Columns > Published on October 10th, 2019

The Thing Holding You Back from Being a Better Writer

This was originally going to be a nice article that analyzed other successful writer's habits and routines, and how you could then apply said lessons to your own writing discipline. I would talk about people like Hemingway, Stephen King, Faulkner, and Murakami, then analyze the trends that appeared in their routines and show the common threads that ran amongst them so that you could apply that to your own routine.

I got 80% through writing that article, and then realized it was kind of bullshit and threw it in the trash.

For one, that article has already been written 106,000 times. If said article has been written 106,000 times then it's probably simultaneously engaging and kind of  useless. Like scratching a deep itch. And although habit porn is very popular and gets lots of clicks, esp. when it's written by very successful looking people who only take pictures in monochrome, it's usually just porn. Stimulating, but a fictitious representation of the real life,

Also, this is Litreactor, fam. I try to save my monochrome writing for monochrome websites.

Oftentimes if you're a writer and you want to figure out how to be successful, you look to others who have been successful before. And there is some benefit to analyzing other writer's habits and figuring out how to apply them to your own life. If you truly have never thought about that and feel confused how to better your routine, then click off and go read one of those articles.

Some of you have your routines down pat. You're a well oiled routine machine, and good for you.

And others have taken a more Hunter Thompson-esque approach, and in-between indulgences and long periods of creative gestation, write in frantic manic bursts. And that's okay too, if you're producing work and have found some kind of rhythm within the chaos.

But many of you already know what you need to do to improve your writing routine - and yet day in and day out, you don't do the work. You probably don't need someone to tell you what you need to be a more successful writer - You know that you need to set aside a dedicated time for writing, eat healthier, do some form of exercise, reduce your mindless Internet consumption, and set out goals for your future. You read articles on how to be a more successful writer and may stick to a new routine for a day or two. You try different apps and programs and schedules, but they quickly fall to the wayside.

You often feel like you're drowning in the sea of your own mediocrity. You think that you can be a great writer, but also your potential as a writer feels locked away, like something hidden at the bottom of the ocean, underneath miles of cold pressure. You sometimes feel like you can't do the most simple of things, like log out of Facebook or write for ten minutes at a time. You think something is wrong with your routines. With the method.

So you search for the secret. The lynchipin. You sift through the routines of Stephen King and William Faulkner because they seem to have the secret that you don't. Some people have weird rituals: Lighting candles, dancing to a particular song, going to a certain coffee shop. But when you tear apart the ritual it has no real secret. When it's applied to your own life it feels like empty motions that are disguising even more emptiness underneath. You could follow someone else's routine for a day or two and find nothing of benefit to you. But still, you think: What kind of psychological strata do they possess that allows them to accomplish their goals when I can't?

But deep down, you think it's something wrong with you. The pathway is laid out for you, but you can't get there. This leads to feelings of guilt, helplessness, a lack of confidence, and low self-esteem. Which in turn perpetuates a cycle that pushes you further away from your goals. And no matter how much you beat yourself up and try to force yourself to conform to a routine, you just can't seem to make yourself do it.

Why is that? Why can't you just push forward and do the things that you know you need to do? Why can't you do the simplest of things required to be the best version of a writer that you can be?

It's something I've touched on in a couple articles here on Litreactor. But, it is so integral and important to the act of writing that I have to bring it up again and again.

The reason is fear.

Turns out, this kind of behavior is well documented in psychological literature. Resistance is a phenomenon, and apparent paradox, in which sometimes the more important something is to us, the more likely we are to avoid it. This is why suddenly you have to vacuum or do laundry when you have an important, time-limited task to do. It's why no matter how many times you scream and beat yourself up, you can't seem to "get it together" to write the last chapter of the book you've been working on for a year and a half. It's why the more you want something, the harder it feels to accomplish it.

It's important to recognize that resistance is a thing, and it's not going away. It's a defense mechanism designed to protect us from change and failure. Our destructive or inefficient habits may be hindering our progress, but they're comfortable and familiar.

Part of your psyche doesn't really care if drinking 8 beers, throwing up, and then crying every night makes you feel bad. If that becomes your routine, then you become habituated even to the pain and shame. Part of you recognizes the safety of such a routine. It keeps you from progress. but it also (presumably) keeps you from impending disaster. That's why doing something good for yourself, even if it'd vastly improve your life, can be so damn difficult.

You have to work with resistance in order to move through it. It will be something that you will have to manage for your entire life. It is not there to ruin your life, it is there to help you. But also, if unchecked, it will totally ruin your life. Understanding that resistance is real (and it's not something that's just special and wrong with you) can help you begin to unsnarl why exactly you're avoiding improving your routine.

Then you have to let go of the guilt, because it serves you no purpose. Stop thinking of guilt as a motivator. You could create a mountain of guilt and shame. A monument to your failure that blocks out the sun. It will not get you a single step closer toward your goals as a writer. In fact, it will impede them further. Guilt is sneaky like that. We often think pouring our feelings into guilt is something like progress. It isn't.

Then you have to find small victories in little successes. Positive feedback loops happen when you do something and see positive results. This can have a cascading effect in other areas of your life. It's easier to change one thing at a time than to try to change everything at once. And these little changes can give you the confidence to make changes in other aspects.

You also have to learn to work as you do, not as others do. You know yourself better than anyone else, and no article can tell you the optimal way for you to work. Focus on the aspects of your personality that you'd like to amplify. If you work in bursts of short inspiration, then make sure you're carrying a writing device with you at all times, and take those opportunities when they show up. If you work well with schedules, then make sure your schedule is written out every night. If you feel better when you eat healthy, then do your best to plan out meals for the week. If exercising clears your mind, make sure you have work out clothes within reach. If you know your big problem is social media - then either have a dedicated writing space with no Internet, or download a program to block certain websites.

And most importantly, you have to recognize that fucking up is going to happen. In fact, I would recognize that "fucking up" is just part of the inevitable process. This does not mean you have failed. It means a roadblock came up that you must go around.

I've had a fairly strict routine for all of 2019 - I wake up, walk the dogs, write, exercise, then do any other tasks or chores that need to be completed. Then at night I plan what I'll do for the next day. Every Sunday I wash the dogs, do laundry, and clean the house, then plan the rest of the week. There are definitely days where I have failed in one or all of these aspects. And it's easy to take one failure and stretch it out, so that it becomes multiple failures. Part of the benefit of the routine is the rhythm. But recognize from the beginning you're going to stumble sometimes - you'll be sick, or an emergency will come up, or honestly you just won't fucking feel like getting out of bed and can't seem to rouse yourself to care about anything. But you have to just get back to it when you can. Otherwise one failure can become a lapse.

And even if you do lapse for several weeks or months - oh well! The only thing to do is to return when you can.

Famous writers often go over their routines in interviews, but they don't always reveal that they too have off days, moments of plunging doubt, days where they get distracted by Facebook. When someone describes their routine it's easy to imagine that they have this smooth, seamless kind of life where every moment just easily flows into every moment. That they sit down at the computer and write for their 3 or 4 straight hours without getting up because they're hungry, thirsty, or bored. Without sitting back and staring at the computer and wishing that they'd gone into accounting or taxidermy or literally anything but writing. Days when they linger in the shower and linger in the kitchen and look out the window and wish that they were a leaf, floating on the wind, without consciousness or doubt.

So really, who cares what Haruki Murakami says he's doing to become a better writer. You don't see his inner life or turmoil. And he can't see the aspects of your personality that are different than his, and what would be the most optimal routine for you. But you can see your plans and your failings, crystallized in your mind's eye. 

You can become the writer you want to be, and it doesn't involve reading a hundred more articles about how to be a better writer. It involves working with fear. It involves dancing with the aspects of yourself that cannot be commanded. You are the master of yourself. But you are also your own slave. There is no demanding and forcing yourself into the shape you want, not for long and not without serious consequences. Only negotiations and understanding with yourself will have long-term, positive benefits.

You know what to do. You'll probably have to spend the rest of your life doing it, but that's just part of the process.

About the author

Autumn Christian is the author of Ecstatic Inferno, We are Wormwood, and The Crooked God Machine.

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