During the Second World War, posters were put up warning people 'Loose Lips Sink Ships' and to 'Be like Dad - Keep Mum'. The posters were to remind people that they didn't know who was listening - that a casual conversation on a bus could give away where troops were based or ships were heading.
So what's this got to do with writing? Well, loose lips sink ships, and plots, and characters, dialogue, twists, metaphors and settings.
Let me ask you this. When an idea for a story or a novel or a poem comes into your mind, do you jot it down, play with it, write it, rewrite it until it's the best you can make it and then send it off? Or do you jot it down, tell your husband about it over dinner, act out the brilliant bits of dialogue to your friends, describe the plot twists in minute detail to your mum, and try out the comedy on your kids? Chances are if you do, that the story/ novel/ poem never gets written at all, never mind rewritten and sent off.
Bursting Your Bubble
Why? Because when writing is new it's very fragile. That initial idea isn't really an idea, it's a seed. A starting point. It needs nurturing and feeding. How do you nurture and feed? You jot it down, you play with it, you write some bits, you think about it, you leave it alone for a while, you idly turn it over in your mind while cooking dinner.
Talking about it makes it lose the magic. Imagine that idea is a bubble - exciting and colourful and different from every angle, but pass it around a bit and it'll pop. To go back to the seed metaphor, talking about your idea is like digging up the seed every few hours and seeing if it's sprouted yet.
How To Kill Your Idea
Your brain will get bored with the idea if you talk about it. While it's new and fresh, it's exciting. It's yours to discover. The more you keep it secret, the more energy that idea has, the more it will grow, and the more you'll want to write it. You'll write it because you need to know what happens next.
Tell other people about it and they'll soon take the magic away, often unintentionally, sometimes not. Comments like, "Hm. Interesting" don't help you to keep the excitement alive. Nor do, "Is that character based on me?", "What will the kids think?" or "What you need to do is ..." Talking about a partly formed idea is the swiftest way to kill it.
People rarely laugh at the hilarious bits until you've written them and worked them. Scraps of dialogue are flat if taken out of context. All of this makes you despondent. When you go back to your notebook it's just a heap of words scribbled down. The gloss, the intrigue, the possibility have all gone.
So when it comes to writing, when that brilliant germ of an idea strikes, remember the advice on the War posters, and 'Be Like Dad - Keep Mum'. Keep it a secret until you've worked and polished that piece and it's as good as you can make it - then you can tell people about it.
Does this ever happen to you? You have a great idea for a story, and spend some time mulling it over, getting excited, maybe jotting down some notes or a structure. Just as you’re ready to start writing, a little voice in your head says, “Who do you think you are to write this?” And suddenly you’re all flat and worried, and can think of a hundred people who would do justice to the story better than you.
Hot on the heels of the little voice comes another. “What will people say if you write this? You’ll make a mess of it. You’ll look an idiot in front of the whole world.” The little voice is something of a catastrophist. Suddenly all your enthusiasm for your idea has gone. Even if you were only thinking about writing the story for your own amusement, now all you can think about is other people wondering who the heck you think you are to even contemplate writing this story. You’re an imposter.
Imposter syndrome is extremely common: that feeling that you’re not qualified enough, skilled enough, experienced enough to do something, and that horrible fear that you’re going to get found out. It’s that squirmy sensation you get when you apply for a job that’s a grade above where you are now: when you get the job, you’ll be well and truly out of your comfort zone. The same thing happens when you write, and the bad news is it never goes away. I recently interviewed a number of high profile, prize-winning, best-selling writers and all of them initially told me they weren’t experienced or good enough to contribute. No matter where you are in your writing career, imposter syndrome will be lurking.
The good news is you can do something about it.
1. Recognise that it happens when you’re about to leave your comfort zone. Yes, this is scary, but it’s necessary if you’re to develop your skills and grow as a writer. Concentrate on why you’re doing this, and know that the feeling of discomfort will be worth it when you achieve your goal.
2. Write a list of all your achievements, not just to do with writing, but everything you’ve achieved in your life. How many times have you felt uncertain, unprepared, not good enough? Remember the uncertainty of starting university, your first job, having your first child. You got through it then, and you’ll get through it now.
3. Remember that this is your story and your idea, not anyone else’s and therefore it’s yours to write. If you were to hand it to another writer, they wouldn’t produce your story only better, they’d produce their story roughly based on your idea.
4. Write out the worst than can happen and go totally overboard: people hate your story, you’re hounded out of your home and forced to live on Mars to escape from their fury, then you contract a terrible Martian illness that makes you turn purple. Make this so outlandish you start to laugh. This helps you to realise that if (note IF), someone doesn’t like what you’ve written, you’ll survive.
Your mind likes certainty. It likes to know that it can deal with situations, and stretching yourself means stepping into the unknown. The mind doesn’t know if you can deal with that new situation, so it tries to dissuade you from what it perceives as a potentially dangerous situation by triggering imposter syndrome. It’s trying to be helpful, but it also keeps you small. Recognise that the appearance of imposter syndrome means that you’re about to take your writing to another level, and welcome it. It’s showing you that you’re on the right track. Then take that step.
A year ago, my writing buddy died. He was my cat, Wimsey. I’d had him for over 14 years. This post isn’t going to be filled with sentimental reminiscences or cute cat stories, though there will be a few of those; more, it’s going to consider what happens to your writing when you experience trauma, loss or serious illness.
But to start, how can a cat be a writing buddy? Like this. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that I write first drafts in the same way that I’ve written since I was a child: sitting up on my bed, writing longhand in a notebook. Wimsey would curl up beside me on the bed, sometimes batting at my pen as it moved, occasionally knocking a hardboiled sweet around the skirting boards for my entertainment. As I often tell my coaching clients, it helps to think of writing as playing, and having the cat charge about after a boiled sweet certainly stopped me taking myself too seriously. Later, when he was an old, old cat, he’d press himself full length against me, his hot paws on my leg, his head positioned so I could feel his breath on the back of my hand and within easy stroking range.
When I transferred my handwritten draft to the computer, he lay on the floor under the desk with his paws on my foot, or positioned himself on the chaise longue in my study, occasionally emitting gurgling noises to remind me he was there. And as for printing out material ready to send off? I often had to reprint the title page because there was a paw print on it. Quality control, cat style.
Writing is an up and down business, and us writers have a tendency to gloominess, so having someone who’s always thrilled to see you is essential. My husband loves me, but he doesn’t fling himself on the ground and writhe around in pleasure that I’m home (maybe I should speak to him about that?). When everyone hated my story, the cat didn’t care. Equally he wasn’t that fussed when everyone was raving about my latest novel. He helped to smooth it all out.
When he died, I was recovering from whooping cough. It was a serious infection and I was physically very weak and rather depressed. I’d just started writing a new novel - ironically about grief and loss - and Wimsey as usual had been there, assisting with the writing and it was flowing nicely. I keep a spreadsheet with my daily word counts on it, and at the point he died, there’s a month’s break in the writing when I didn’t write a single word. How could I? I didn’t know how to write without him there. It felt wrong. And, frankly, I was so grief-stricken that I couldn’t care less about the wretched novel.
When I coach other writers, I emphasise the importance of routine: writing in the same place, at the same time, with the same writing rituals. It prepares your mind for writing. Now my usual rituals and routine were broken, and I didn’t know what to do. How could I create a new writing routine that would get me through to the end of this new book?
I admit, for a while I considered just jacking it in, but then I realised that this was just another writing challenge in a long line of challenges that I’d overcome over the years, and that were waiting for me in the years to come. Life is littered with setbacks, griefs and disappointments, the trick is to learn how to come bouncing back after them. After a month of not writing, it was time to find my way back. This is what I did.
I had elements of my routine that hadn’t changed: writing longhand, on my bed, with a coffee, and with the TV chuntering in the background. Keeping those bits took me half-way to my usual writing conditions. The problem was he’d left a big hole in my life and my mind kept on saying, ‘This feels weird without him’. I needed to quiet my thoughts so I could write. I did this by taking a few minutes at the start of each writing session to simply focus on my breathing. Just breathing, I could do that. After a few minutes, my mind had stilled, and I set a goal for the writing session ahead – to write the dialogue in a scene, to write a description of a character, to feel excited about what I was writing, to discover a new aspect of a character. Then I wrote.
What I wrote wasn’t as important as the fact that I was writing; I knew I could sort it out afterwards. But setting down words, when I didn’t really want to, when it felt wrong – that was the key thing. I kept a note of my word counts, and the first day I managed 300 words. The next day I did 250. Two days later I wrote over 2200 words in a sitting and it took me just over an hour. After that I kept at a steady 1200-1500 words each sitting, written in around an hour.
Yes, it was painful, and it was also fascinating. Grief has a strange energy to it. It’s strong and furious and overwhelming, and it’s not constant. It came in waves that I could feel building. I watched as it crashed over me and bashed me about, then watched it recede. I couldn’t write about it, though. My grief-stricken characters had to wait for the editing process to have their emotions properly attended to.
Is it still difficult to write without my writing buddy? Yes, but then it’s still odd to do my Pilates exercises each morning without him licking my eyebrows, and it’s weird doing the gardening without him filling in the holes the moment I’ve dug them. Life is constantly changing. Us writers, us stuck-in-the-mud, wedded-to-routine scribblers, aren’t immune to it, and the ability to be flexible, to find a new way, is ultimately our strength. Over a lifetime of writing, we’ll all come up against obstacles – ill health, looking after family, changes to jobs and homes, changing what and how we want to write. Raging against it all won’t help; we need to find gentler, more nurturing ways to get back to writing. Sometimes that means tweaking what we already have; sometimes it means being brave enough to create a whole new approach to our writing.
And now over to you. Have you overcome challenges to keep on writing? Tell me what you did and what worked best for you in the comments below.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.