Tuning Out the Self-Sabotage Monster

Thursday, September 13, 2012
by Bonnie Hearn Hill

You manage to steal a block of time  to stay home and write. Now that you have the time, the words won’t come. That voice within you says, “Who do you think you are? You know you’ll never do this.”

You write something you love, but by the next morning, you seriously question its quality. You end up hating it so much that you can’t finish.

You want to write more than anything, yet you can’t seem to follow through. Why? Because there’s a monster in your head. Every writer has one. I’ve assigned a gender and an identity to mine—Mrs. Delp, one of my middle school teachers.

What she said was simple enough:  “Bonnie, can’t you ever do anything right?”

I forgot all about her until I began working with writers, but her words left their mark. When I observed my writing students exhibiting the same self-doubt I experienced, I tried to remember the first time I’d felt that hesitation,  the first time I’d heard that voice. Once I figured it out, I shared Mrs. Delp with my class, most of whom were well acquainted with her, under any number of names. One said her Delp was her mother,  who sent back all of her letters from summer camp, corrected in red ink. Another said his Mrs. Delp was a mister. His high school principal suggested he drop out of school and get a job because he wasn’t going to amount to anything.

Most of your efforts to sabotage your writing start with that judgmental voice. It doesn’t matter if it is a parent, a former teacher or ex-spouse. They’re all Mrs. Delp and, ultimately, all you.

Delp talks about responsibilities. “You have to do the laundry tonight.”

She talks about guilt. “You finally have a Friday off, and you’re not spending it watching TV with the kids?”

Most of all, she judges. “That’s no good. What makes you think you can do this?”

Other people can also delp you, intentionally or not.

“You’ve been writing every night. You deserve some time off.”

“Honey, do you know how many people out there are trying to write books?”

“Oh, you’re a writer? What have you published?”

Listen to your Delp long enough, and you’ll find your writing slowing and maybe stopping. You may begin rewriting before you finish the first draft. You might decide that one of the ten story ideas you came up with this morning is better than your work in progress and abandon yet another unfinished story. Worse, you may jump up from the computer realizing you really do want to clean the oven or the toilet right now. (Anything that makes you want to clean the oven or the toilet can’t be good.)

Here are some tips to keep you from delping yourself or letting others do it.

Publish something now, and it doesn’t have to be a bestseller. One of my students’ first sale was for ten dollars. Four years later, she signed a six-figure contract. The first made the second possible because it gave her the confidence she needed to push forward.

Do not show your unpublished work to anyone but a qualified professional.

Don’t show your best friend. Don’t show your parent. Please do not show your spouse.

You don’t need false praise, and you certainly don’t need criticism from someone who doesn’t have the knowledge to help you. Find a class, a mentor, or a critique group you trust.

Cultivate safe writer friends, not the ones who want to impress you with their brilliance, but real friends who also face that blank page every day. Choose helpers, not delpers.

Know that you will probably have to give up something to make room for your writing.

You can’t do everything. You have to make choices. When I worked at the newspaper, I got up every morning an hour early to write. I know other authors who wrote in their cars on their lunch hours. You do have the time, but you have to take it.

Recognize Delp for what she is. What is the message? That you don’t have talent? That you don’t deserve? That there’s no point in trying? When did it originate? Hear and picture that person who made you feel that way. You may want to name your voice after him/her. The next time you find that you’re delping yourself, you’ll be aware, and awareness is the beginning of change.

Write every day, even if for just  for ten minutes a day. You’ll polish your writing skills and will be less likely to believe that message of “You’re no good.”  Write the same time every day, if possible. The Delps of the world shy away from proactive production.

Evil is loudest just before it’s destroyed. Like the last hideous screech of the monster in a horror film, Delp will come in for one last attack just as you begin to reach your goal. You’ll break a leg on your way to a conference. You’ll accidentally crash your computer the night of a deadline. Expect it. And then go to the conference on crutches, if necessary. Borrow a computer. Demonstrate your commitment. No, it’s not easy, but it’s easier than letting Delp destroy your dreams.

Fight back. Although you may not be able to tune out that voice, you can turn down the volume.


Bonnie Hearn Hill is the author of six international thrillers from MIRA Books, four young adult novels, and with Christopher Allan Poe, coauthored DIGITAL INK: WRITING KILLER FICTION IN THE E-BOOK AGE. A national writing conference speaker and contest judge, she has mentored many published writers and leads online workshops for WOW.

Bonnie's upcoming class, WRITING CONTESTS: THE FOCUSED WAY TO WIN, starts on Wednesday, September 26, 2012.  Join now, early registration is recommended!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I really need to hear some inspirational words today

Audrey said...

Bonnie, thank you for sharing this wonderful message! When I hear my Mrs. Delp speaking in my ear, I try to balance her message with the words spoken by my Dad...someone has to do it, why not you. He is beginning to win and I am writing once again and believing in myself!

Vryka said...

My Delp is named Ernestine. Ernestine Eugenia... I have a doll planned. I drew a picture and used to throw darts.

I now know that certain accupunture points knotted tight... are where I keep her. She sometimes still makes me physically ill to stop me.

But I recognize her. She was the combined voices of parent and teachers and peers. So I made a caricature of her. It helps.

Laura W. said...

Heh. I wrote my Delp into my story...and killed him. Someday when I publish it I hope he reads it and recognizes himself, and realizes just how much I hated him. :D

Seriously, this was a very awesome, very helpful, and very true post.

Tracy Krauss said...

What an excellent article! Yes, we all have a 'Delp' inside, I'm sure. I loved all of your suggestions on how to squelch the voice, but my favorite is probably the one about giving up something. I know I can't do it all, and when I try, my writing is usually the first thing to suffer.

Anonymous said...

THAT was excellent. Thanks! I needed that. =]

Bonnie Hearn Hill said...

Thanks, everyone. I too have killed delp in fiction, but as a friend of mine says, you need to keep hammering those nails in the coffin. Writing well is the best revenge. Writing, period, is the best revenge. If we stay silent, delp wins. We deserve better, and so does our writing.

Anonymous said...

Loved this! Thanks so much, Bonnie I've read many articles about self-sabotage, but yours is the best!

shabby girl said...

Believe our delps, and we'll never accomplish anything.

BECKY said...

Great article! I tried to leave an intelligent, well worded comment right after this was posted, but Bad Comment Taker wouldn't allow me! :(
And of course I've completely forgotten what I wanted to say....except I loved this!

Sally Ferguson said...

Good reminder to be looking for those things that sabatoge writing. Awareness is the first step toward being an overcomer!

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