As a chronically clumsy person, it is usual for me to trip over my own feet, struggle to put my head through the arm hole of my sweater, smash plates, spill glasses and generally make things difficult for myself. As a writer I self-sabotage just as effectively, though with fewer slap-stick comedy moments.
I know I’m not alone and, though we all have our unique ways of screwing up, here are my top five favourites:
Set out to write the Great American novel (or its UK equivalent), the next candidate for the Booker/Costa/ Whatever prestige award: this will ensure you cannot write a word. Ever.
Worry about finding the right agent and publisher. Research what is selling, who is buying, how to pitch and where. Design your book jacket, write imaginary five star reviews, prepare your Desert Island Disc answers, decide who will play the lead in the film version. Worry about your author photo etc. Write your acknowledgements, worry about what your ex husband/current husband/ mother will think of the book. None of this gets the damn book written.
Set your quality control bar far too high. Rewrite every sentence endlessly. Tell yourself every word is shit.
Write a mental essay analysing the themes, motifs and underlying message of the novel, its influences and impact.
Talk about it endlessly so that you are so bored of it you never need to write it.( Also imaginary novels are always better written than real ones. There are people who can write to fill a particular marketing niche so I’m not going to say that thinking about the kind of book you want to write and its themes is necessarily wrong, only that it can get in the way. Obviously we all write with ambition. If we didn’t think we could do good work, we wouldn’t be writing at all. However, in my experience, evaluating anything before it is finished is a waste of energy. It takes considerable mental and emotional resources to get to the end of something. The older I get, the less energy I have to waste on anything inessential to the task. Besides, the fastest way of killing any idea is to ask too much of it at its inception.
My own writing career began with a murder too dark to discuss here, but I could not write fiction and allow my inner literary critic, a fiercely exacting character, to live: I can’t now remember where I left the body.
Apart from that rather brutal step, these are my five top tips for getting out of my own way.
Play down ambition and just play. Do it for the joy. Dump the ego and lose yourself.
Don’t think about what happens when it's done, focus on getting over the next creative hurdle.
When you think it is probably shit (and even with a brutally murdered internal critic this can still happen) accept that it probably is and that’s OK. You can fix everything in edit (probably.)
Praise yourself. Not for the quality of what you have done - that’s not something you can afford to think about yet - but just for getting through it. I have treats for my inner toddler: chocolate, coffee, glasses of wine (she’s a precocious toddler.) Bribe yourself, chivvy yourself along. Know that there will often be tears before bedtime.
Don’t make excuses. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Though you have to be kind to yourself, you also have to enforce discipline (unleash the inner invigilator.) Work whether you want to or not. Some days it will feel pointless. Some days, in all honesty, it is. You still have to do it.