Techniques to get you writing, Part 1: The psychology of failure

Over the next month I’m going to post a series of articles on how to deal with the problem of actually getting words on the page.  This series was originally posted over at Kiwi Writers as part of their SocNoc Challenge.

This series isn’t aimed at the people who are going to write “one day” or the people who are “waiting for the perfect idea before writing”.  This series is aimed at the writers who really want to write, but who haven’t yet developed the discipline or courage to sit down and blast out that first draft.

And yes, that group includes me, which is why I developed this series in the first place. I’m talking about the people for whom the inner editor is louder than the narrative voice, and the fear is greater than the drive.

You may have heard of self-defeating behaviours.  Whether you have or not, I guarantee you’ve experienced them at some stage in your life. And the more important an activity is, the more likely you are to succumb to self-defeating behaviour.  It’s not only writers that deal with them; they occur when you have a big report to finish, or a deadline to meet, or a sporting match.

You know those little voices in your head that say, “you can’t do this. You’re going to FAIL.” Those ones? Well, they are the cause of self-defeating behaviour, and they’re difficult to fight. Because when your own brain is working against you, what hope do you have?

But I’m about to teach you how to gang up on your brain, bend it to your will and force it to co-operate with your desire to reach your writing goals.  I’ve picked up these techniques over time and applied them to my career, but they work equally well with writing, and that’s what I’m going to focus on in this series.

Procrastination and Writer’s Block

As writers, we deal with two categories of self-defeating behaviour; avoidance behaviours (a.k.a procrastination), and writer’s block.

Avoidance behaviours arise when we fear that we aren’t going to reach a desired goal or outcome. Fear drives the brain to flip to “fight or flight’ mode.  Since we can’t fight the goal, we flee to another, safer activity.

The new activity temporarily lowers the stress levels. By performing this displacement activity, we reward the brain with serotonin, which it really likes. When we manage to screw up our courage to go back to the activity that stressed us in the first place, the brain encourages us away. It’s a very instinctive ‘pain = bad’ reaction, and it takes a lot of effort to conquer.

You can’t reach a goal if you don’t work towards it. Procrastination is the momentum killer, and it will prevent you from reaching that goal.  Dealing with procrastination means reducing the stress, not by avoiding the activity, but by altering the way we look at it.

Writer’s block is a different type of self-defeating behaviour. Instead of avoiding the activity, we engage, but the brain refuses to play. Writer’s block works differently for different writers; some cannot form a coherent sentence; some people endlessly write and delete and write again, others start at a blank page, unable to produce a single word.  But the root cause is the same; fear that what we produce won’t be good enough. So the internal editor steps in, you start to believe that you really ARE no good, and creativity goes out the door.

It doesn’t seem like a logical way for our brains to behave, but logic and creation don’t go hand in hand.  What we’re talking about here are the basic survival instincts left over from our caveman days, when the fast, clever cavemen ran away from the dinosaurs, and the slow, dumb ones got eaten.*

The same fears produce both of these self-defeating behaviours, but different techniques are needed to defeat them.  Next week we’ll tackle the first step to dealing with self-defeating behaviours; turning big goals into little ones.

* Yes, I know the dinosaurs were long gone by the time we came along.

Go to Part 2: Working with Goals.

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11 thoughts on “Techniques to get you writing, Part 1: The psychology of failure

  1. Pingback: Techniques to get you writing, Part 3: Using wordcounts to gain momentum « Not Enough Words

  2. Pingback: Techniques to get you writing, Part 2: working with goals « Not Enough Words

  3. Pingback: NPI participant list and final instructions « Not Enough Words

  4. Very good advice! I have never heard about the flight or fight and serotonin related to avoidance of doing things, or writers block – but I recognized this in a huge way. Even with other work that I do.
    Sometimes I’ll just give up and come back the next day… which, for me, actually works sometimes. Thanks for naming it so I can recognize it for what it is.

  5. Excellent post, Merrilee! Just getting to blogs again…I always thought I never had writer’s block, but the small niggling spaces where I don’t want to write…I think that is what it is. So I am now gracing it with a name. :)

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  7. Fascinating.. Particularly about the serotonin reward. So, really, brains work with us while we write, but work against us when we’re practicing avoidance? Wow…
    I’ve always thought ‘avoidance’ and ‘writer’s block’ were the same thing as well. Now I understand the folly of my ways.

  8. Excellent post.

    I may have the opposite issue: writer’s diarrhea. I write down every piece of crap that comes into my head :)
    Like this reply, for instance.

    • Stephen King and Ray Bradbury also complained they had diarrhea of the mouth. There’s worst company to be in.

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