My Survival Strategies Are Killing Me

Warning: Long post

I think I mentioned, a few months back, that I took a get-motivated, get-organized, get-off-your-ass seminar from Martha Borst, and it was wonderful. I’ve been meeting with a small group of people once every two weeks since then to set goals and review our progress, and we’ve found recently that we’re losing steam. So last week, I bought Martha’s book. It just came out on Amazon, and it’s called Your Survival Strategies Are Killing You! I’m a third of the way through it, and I highly recommend it. It’s a dramatized version of her seminar, with all the same principles. The basic precept is that until you change the underlying beliefs that are driving your actions (which are producing your results), your results won’t change. In other words, changing your actions will only be a temporary fix; before long you’ll sink back into your old habits if you don’t go to the root of the problem and change the beliefs behind the behaviors behind the actions. And I’ll use my current situation as an example.

I’m really bad about meeting my writing goal deadlines. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I go in phases where I’m really motivated and got a ton done, then for months I write just a few hours a week, which isn’t enough to revise a 500-page book. It also makes for very disjointed chapters because I’m working on them as isolated pieces rather than as a cohesive whole. After last week’s goal meeting, I got remotivated and refocused. I decided I wanted to have the second draft of my book done by August 5, when I leave for Squaw. In addition to that, I have to prepare a 5000-word manuscript to distribute at Squaw, and another book review (including reading the book) for the Chronicle. A lot of work for three weeks. When I set the goal, I was at page 168 in the second draft of my revision and was averaging about one chapter per week. In order to meet the goal, I would have to up my workload to SIX chapters per week—gulp! I got so stressed out about it, I started having my recurring stress dream again—the one where I have to catch a plane and can’t finish packing my suitcases because I have too much stuff. Then I got to work. I decided I would do one to four hours per day, so I wouldn’t beat myself up if I only did one hour. Over one week, I did 19 hours, and in those 19 hours, I revised not six, but FOURTEEN chapters—121 pages. I find that on good days (three hours or more), I can revise three chapters in ONE DAY when before it was taking me three weeks. And because I’ve got the previous chapters fresh in my head, I’m able to integrate them better. Granted, I am doing lighter revising than I was before because now I know that this isn’t my final draft; this is my second draft. My plan is to work with a writing coach on the third draft from August through the end of November in hopes of getting it completed by then.

Okay, so it all sounds great, like I’m super writer and have no problems, right? Wrong. I can’t sleep and, for the past three days, I’ve developed heartburn. It’s true that sleep disruption and heartburn are byproducts of pregnancy (I’m sitting here with Pregnancy Sucks in front of me), but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this stuff started the same week I started making a lot of progress on my book. The other problem is that it takes me six hours at the office, not including the two-hour commute (although I read during the commute) to get three hours of work done. With an hour-long lunch and bathroom breaks and tea breaks and fresh-air, e-mail, Warfish, etc. breaks, I’m only 50% productive. If I could get in there by 10 and be out by 1, or even 2, I would have time to do something relaxing like read or watch a movie or go to yoga. Instead, I get home at 7 o’clock every night. (On the other hand, the frequent breaks I take help me to get three chapters done a day; so maybe that’s just how I work. There’s no sense in beating myself up when I’m getting so much done.)

So now that I have insomnia and heartburn, now that I’m tired all day and tempted to drink caffeine to get through the day, I am thinking, “Maybe I should take a break. My health is more important than this goal, than this book.” And THIS is where My Survival Strategies Are Killing Me because, by changing my ACTIONS (work six hours a day; revise six chapters or more per week) and not my BELIEFS, I am on the verge of falling back into the same old rut of not getting the RESULTS I want, of taking time off of my productive schedule “for my health.” And this is why I get work done in spurts. It always happens this way.

So what I need to figure out is what the beliefs are that are driving my behavior and producing these (non-productive) results. Because it’s likely that those beliefs are giving me insomnia and heartburn more than the pregnancy. And since that is my homework for next week, I’ve been thinking about it. And I don’t know the answer yet, but here are some thoughts:

Growing up (yes, let’s blame it on my parents), I was taught that artistic careers were not respectable like professional careers. My mom wanted me to be a dentist; my sister wanted me to be a doctor. NO ONE wanted me to be a writer. In fact, one of my brothers once said, “Don’t you know all writers are crazy?” He may have been kidding, but I think a lot of people really believe that.

Another belief is that writers don’t make any money, that they’ll always be broke. This may be true, or it may not be. I can be a literary snob and only publish books and stories that have no chance of making much money, or I can make a decent living selling bestselling books. I can also have a job on the side (like tutoring or editing or working in the tech industry) that pays well while I write. Writing doesn’t have to mean poverty.

Lastly, but most importantly, is the belief/fear that I’m just not good enough. When I was a teenager and told my mom I wanted to write, she said, “Oh, (my brother) is a good writer” as if to say I wasn’t. When I quit my job at the newspaper and told my editor that I wanted to study creative writing, his response was, “You’re a better reporter than a writer.” Thanks, buddy. And yet I don’t think he believed I wasn’t a good writer. I think he was just trying to keep me from quitting my job and that was his awkward way of saying, “Please don’t go.” Still, it affected me. As a kid, I was never great at artistic things. I can’t sing. I can’t draw. I can’t paint. I don’t play any musical instruments (anymore). But I was always good at school. I could do math and write English papers and get As on science exams. And yet somehow I put creative writing into the category of painting and drawing rather than into the category of writing English papers. If I could switch that around in my head, maybe I’d be convinced that I’m “good” at writing. Here is a story Martha tells in her book:

A woman thinks she is unattractive (her belief). A man walks by and doesn’t notice her, doesn’t say hello to her, which confirms what she believes—that she is unattractive—even though the guy may have been preoccupied or married. Another man walks by and smiles and tells her she looks nice today, but she just tells herself that the guy must “want” something from her because he couldn’t possibly think she is attractive. No matter what happens in her life, her results are going to be the same (no attention from men) because she believes she is unattractive and she is going to filter all of her experiences through that belief.

That’s what’s going on with me. When people told me I did a great job at Porchlight, that I was “the best one” that night, I chalked it up to all my rehearsing. In fact, I felt GUILTY that I’d done so much rehearsing, like it was cheating. I knew I’d done a good job, but dismissed it as kind of a fluke and vowed never to get up on that stage again (it was terrifying). When Michelle Tea, co-founder of Sister Spit and editor of the “It’s So You” anthology said she LOVED my story, I smiled but chalked it up to her particular taste. Maybe she’s into fashion, I thought. Maybe she likes popular (non-literary) fiction. But when a potential writing coach said she didn’t want to work with me and proceeded to list the things wrong with my book, I believed every word. I went home that day wondering if I should bother finishing the book at all because I clearly sucked as a writer. And this is one of the reasons that I rarely submit anything to be published. I’ve never submitted to journals, never submitted to contests. And yet this year I submitted four things to four different places—a story to an anthology, a story pitch to Porchlight, a submission for application to Squaw and a book review to the Chronicle—and all four were accepted. And yet what really sticks in my mind is the book proposal I submitted LAST year that was rejected by two agents (the third said, “I’m interested. Send me the next draft when it’s done,” which it still haven’t done.)

If you’re still reading (wow!), you get the idea. My filter says I’m not a good creative writer, and that is the belief driving my actions, giving me insomnia and heartburn, preventing me from ever finishing this book. And now I just have to figure out how to change that belief. Just do it is what Martha says. Just like Nike. Just do it. I hope that’s as easy as it sounds.


1 Comment

Filed under Writing

One response to “My Survival Strategies Are Killing Me

  1. I read this whole post. I couldn’t stop reading your chapters. You did well in your MFA. But, the biggest approval has to come from within you.
    Happy writing.

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