Way(tm).  Fetishize the things.  Make them your affectation and believe that you can't possibly write without them. You will find an unending wellspring of sabotage in everything from claiming you can't write until you get your desk to waking up too late to sitting in front of the screen with a five hour energy shot going intravenously into your arm and feeling like you're going to die to be up so early.

5- Be materialistic. One of the fastest ways to sabotage yourself as a writer is to want a bunch of things in your life that only money can provide. No not things like rent and food. We need that and we live under the shadow of capitalism. I'm talking about upper crust stuff. Don't be content scraping out a meager living. Don't angle your monetary decisions to give you time to write, but rather to do your consumerist best to fill the insatiable maw of materialism.  Want a house and a nice car. No no. Nicer. Nicer. NICER!!! There you go.  Envy the Jones's new surround sound system.  Be proud of showing off your Prada. People will really GET this in our culture, so it's a great excuse. They will really understand that you are a writer, but that you simply can't afford to spend a lot of time on it because you "don't want to live in squalor." Remember don't say you like the finer things or you'll actually COME OFF as materialistic, and people will see through that snobbery. But what IS socially acceptable do is to disdain bad neighborhoods, small apartments, economy cars, and anything that isn't the best.  Try looking in the mirror and saying "I'm not going to live in some terrible neighborhood and drive a used Prius, so of course I have to work sixty hours a week."  People will get that. Give all your energy to your day job, and even consider it your career.  (This is a superb way to execute #1 above or #7 and 8 below.)

6- Quit your day job.  Wanna really fuck up your writing career?  Have absolutely no sense of perspective or fiscal wisdom in executing it.  Put ALL your eggs in one basket.  This is almost as good as being materialistic, but it works a lot, LOT faster.  You will be shot down so spectacularly by agents and publishers that when you're starving--probably sometime next week--you can blame "the industry" and excuse your lackadaisical pace for years to come. Be very careful with this method, though.   While this might be a great way to get stuck in #20, being hungry has also been known to inspire people to actually work, and you might turn around and find that you're writing decent short stories in order to get the couple hundred dollars they pay in the right venue. Then you're sunk. You're working AND putting it out there. You lose.

7- Take incredibly long breaks from writing.  As far as finding ways to not write go, not writing ranks almost the highest among them.  Of course people won't buy that you're a writer who doesn't write--what kind of crap is that? Tell people "I'm taking a bit of a break," when they ask what you're doing.  Don't mention that this break has been going on for just shy of four years, or that the last time you wrote it was for half an hour on a Saturday afternoon.  This is particularly effective because in addition to being an art form, writing is also a technical skill that can erode with disuse, so you can actually have your craft ability atrophy.  Then you have to start over when you do come back to it.  Oh people love to hear about how you're so dedicated that you were willing to start over!  Never let go.  You haven't given up.  You are totally a writer.  You're just on a break.  A multi-year, no-end-in-sight break.

8- Don't have time.  Finding time to write is really hard.  After you "like" all your freinds' cat pictures and reply to that guy who disagrees with you about the impact of Obamacare you're barely going to have a half an hour to play Dragon Age II before the Torchwood marathon comes on. Who can find time to write in a schedule like THAT?  Sure some die hard writers who go really overboard find an hour to themselves even when they have multiple kids and stuff, but they're just fanatics or something.

9- Be your muse's monkey.  This is always a good one, but it's particularly great at reinforcing #1. Talk about writing like it is shouldn't be work. Don't look at writing as effort. Don't ever accept it if it starts to feel like it isn't magical unicorn fart rainbows and shit.  Be desirous of writing to pay the bills (even as something to make you wealthy), but don't EVER think of it as a job. See writing as something that happens only with the divine inspiration comes down to you from on high. Like lightning! Insist that any effort to write when you don't "feel it" would taint the purity of what you love by making it into a chore.  (And chores, my friend, are work.)  Never mind that every successful writer in the history of pretty much ever says the same thing about writing: if you just write something even when you don't want to you will "feel" like writing more often.  Screw those successful writers though. Remember you're trying to go the other way. If you really milk this sabotage, you can apply it to revision (too much like work) or editing (way too much like work).  But that's okay since you can sound artsy and sensitive without ever having to expend any real effort by talking about "bleeding the joy out of writing" and really artsy fartsy stuff like that  This one tends to be pretty high on the bullshit meter.  So if you aren't already pretty good at stapling the back of your hand to your forehead, you might want to take an acting class or three before you attempt it.

10- Never finish anything.  This one is a classic, and yet it is a favorite for the awesome reason that it will let you immediately answer the question about what you're doing to all those pesky little people who want to know what you write when you tell them you're a writer.  There are two ways you can pull this off: you can either start lots of things and never actually finish any of them, or you can tool one thing forever without end.  If you have thirty projects started but you never go back and finish any of them, you can get locked in this process forever.  This involves a lot of work though getting all those half finished projects going.  So the better way to do this is probably to write one thing (I know. I know. It's just one thing. There there, my child.  There there.)  Never be satisfied.  Feel that it is never quite ready.  Then you can be "retooling" and "revising" that badboy for years.  You can get so much milage out of a story you wouldn't even believe.  People close to you might start to notice that you've been doing the same thing for years, but they're probably going to realize you don't actually do much writing anyway.  Besides, this is absolutely genius for impressing strangers at cocktail parties.

11-Start a blog.  No, no, no, not a real blog. Not something you update daily or several times a week or even on a regular schedule. Don't be an asshat.  (Like the guy that writes this tripe.) No, what you want is a blog that you update maybe once or twice a month (if that) and then you can say you "write a blog" when people ask. Then you can write every month or so about how people who use the term "PIN number" aren't really writers--and may not even be human--and point at the blog as proof that you're too legit to quit. Steal a lot of Oatmeal comics for ideas. That guy has a pretty good bead on what grammar mistakes are generally acceptable to mock without seeming too esoteric and assholish (but while still actually making lots of people feel smart for being elitist about their education). You can half heartedly tool on your blog every time you feel guilty about not writing for a while, get distracted by e-mail notifications since you're online, and somehow end up spending the day reading Facebook Cracked articles. EPIC WIN!

12- Participate in Nanowrimo.  Hang on now! I know this sounds like a lot of work, but hear me out.  You might think writing 50,000 words in 30 days is a lot of work...and, well it is. It's actually way more work than most professional writers set themselves to doing, and you still have a day job. So how could this be a great idea to sabotage yourself? Hear me out though. Turns out this one is a real winner if you can stick with it. The reason this is so clever is that you really only have to do it once. Finish and you're a "winner." You've written a NOVEL. You can tell people about your novel for the rest of your life and not sound like a poseur and what has it cost you? "Making some revisions on my novel" can be your one-size-fits-all answer to anyone about what you're writing. You put in an actual, legitimate effort for one November, and you get all those accolades and validation of your awesomeness for the rest of your life. If anyone asks you can forever say "Well, I've got my novel written, but it needs a little work before I'm ready to publish..."

But not only that--you get to burn out. You get to collapse on your couch on Dec 1st and be "so sick of writing" that no one in their right mind won't understand for weeks to come. This method of self-sabotage is as old as regimens themselves. Wanna sabotage your fitness plan? Make yourself go to the gym every single day for three hours. Wanna sabotage your diet?  Make yourself eat 800 calories a day for a month. Wanna sabotage your new plan to spend more time with family? Force them to play Pictionary for two hours a day. Wanna sabotage any lifestyle change ever? Overdo it. Don't find a reasonable way to work it into your life that might actually fit in a long-term way. Engage in one Herculean effort that is absolutely impossible to maintain. Just ask everyone who was ever on The Biggest Loser how it's going.

13- Participate in a never ending quest for education.  Be careful. Advanced degrees will probably involve a lot of work so you want to be cautious with this one. The last thing you want to be doing is patting yourself on the back for not having to do any real work as you close in on your thesis class. But this is also great ways to sabotage yourself.  See if you keep learning about writing and learning about writing and learning about writing, you can indefinitely seem like you're totally dedicated without ever having to actually write!  Brilliant!  You're just "not ready yet." In perpetuity! You'll have degrees you can hang on your wall that say you are totally a writer and you never have to submit a single thing (except to teachers and other students who are REQUIRED to read it). You can even cycle through the same two or three stories if you take a bunch of different instructors.

14- Don't ignore your voices.  Writers pretty much have two voices without fail.  They may have a hundred and fifty other voices, but they will always have these two.  One voice says "This is the best shit ever written by the hand of man, and The New Yorker and the Atlantic will have to knife fight over who gets it...nude!" and the other says "Yesterday I passed some corn-filled fecal matter from an unknown animal smeared across a graffiti-covered wall that is an order of magnitude better than this writing.  No not the graffiti--the fecal matter."  You would think that a writer would be able to combine these voices into one single, balanced voice of wisdom and reason.

You would be wrong.

Every writer has to learn to tell both of these voices to SHUT THE FUCK UP, so they can get some real work done.  But a great way to sabotage yourself is to let them both scream loud and proud in your head without the slightest censor.  You will vacillate between depression that you are a complete amateur who will never amount to anything and the staunch belief that your first draft is gold and should be published without so much as a pass for missing commas.  You will spend your days in bed not writing or making a total ass of yourself.  There are almost no more effective ways to sabotage yourself!  Some are faster.  Some are more clever.  Almost none is so effective.  You'll be NOT writing in no time.

15- Never submit anything.  While we probably must grudgingly admit that it would be unfair to say Emily Dickinson wasn't a writer, most of us don't have stacks of brilliant work to be published posthumously.  The simplest way to sabotage your effort to put yourself out there is never to put yourself out there.  Be fragile.  Hate how mean criticism can be.  Hide everything from the world.  Don't submit anything--either traditionally through agents or magazines or the self-publishing route.  You are a delicate desert flower and only a few people understand your profound beauty.  They just don't understand your genius!  Putting it out there means you might discover you have a long way to go and there actually isn't a line forming out the door to get the chance to drool on it.  That's a tough pill to swallow.  But FORTUNATELY you don't have to if you never actually take a risk.  (If your #14 "You suck!" voice is stronger, this is your best bet.)

16-Submit everything.  This is a much more sophisticated version of #15.  It takes some serious hubris.  You submit everything you write.  No, not just a lot.  Not prolifically like Ray Bradbury.  I mean everything.  Everything you ever write.  EVER.  That disjointed microfiction you wrote on the Donut-Palace napkin last night during your drunken stupor that had something to do with chocolate and maple frosting in a Matrix-style kung-fu fight for dominance?  Submit it!

See with 15 you are not putting it out there, but with 16 you are engaged in much more complex sabotage.  By submitting everything you ever write, you never really have to work hard on any ONE thing, pour your heart and soul into it, and be rejected.  Because THAT might sting.  So you just toss everything out to everywhere like you're carpet bombing the publishing world.  Don't revise.  Don't consider.  Don't think, "maybe this mech combat piece isn't quite right for erotica zine."  Just think everything is ready to publish the minute the ink dries. That way rejection doesn't matter.  Why would it matter?  It's not like you really tried!  You can shrug off even the most scathing rejection letters because you didn't actually invest.  And who knows....maybe some tinpot zine trying to get off the ground publishes something and then you have a bunch of writerly validation without ever really having had to take a risk.  (If your #14 "Oxygen is for losers!" voice is stronger...well, you already KNOW what to do big guy!)

17- Measure yourself against others.  You might slip and start using this as honest competition that drives you to excel.  You DON'T want that.  Yikes-a-doodle-do!  No, what you want is to genuinely hold yourself to the standard of other peoples' success like they are your yardstick.  Think you're a great writer because you're SO much better than the guy who wrote the filler piece for Asimov last month.  You don't even need to get published at this point since you are better than that guy.  Go into a total depressive spiral because your friend Bunny McNasterface was further along in her career by your age.  Let all this stuff affect you...profoundly.   Sitting down to write with just you and the blank page isn't hard enough.  You have to justify not writing--that's going to take something more than just a blank page.  So invite lots of other ghosts and demons to sit down with you.  You will probably not write anything for weeks and feel completely justified the whole time.

18- Invest in echo chambers.  You don't want real feedback!  That shit might tell you that you have more work to do or even make you feel bad.  Desert flower, remember?  Misunderstood genius?  A bunch of different readers might not stroke your delicate ego.  If people don't appreciate how mother fucking brilliant your writing is, ask DIFFERENT people.  Pretty soon you can surround yourself with people who tell you everything you write is "so good!"  This works really well if you only show your work to people who want to sleep with you.  Unrequited desire leads to really positive feedback which you can pretend is genuine.  Remember, don't ask for criticism.  Just say "did you like it?"  Ignore any input that isn't closely related to acknowledging your misunderstood genius.  Be careful though...your fans might start demanding you write more--then you'd be up shit creek, wouldn't you?  (This works best in tandem with 16.)

19- Listen to all the criticism.  This is a great way to sabotage yourself roughly akin to the Punishment of Sisyphus except that the rock roles back down over your will to live.  Tell people to be brutal.  Tell them to rip your writing apart.  Listen to everyone even though they give you conflicting advice.  Have no faith in your artistic intention--let them project theirs through you.  Try to incorporate every change no matter how discongruent or antithetical to your original intent.  It's the artistic version being drawn and quartered, and is a marvelous way to sabotage yourself.  Then when you've done that...give it to DIFFERENT people and tell them to do the same.  You will not only fail spectacularly and end up with a melange of conflicting visions, but each revision will be a new flaying of your soul and take you months to recover from and finish.  If you alternate between mainstream readers and MFA professors you can probably have a mental breakdown in a month or two.

20- Get a "writing" job.  This is less about being a "writer" in general and more about being a fiction author, but if you don't mind working as a writer but don't really want to work on elements of the craft of fiction, you can sabotage yourself beautifully by getting a job where you write for a living.  Techwriter, web content, journalism...really the sky is the limit with writing jobs where you can get stuck doing something "sort of creative."  And the great part is you will never have to write a story or a chapter again!  You can even proudly say "I am a writer!  Hells to the yeah, I even make my LIVING by writing!"  The trick is to get creatively tapped out by your job.  You have to talk about the writing you "really want to be doing," and how it's hard to have the energy to do that after you spend all day writing.  (Ha.  If they only knew!)  This is a particularly good way to sabotage yourself because people will completely understand, and tend to think all writing is pretty much the same anyway.

Be careful.  Many of these may not work to sabotage yourself if you don't use them properly.  For example, if you can come home from your writing job and spend time writing fiction rather than "being burned out," you might end up just writing TWICE as much.  Madness!  Also, a few MUST really be used in tandem.  Stick with the plan or you'll end up writing all the time and putting your work out there.  You don't want that.

I close with a joke.  This religious guy named Steve is kind of poor and he wants to win the lottery.  He prays every day to win.  "God, please let me win the lottery."  For years this goes on.  "God, let me win the lottery."  Finally after twenty years he's starting to feel his faith waning, but he kneels anyway and says "God, please let me win the lottery."

And then God actually responds to Steve with a booming voice from heaven.  "Steve," God says, "meet me half way.  Buy a fucking lottery ticket."

I'll let you decide what this joke has to do with people who want to be writers.

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  1. Can't stress how right you are with #20 enough! The best way to cure yourself of even liking to write in the first place is to start doing some form of professional wordsmithing for a living.

    Eventually it will no longer be about finding the time or the energy (which honestly are really difficult, as opposed to just an excuse) though. Sooner or later you'll just start seizing at the sight of an open Word document period.

    1. I am SO relieved to see you chime in on this with that feedback, Shannon! I was sitting there after I posted thinking of YOU, and hoping you didn't find that one offensive.

  2. So I'm sitting here thinking to myself "there's no way I'm going to be able to keep indieBits updated - I need to get everything ready to move back overseas, then there's going to be PAX and oh man...it's just not going to happen!"

    Then I read your post, I quit my bitching and now I'm taking my ipad out to a cafe without wifi and won't come back until I have an article finished.

    Thank you for helping me get off my ass and write.

    ...or at least move my ass to a more writing-friendly place :P

    1. Nice! I never meant to guilt anyone, but if it's motivation of the being-called-a-pussy-by-your-physical-trainer type than I guess that's awesome! Though....I might not be following your updates closely enough. You're moving??? Are you coming back stateside?

    2. No guilt! This was much more of a Rocky training montage kind of moment "get your ass out of that chair and get to writing missy!" type of thing :)

      And I busted out 2000 words because of this article, which makes you all kinds of awesome Mr Writing Coach Dude :D

      I'll be back stateside as of next week and back in California a couple weeks later. Then I'll be around for a while! Going to take a long long time (at least a year, probably two) to get a permanent residency visa sorted out to come back to Australia on my own (no depending on sponsorship or anything).

    3. Well, in that case, glad to be a part of something so positive. Sorry the visa thing turned into such a nightmare! I can't says as I mind the idea of you being close enough to actually hug a couple of times, but that's an awfully high price.

  3. Ouch at #20. Yes, I'm a technical writer. It's my day job and it's what puts food on my table. But I do not for ONE MINUTE equate that to being a "writer" as far as this blog's definition goes. It's an entirely different ballpark and has an entirely different set of rules and expectations. I do not use that as an excuse or justification on why I don't write because I openly admit that I'm lazy as heck :D

    On a less-trying-to-be-jokey note, I never thought about NaNoWriMo that way. I've participated in it for half a decade (and won a whopping amount of once) but I think it's because I always approached it as a way to get myself out of the lazy-funk-cycle. Whether it's been effective is anyone's guess because I'm also biased against myself. I think my cheerleader voice has permanent laryngitis. Either that or I can't hear her over the critic's screams over the megaphone pointed directly into my ear.

    Thanks for this article. It's a good kick in the pants reminder.

  4. Looove it so much that I just tweeted it! Thank you for articulating my expensive lessons and for affirming some ideas I have suspected but couldn't articulate. I enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I already did 12... I'm Doooooooomed

    1. Yeah, I've done it four times. I'm quadruply dooooooomed.

  6. it's funny the text even makes its own writer anxious (guess it's a price you have to pay for being a preacher) - anyway so he tries to reassure himself (about the journalist job):
    "Be careful. Many of these may not work to sabotage yourself if you don't use them properly. For example, if you can come home from your writing job and spend time writing fiction rather than "being burned out," you might end up just writing TWICE as much."
    overall, a good read though.

  7. it's funny and nice in a way and it could actually work for other activities as for writing ..but are you being passive-aggressive ?! are you okay ??
    P.s I am not a writer, and English isn't my mother tongue but I love "writing about writing" :)

  8. Thank you. Just, thank you. I really needed this article.
    (I love you, by the way.)

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  10. One of the reasons I love you, Chris, is that you get me to close my browser and go back to work. And my 7th book will be out in a week or two -- which means I have been proofing, at which I am awful, while Book 5 in the Toki-Girl and the Sparrow-Boy series starts coalescing in my head. Plus, well, see my next blog-posts. Exciting news tangentially on the writing front is coming!

  11. Thanks for this. It´s not that we don´t know it, but more like it allows us to grasp just how stupid things we actually resort to that end up sending us soooo far from what we say we want! <3