Identity Bites: When You Hate Yourself For Being A Writer

Anything can trigger thoughts like this.

Perhaps you’ve been having an unproductive morning (or day, or several days).

Or perhaps you read a story that’s been published in a reputed journal or that’s won some major award, and you think “I wish I could write like that” or, worse, “I can write like that too. Why does he/she get published and I don’t?”

Or perhaps you’ve been reading some fabulous work of literary fiction and oohing and aahing over sentences that seem to have been crafted by magic, and you’re suddenly reminded of the draft you’re working on right now and how paltry it seems in comparison.

And then, before you know it, it starts.

You look around you, at the books in your room. All the writers you admire, whose craft you try to model your own on. Great writers, all of them, with decorated careers. They’re the movers and shakers of the literary world. Theirs are the names mentioned in hushed voices by the intelligentsia. They made it, and now they’ll be remembered by generations to come. Who are you to presume to stand in such exalted company?

Or you start thinking about other people in your life – the non-writers. They have regular lives, with work and hobbies and family and friends. They have their share of problems, sure, but they don’t have to deal with this crippling self-hatred. They don’t have to look at their work every day and question the premises of their decision to take up that work as a profession. They don’t have to worry about whether or not their art has meaning. Heck, they don’t have to care about art at all except in passing. Unlike you. You care, because you have to care. Desperately.

And if you start thinking both trains of thought in parallel (as I do all too often), they’ll collide to form one hell of an explosion.

Why did you have to want to write? Why couldn’t you have been satisfied with some nice safe salaried career? Why did you have to pick a life where there are so many others ahead of you already? Why are you like this?????

And the aftermath of that explosion is your battered, anguished, inconsolable mind.

Now it’s very easy to say ‘then don’t think like that’. If only we could execute things by the simple act of mentioning them, life would be so much easier. Alas, we must learn things the hard way here as in all spheres of life.

So how do you overcome this identity crisis soon enough and completely enough to move on?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I believe in the importance of riding out your negative feelings. To immediately try and think of solutions or force yourself to ‘be positive’ is to deny yourself the chance to understand the exact length and breadth of what you’re going through – which in turn will make it harder to think of concrete solutions rather than general feel-good fixes. Instead, take some time out, go to a quiet place, make yourself comfortable and feel. Switch all judgement off and allow yourself to feel as low and negative as you want. Tell yourself that you’ll never be a writer, dwell on missed opportunities or bad experiences in your past, write “I hate myself” over and over on a piece of paper – do whatever you want to do, as long as it’s not dangerous (and by dangerous I mean anything upwards of binge-eating).

But here’s the trick – allow yourself only a fixed amount of time to be negative. It could be half an hour, it could be one hour, it could be two hours, that depends on you. But you’re only allowed to feel your feelings for that specific interval of time. Not one second more.

Once you’ve ridden out your designated ‘negative time’, you’ll feel calmer, if not exactly better. And now’s the time to think of the way forward. Yes, the life of a writer is hard. But since you’ve chosen this life for yourself, why not spend less time wishing you hadn’t and more time making the most of it? Chances are there used to be a time when you’d long with all your heart for the opportunity to write fiction. Well, you have that now. You’re following your passion, just like you promised yourself you would. You’re a writer – a writer of fiction, potentially a very good one. You’ve started out on a tremendously exciting new journey because you were brave enough and passionate enough to do so. That’s something to be proud of, not grumble about. Plus, all those great writers you admire? They started out just like you did – nervous, unschooled and unsure of their own abilities. They weren’t born with Nobel Prizes to their names. Why fret over the selves they became after years and years of hard work when you could be putting in those years towards your own writing?

It’s the same for me. I only recently started writing fiction full-time after three years of dabbling with a business career. On paper it’s my dream, but in reality I have those self-hatred moments as often as anyone. It’s so important to keep reminding myself to be grateful for this chance I’ve been given. Yes, gratitude is infinitely easier to talk about than to practise, but as my boyfriend says, it’s when it’s the hardest that it’s the most important. So I do it, imperfectly and with gnashed teeth, but I do it. I work on myself until I can feel grateful and positive again. And then I get back to writing the hopeful, amateurish prose that might someday be polished enough to get me that recognition I want. But it’s a long way till there, as it is for everyone. The trick is to learn, over time, how to enjoy the journey. Preachy much? Unfortunately the sermons do often get it right. I used to think all this gratitude and keep-going business was hot air, but I learnt the hard way that that’s really the only sustainable way to live. The life of a writer is a tough one, an uncertain one. What you need more than anything else is conviction, and that won’t come from hating yourself for being a writer.

(Oh, and all those books about self-hatred being a crucial part of understanding yourself? Read them for interest and for picking up craft tips, but do not be swayed by their precepts. There’s some very depressing literature out there, written by very troubled young people living through times of enormous upheaval, and at a certain stage those seem like Bibles to swear by, but don’t. Just, don’t. Self-hatred is perhaps the least poetic thing in the world. Believe me – I went through two years of it myself, and I do not wish to ever go back again.)

One of the opposites of self-hatred is self-love, and there are as many ways to practise it as there are people on this planet. I could write a post about it later, but for now I’d like to hear your take on it. Do you take lengthy bubble baths? Do you eat an entire tub of ice-cream? Do you volunteer at cat rescue shelters? Drop a comment below.

Dealing With Unproductive Days

You’ve been staring at the laptop screen or notebook for what seems like ages, downed umpteen cups of coffee, checked your Instagram every five milliseconds and somehow ended up watching funny animal videos for sixty-seven minutes straight. Unproductivity has many shapes and forms, but for most of us it’s a guilt-inducer. And while we do try and guard against it as much as possible, sometimes the very act of squeezing productivity out of ourselves leads to less work done.

We’ve all had days like these, and we’d all love to be handed the key to permanently warding them off. There’s no such key, I’m afraid, but there are ways to pick oneself up and keep going despite having had such days. (And believe me, I’ve had a colossal number of them).

The first thing we need to understand is what goes into an ‘unproductivity fit’, so to speak.

There are two aspects to it. First, there’s the fact of being unproductive itself. You were supposed to get work done, you didn’t. There were goals you had set, which you didn’t meet. Time that could have been spent on useful pursuits got wasted because you weren’t focused enough. That’s the ‘material loss’ aspect.

The second aspect is the guilt spiral that kicks in. You didn’t work today. And you didn’t work yesterday either. Look around you, everyone else is working. They’ll go on to accomplish things. You won’t. You’ll just stay at the bottom like the sad sack you are. You’re ruining your own life. You’re no good and you never were any good. You don’t deserve for anything good to happen to you. You’re a failure. You suck.

If you ask me, it’s hard to pick which is worse. And unfortunately they always seem to come together. (As if one negative emotion weren’t bad enough to deal with.)

And if you’re a writer, that’s not where the story ends.

You see, the writer’s psyche is a complicated one. We’re high-strung folks. We’re prone to fits of negative emotion. We’re always on the lookout, consciously or not, for opportunities to shove work aside and hate ourselves instead. It sounds melodramatic, but then we are melodramatic. It appears to be the nature of the beast – if you want to create art, you need to be at least partially a mess. And then there’s the other bitter pill to swallow, which is that creativity simply can’t be forced sometimes. Even when we try and block out distractions, even when we divert our mind to other activities in the hope of breaking out of creative lethargy, it doesn’t always work. “If you don’t succeed once, keep trying” doesn’t necessarily work. We’re forced to deal with the fact that our creativity – our lifeblood – can and does often fail us. And when it fails us, we’re left with a void – a void of black despair about what we’re doing with our lives and why we’re so unlucky. So while non-creatives might recover quickly from having been unproductive, we writers are likelier to take a big hit to our mental health, one that leaves long-lasting after-effects.

In short, we need to take extra care to keep the negativity of not having been productive within manageable limits.

So how do you do that?

The first step is to define what ‘manageable’ means to you. Are you fine with grumbling for half a day and then spending the last hour or so watching Netflix because it’s too late to start anything new? Okay. Are you more the sort who’d cry furiously for an hour, take a hot bath, make some coffee and then restart? That’s okay too. There’s no right or wrong way to cope with feelings. What’s important is to do the coping and allow them the leeway they need to wear themselves out. So whether you’ve given yourself half an hour or half a day, make the most of it and lament your heart out.

After a point, you’ll find that you’re tired. Those feelings have taken a lot out of you. Now’s the time to relax, get yourself a nice hot drink and think – calmly, without stressing – of things you can do to salvage the day. Maybe there isn’t enough time left to work in earnest on a project (or maybe you’re just not in the mental space for it) but can you write some notes for a project? Can you read a couple of short stories? Can you freewrite for one or two pages? Can you look up some magazines you can submit your work to? Anything that counts as progress towards your writing goals, counts as being productive. And maybe, if you’re up for taking a crack at your writing regardless of how much time is left, you could end up surprising yourself. Maybe, fuelled by the guilt of not doing anything all day, you could produce some fine writing in that half-hour before bed. And even if you produce only average writing, it still counts. It’s still work that would not have happened if you hadn’t pushed yourself. It’s something positive you did, and you should feel proud of yourself for it.

And if you do try salvaging the day and it still doesn’t work, take a step back and have another look at your feelings. Maybe there’s something more serious on your mind that isn’t letting you relax? Maybe you’ve been stressed for a long time and it’s all coming out now? If that’s the case, it’s healthier to lose one workday and let yourself feel and recover as you need to. Consider it an investment in all the days to follow – if you’ve given your stress centre-stage today, chances are you won’t need to give it a role at all tomorrow.

Ultimately, everyone has unproductive days even when they try to avoid against them. The trick is not to wish that they won’t happen but to be prepared for dealing with them when they happen. Know when to give yourself leeway to feel all day, and know when to push yourself harder and get down to work despite not feeling your best. The more such days you go through, the better attuned you’ll be to your needs, and the less risk you’ll run of succumbing to the allures of cat videos when there’s a great story to be written.

Staying Productive: Things To Do When You’re Not Writing

Here’s a truth many of us find it hard to swallow (as I did for the longest time).

We can’t devote our lives to the sole pursuit of writing literary fiction.

Now when I say this, I don’t mean that writing literary fiction is not a feasible goal. It’s a hugely feasible goal. And it deserves a lot of your time, and it can and should be your top priority if you want to make a name as a writer. What I’m saying is, you need something else to turn to during the day – something that isn’t Netflix, Instagram scrolling or complaining to your friend/parent/partner about how the world doesn’t get you. For some, this could be your day job or other source of income. For others, this could be a secondary hobby that you pursue regularly and that feels rewarding. And in fact, I’d recommend having a hobby or hustle in addition to your income stream, simply because it’s healthy to have productive recreation in your daily life.

I used to be in corporate before I transitioned into freelance writing. To put it mildly, the corporate world didn’t work out for me. I did want to keep making money, though, so I donned the entrepreneurial hat and started building a freelance business. I did well for a while, but it still wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life. My chance to write fiction full-time came along a little later (courtesy my wonderfully supportive and generous boyfriend), and I’m currently making the most of that chance along with a little freelancing here and there. And for my own productive recreation I have two main activities – cooking and painting.

My fondness for cooking stemmed from my sojourn in Vienna as an exchange student, when eating out was too expensive and there were three grocery stores within walking distance of my student accommodation. After a quick bagel-and-cheese for breakfast and a cold sandwich bought at the campus cafe for lunch, I’d look forward to a hot, hearty dinner to warm me through the cold Vienna nights (in addition to several gallons of coffee). Sure, they were pretty much all of the pasta variety, but I found several different ways of jazzing up the humble spaghetti (hummus sauce with chicken and kale, anyone?) without spending a fortune, and had a ton of fun in the process. The next few years involved cooking occasionally, but I never really got back to experimenting with it until the Covid-19 lockdown. I had a partner to cook for (which is always a motivation) and a new healthy diet to follow, which spurred me on to create delicious balanced meals that combined both Indian recipes and international influences. We make sure to cook our own meals as much as possible, and it’s done wonders for our tummies (and our takeout bills).

The painting happened entirely by chance. We were looking to repurpose some Amazon boxes into bookshelves rather than buying new shelves, and I thought of buying some paint and decorating the boxes to make them look nicer. Somehow, I found myself enjoying the feel of a brush in my hand more than I’d imagined. So I bought some canvases and art supplies and voila! I was creating abstract art as though I’d been doing it all my life! I watched some YouTube videos for inspiration, but mostly I let my natural feel for colour, design and symmetry take over. I’m currently working on both small and large abstract paintings with different colour combinations. I’m taking it quite seriously, in fact, to the extent of planning to get prints of my nicer paintings and sell them online. Do I aim to be the next Picasso? Probably not. But it’s a pastime that keeps me positively and artistically engaged and I love it.

If you aren’t sure what to pick as your form of productive recreation, ask yourself – what’s something you enjoy doing enough to devote a couple hours to every day? It could be painting or drawing. It could be quilting. It could be dancing (I’d certainly love to do more of that). It could even be making travel plans for when this pandemic goes away. Anything that has a concrete outcome and keeps you happy is valid here.

And if you’re thinking ‘I don’t have enough time for that’? One thing I’ve learnt the hard way is that there’s always something else you can be doing with the time you can’t write/don’t feel like writing. Even if it’s something as simple as taking a walk, that’s twenty extra minutes of exercise you got in. To be clear, I don’t advocate working all the time – we need our rest too, and lots of it (doesn’t it feel sometimes like our very identities as writers are the most crushing burden?). But if we weigh up the hours we’re not working with the hours we’re actually resting, chances are there’s plenty of wasted time left over. And if we can divert at least some of that time towards picking up a new skill or practising a skill we already have, we’re creating a happier and more rounded life for ourselves – which will make us better writers too.

When You Feel Creative But You Can’t Write

There’s a certain kind of mood that’s hard to understand. You feel calm, healthy, at peace. Your mind is alert and you’re eager to write.

Except when you open one – or three – of your projects, you can’t come up with anything.

Writer’s block is one thing. It’s when your mind feels unable to come up with or process ideas.

This is – well, let’s call it writer’s lethargy?

It’s weird, I know. But it happens to all of us. And quite often, we mistake it for writer’s block and give up, when it’s actually something that requires a totally different approach to fix.

So how does one come out of writer’s lethargy? What you should try to do is keep your mind moving until it’s ready to be creative. And by that I mean take up an alternative writing activity – such as journalling or blogging – until you can feel your mental juices flowing one way or the other. What you shouldn’t do at any cost is give up. It isn’t writer’s block yet, and it may not be. Continuing to write is essential to bringing yourself out of the lethargy and into action. Which is why, if you were wondering, it’s best not to break away and do something else like read a book or take a walk. Those are great when you’ve hit a block and your mind needs some refreshment – with writer’s lethargy, what you need is not so much refreshment as it is a healthy push in the direction of actual writing.

I personally rely on four activities when I find myself in writer’s lethargy and want to keep writing. I pick whichever one I’m in the mood for and keep going until the actual writing happens or until I decide that I need to try another activity. Bear in mind – there may be some days when none of these work and the writer’s lethargy translates into a writer’s block. That’s perfectly okay, and I’ll be sharing tips on dealing with writer’s block elsewhere. But if you put your mind to one of these four, chances are you’ll get unstuck soon enough and get into the flow. And as a bonus, I’ll talk about a couple more activity ideas at the end that aren’t my own favourites but which could do the trick for you.

Blogging

One of the reasons, in fact, that I started this blog was to have something productive to do when I had writer’s lethargy. I had anyway been toying with the idea of creating a writer’s blog specifically for literary fiction writers, and a severe episode of writer’s lethargy and the self-loathing that followed made me realise that there were hundreds of other writers out there who were possibly going through the very same thing that very same moment. If there’s something close to your heart that you’ve always wanted to write about, or a skill you know enough to teach others about, why not start a blog about it? If lengthy posts aren’t your thing, you can start an Instagram or YouTube channel instead. Just be sure to pick something you know you can stick with.

Copying out handwritten notes

Till about three months ago, I did a lot of freewriting every day. And I still turn to the notebook and pen whenever I want to write out my first thoughts on a project in an unfettered way. I’m flipping through those notebooks now and some of those drafts I wrote are actually pretty decent. So when I’m feeling less than creative, I spend some time typing out those notes onto my computer so that I can expand on them when I want to. It’s an excellent way to get into the zone of that particular project, and more often than not you’ll find yourself continuing well after you’ve copied what you wrote earlier. Related to this is another trick: copy out the last line or two of the last paragraph you wrote on a fresh page, and see where your thoughts take the story.

Making story-related notes, such as worldbuilding

Not all writing needs to be actual ‘writing’. Particularly if your story is set in some alternate reality, you’ll need to do some serious world-building to make your story consistent and believable throughout. Let’s say you’re writing a post-apocalyptic novel where half the world’s population got killed off by a disease. What are the symptoms of that disease? Does everyone catch it regardless of age or gender or ethnicity? What treatments or palliatives exist for it? How has society reorganised itself in the wake of the disease? Who are the rulers now? Who are the underlings? Are there any rebel forces? What are the penalties for going against the rulers? What would a day in the life of an ordinary person in the new regime look like? Ask yourself questions as though you were a reporter in that post-apocalyptic world and make as many notes as possible. You’ll find it much easier to write the actual story later if you don’t have to worry about whether or not people use cars or whether democracy is still a thing.

Journalling

I used to maintain a diary on and off, but it’s only recently that I’ve started journalling as a writer (probs because part of me wants my journals to be discovered, lauded and published after my death like Virginia Woolf). It’s not fancy journalling in the least (I leave that to my boyfriend, whose Evernote entries are works of art), but it’s definitely honest. I write about the plots I’m working on, opinions on stories I’ve read, general observations about the world of writing and so on. I keep the pressure off myself by not bothering too much about prose quality, but I make sure to substantiate any opinion I express so it makes sense when I come back to it later.

Now for a couple of bonus tips.

Freewriting

I used to do a lot of this earlier, but after a while I realised I was just accumulating lines that made no sense whatsoever, and I stopped. However, this can be a great way to clear out your mind first thing in the morning (or whenever you sit down to write), so do give it a try to see if it suits you. I used to do sprints of two types – one where I’d keep writing without stopping for a certain amount of time, such as ten or fifteen minutes, and another where I’d fill up a set number of pages regardless of the time it took (but again without stopping).

Writing book reviews

I’m not too fond of writing book reviews myself, but I can see why a lot of writers swear by this. Organising your thoughts and opinions about what made a book work (or not) is a great writing exercise that can jolt your mind into thinking about how to make your own story work. Start with short, one-paragraph impressions of the books you’re reading and then move into longer reviews. You might even discover a new talent for critical writing in the process!

Which of these worked for you? Which didn’t? Do you have any tips of your own to beat writer’s lethargy? Drop a comment below!

Staying Happy: Love, Lunges And Literary Exploration

Writing can take more out of you than you realise. Not just the writing itself, but all the thinking about it, all the agonising over whether you’re good enough, all the comparison with famous writers and the self-loathing that inevitably follows. It’s exhausting. And it makes it harder than ever to stay positive – which, I’ve learnt the hard way, is the only way one can hope for a sustained writing career.

Sure, we all have our bits of fun throughout the day. A particularly well-brewed coffee, an unexpected plot idea that strikes you while you’re showering, a phone call with your best friend. But those are just spikes of emotion. Being happy is more all-encompassing than that. Happiness transcends what you’re doing (or not doing) and focuses on what you are. Are you emotionally stable on the whole? Do you have more positive thoughts and responses than negative ones? Do you smile/laugh at least once every day? That’s what being happy means, even if your coffee is the crappiest to ever come out of a percolator (though that’s a sore trial, I grant you).

Happiness means different things to different people. But for me the answer’s simple – love is all I need to stay happy. I’m not saying I was unhappy earlier, but my life has changed completely ever since I met my boyfriend. We met and fell in love just before the Covid-19 lockdown began, so we could start living together right from the start. If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is. Being surrounded by unconditional, demonstrative love gives me a sense of security, comfort and optimism like nothing I’ve ever experienced. As if that weren’t wonderful enough, he understands my love for writing like no one else, and that’s because he used to be a writer himself. He’s shelved his prose for now, but he’s still being the most supportive partner in every way, from recommending new books to critiquing my writing to sharing his own experiences as a novelist. (He still has his drafts, and I’m strongly tempted to steal them and get them published on his behalf, because he’s amazing and deserves to have his name out there, but that’s a story for another day.)

Under his guidance I’ve also taken up something I never thought I would – exercise! From five minutes of ineffectual hopping about and frantically invoking every deity’s name, I’ve worked my way up to about one hour of strength training every day. I’m still not perfect, and I do pause in between to catch my breath or correct my form, but I already feel so much healthier and fitter. Plus, exercise has given my routine what it sorely needed – a fixed point. Now that I know I have to exercise every morning after tea and before breakfast, I plan out my time so that I can read awhile and get some cuddles in before the weights and yoga mats come out. I’m trying to extend this discipline to the rest of my day as well for max productivity. Oh, and guess what – all those things they say about exercise making you happier? They’re all true. There’s absolutely nothing like a good workout to drive away the morning blues and get you raring for the day ahead.

And to keep the literary soul in me happy even on the days I can’t write a line, I feed it with an omnivorous diet of reading material. I know I’m supposed to be a discerning reader in order to write better (my boyfriend certainly thinks so), but reading for me has always been about joy and I just don’t want to take that away from myself. I used to read multiple novels at a time, but lately I’ve been more about focusing on one book. We have a glorious library set up at home (more on that in a later post), and it’s so satisfying to be able to browse through the shelves and pick a book and know it’ll be good (we’re both highly particular about the books we buy, mostly literary fiction). And the act of reading itself can spark a whole new set of ideas – some of which might form themselves into good stories when I work on them.

I run the risk of sounding preachy by saying this, but being happy really is about what you have already and what you make of it. I can choose to be unhappy that I started my writing career so late and am nowhere near close to being published even in minor forums – or I can choose to be happy that I am a writer at all and that I have the perfect set of conditions to become a better writer in. Yes, it isn’t always easy to remind myself of this, and more than once I have spiralled into a place of gloom from which escape seems impossible. But on more days than not, love keeps me going strong regardless of what my productivity is. And when that’s not enough, there’s lunges. And when that’s not enough, there’s literary exploration.

And if none of them seem to be working, I order the flat white from my favourite cafe.