I attended a non-academic conference recently. Unlike academic conferences, this one featured good-natured therapy dogs wandering around and therapeutic yoga sessions. Several of the conference sessions focused on issues of self-care. Because I believe that self-care provides the foundation for a successful writing practice, I thought about what I’d learned and thought about how it could be applied to writing.

Non-writers often think that writers looks easy. They picture writers attending swanky book signings and sipping Merlot while joyfully writing brilliant prose that comes out right the first time.  As the marvelous William Zinsser argued, if writing seems hard, that’s because it is. Even after establishing a solid writing practice, there’s a lot that can go wrong. Some writing days are awesome. An equal or greater number are awful. Bad writing days are sometimes so discouraging that we get stuck. We begin spiraling in shame, sucked downward towards the abyss.

The shame spiral gives us permission to berate ourselves with unhelpful and mean questions. We churn out a stream of negative self-talk disguised as self-discipline. “Why is this happening to me? Why is this so hard? Why can’t I get this piece of writing to work out? Why does this sentence suck so much? Why can’t I do this? WTF?” Why I am not a good writer?” and finally, “Why am I not good enough?”

One of the conference sessions I attended taught us to transform questions like these into more empowering ones. I learned about how these kinds of “Why…?” questions make us feel powerless. They have no good answers and provide no tools to move us forward. Instead of getting our writing unstuck, these kinds of questions mire us deeper in the muck.  

I learned how changing the wording of our unproductive questions can lead to more helpful ones with built-in tools to get us pointed in the right direction again. Choosing better questions leads to better thoughts, better choices, and better actions and potentially better writing. If this sounds like the concept of reframing, it is. I just hadn’t thought about how changing my shame questions into action questions could help me move forward with writing.

Better questions usually begin with “What…” or “How…”. They might include:

  • How can I solve this?
  • What’s a better approach?
  • Is there another way to look at X?
  • How else could I choose to respond to this problem?
  • What can I do to resolve this?
  • What’s most important right now?
  • What do I need right now to succeed?
  • What am I learning?
  • What’s valuable here?
  • What can I give gratitude for in this situation?
  • What are my next steps?

Asking better questions improves the quality of our self-talk. It creates possibility and opens paths for creative problem-solving. They promote critical thinking and a direction forward.

Better questions can also get more powerful when made into statements:

I will choose to look at X (writing problem) as a learning experience to figure out how to resolve Z. I’m giving gratitude right now for A and define my success as B.

I’ve been trying to reformulate shame questions into more productive ones this week. In truth, I wanted to see if it worked or if this was just some more New Age-y positive thinking talk.

In my unscientific study, I picked a writing problem. Lately, my biggest problem has been that I’m struggling to post on my blog as much as I’d like. I have a million of excuses and not a single one is very good. My most common excuse is that I don’t have time, followed by the excuse that I have nothing very worthy to say.

My shame story about not posting on the blog tends to go like this:

“OMG I haven’t posted on my blog in three weeks oops I don’t have any time to write why should I even bother to try now maybe I should just give up why can’t I make myself write a post I don’t have anything to write about why am I not one of those people who are so clever why did I think I should have a blog OMG I’m so irresponsible why can’t I write WHYYYYYYYYYY.”

There wasn’t a chance of getting any writing done with that story on endless replay in my head.

I tried reformatting the shame story with some better language:

“Well, I’ve been slacking on the blog because I feel crunched for time. How am I going to make some time to write a post this week? What are some of the things that I can say no to? I can choose to say no to X,Y, and Z. What’s the most important thing to write about right now? Maybe I can share some things I’ve learned lately? I really am grateful to have the blog, so what are my next steps? Outlining something…?”

And then I was off and writing. Et voila! I wrote the post you’re now reading. Based on my incredibly unscientific study of my own experience, I did find that I felt better about my writing chores when I chucked the shame story for something a little more empowering.

I ain’t saying that positive thinking is the cure for all of our writing woes. Writing, to a large degree, just sucks sometimes. I do, however, think that the quality of the stories that we tell ourselves as writers have great power over our writing lives.

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