My first published novel came out a year ago, and I went on a full-time marketing spree. It was exhilarating – at first. I had readers! Great reviews! Sales! I received emails, letters and phone calls from strangers thanking me for such a heart-warming story! I loved it – for about six months. But two things started to bring me down.
The first was the escalating need for more, more, more – more praise, more reviews, more sales. If I received one call in the morning, I hoped for another at night. I checked my amazon rankings compulsively. I thought about new marketing strategies constantly. It was like a feeding frenzy – and I was insatiable.
The second was simple: I missed writing. Instead of walking around in the companionship of characters living in their alternate universe, I was bereft of new fictional ideas, because I was obsessed with plotting marketing ploys. I’d sit down to write fiction and write another press release instead. As much as I loved being in print, I felt I’d lost my concentration – and maybe even my creative soul. I wondered if I’d ever write again.
I was lost in self-doubt bordering on self-pity and aimlessly (so it seemed) surfing the net, when I came across a link to The Power of Deliberate Thinking at Literary Living.com. The subtitle read: 5 Strategies for Staying at the Writing Desk (Despite Your Self Doubts). I knew it was for me. I downloaded this free, 40-page book and read it as if I were drinking water after a long drought.
Written by Joan Dempsey as a prelude to a 12-week on-line course she developed, The Power of Deliberate Thinking was all I needed to be reminded that self-doubt is normal – and even highly accomplished and widely published authors regularly experience it. I was also heartened to read that there’s a reason for self-doubt – and ways to overcome it. According to Dempsey, self-doubt serves to make us feel okay about ourselves and our writing. Self-doubt protects us from feeling bad when our writing falls short of our expectations (we knew we weren’t any good to begin with) and helps us feel good about our writing when we write well (I’m a pretty good writer after all!). Self-doubt also keeps us at either end of a spectrum where we’re either not good enough or we’re better than average. The key to writing consistently lies in between these two extremes.
I read all five strategies as soon as I downloaded the book, and I set right to work, doing the exercises. The exercises gave me something to write – and thereby helped me reestablish my practice of sitting and regaining my concentration. They also helped me understand my self-defeating behaviors better – and gave me tools to change that behavior.
Of the five tools, it was the second strategy, “Awareness in the Moment,” that helped me most, and I started a daily practice that eased me back to sitting at my desk, focusing on my fiction, and writing again. “Awareness in the Moment” advocates a four-part method for regaining concentration: Narrate, Acknowledge, Meditate, and Single-Task.
I’ve always practiced writing meditation as a way of stilling my mind, so having permission, as it were, to sit down and write down what it took to get me to my desk that particular morning was second nature. Nevertheless, it felt wonderful to have “permission” to do so. Once I narrated how I arrived, I acknowledged all my fears and distractions – from not being able to control the complexity of my current project to the need to defrost something for dinner, schedule a mammogram and bring in firewood. By committing these distractions to paper, I tamed them – and was then ready to sit in silence for a few moments, listening for the voice that informs my fiction. Once I hear it, I then committed to nothing else – no emails, no internet, no phone calls, no listing “things to be done” later in the day. I just wrote.
At first, I single-tasked for ten minutes. It was enough. As I practiced, I wrote longer. Eventually, I spent less time narrating the complexity of overcoming self-doubt and spent more time writing fiction. Now that I’m happily writing again – engrossed in my new novel – I sometimes forget to stymie myself with self-doubt.
And Into the Wilderness, the novel that came out last year? Satisfied readers recommend it to others, and it’s selling itself, now. This is tremendous affirmation that what really matters is not the marketing; it’s the writing that counts.
Deborah Lee Luskin is an essayist, educator and novelist, who lives and writes in southern Vermont.