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  • Writer's pictureTessa Floreano

Self-compassion for writers

Rain cloud watering a plant so it can bloom
Self-compassion is tender-loving care of you, the writer

When battling procrastination, many writers go straight for the jugular. That is, we fall deep into the well of shame, inadequacy, and powerlessness. Sometimes, we stay there a long time. This default behavior will not help us meet our writing goals and publishing deadlines.

In this post, I thought I would explore how I learned to practice self-compassion, and maybe through my lessons learned and techniques I've explored, you'll find a nugget or two you can use to incorporate it into your own writing life.

I've often said I was born with productivity in my DNA, in my blood (see my post on Reveling in mental flâneurie). It's been hard to detach my being from my doing, especially when it comes to my creative writing. Creative writing is so personal, so raw, so me. Yes, even though I mostly write fiction. When writing for hire, it's understood you have to follow a company's style guide, and if they have editors, your work might just come back with red ink all over it. That's expected. They want you to and are paying you to write in their voice.

Somehow my brain accepts that fact and I have all sorts of compassion for myself when my words come back crossed out and lots of red words inserted over the original black. My brain also manages to trick my fingers into producing output on a deadline. But my brain doesn't feel the same way about producing words for my own creative projects in a timely fashion. My perfectionism goes into overdrive and my productivity slows. My censor criticizes and my pen stops flowing and my keyboard feels broke. My credibility comes under attack by my fearmongers — those debilitating thoughts that chip away at my discipline day after day.

What to do?

In her article, Why Women Need Fierce Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff, Ph.D., associate professor in human development and culture at the University of Texas, encourages us to practice fierce self-compassion. Dr. Neff has three core components to her work on self-compassion, one of which is split in two with a yin and yang version. She says, "Yin self-compassion is a loving, connected presence that we can tap into to replace self-judgment with self-acceptance. Yang self-compassion shows up as fierce, empowered truth that allows us to actively cope with life's challenges."

How often have I slid into judging my decreasing productivity without giving myself a time-out and asking why I am procrastinating. By asking a series of questions, I slowly get to the root of my obstacle. Why was I tempted not to write much or not at all today? What was my body feeling because of the lack of the act? Did I think to journal about why I didn't focus on my work-in-progress? Those questions are just a few places to start pulling back the curtain to form a better understanding of what's happening mentally, emotionally, and physically that is preventing me from my writing progress. Writing out and looking at and sitting with those answers is a radical act.

One way tool I use for writing out and through how I'm feeling is The Positive Planner. I don't journal everyday, but when I do, I use this happy planner to jot down reflections, moments of gratitude and bliss, new intentions, and future goals — many geared toward breaking through blocks and procrastination.

Charlotte Lieberman of the New York Times goes even further to decipher procrastination in her article, Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control). She wants us to re-frame the task by considering a positive aspect of it. If that task is writing, then I might remind myself how many times I pushed through my fear, my self-doubt, my panic, and wrote past it all. I tell myself even getting a few words on the page is better than none. Remember when I ... <fill in with details about a time I finished X story>? Or how about imagining what others will say or how I'll feel when I've finished such-and-such project? These questions and happy remembrances are life-affirming and help quash the panic of not writing.

You wouldn't think that a focus on what other people might say about your finished work would be the best motivator. It might not be for you, but it may be for others. If that doesn't work for you, sitting quietly for a moment and experiencing how a good day of writing might feel is a better motivator. Do your fingers or toes tingle? Do you feel a surge of energy run up your spine? Does your heart spike with expectation? These are physical body indicators you can use to propel you onward. Emotional energy is neutral. It's the physiological reaction that makes a specific emotion positive or negative. Positive motivation leads to positive action. That's the Yang part of self-compassion that Dr. Neff talks about. The Yin is there, too—a tender guiding hand.

I'm also a big fan of Morning Pages, courtesy of Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way. A daily practice of three pages of words written by hand. Nothing fancy. Just stream of consciousness stuff is fine. I liken them to an ice breaker for my day of writing. Between getting those three pages done and some journaling under my belt, I'm usually pretty warmed up for a good day of writing. If Morning Pages don't happen, often the journaling doesn't either so I make it a habit to have both a lined notebook and my journal in front of my keyboard every morning.

In sight, in mind rather than out of sight, out of mind. Kind of tricks the ego into thinking I'm going to write fluffy stuff rather than the important, hard stuff so go ahead, they nudge. We won't hurt. By finding my voice on blank pages that, when filled, are only meant to be seen by me is quite freeing. Sometimes, when I am able to move straight into my writing project, time flies. That's when I have bypassed the negative mythology I've bought into over the years. A mythology that doesn't embrace a can-do attitude is a mythology I can leave in the dust. Acknowledging it is important though. Denial does you no favors. However, once acknowledged, a mythology doesn't have to be fed or given energy.

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about putting her fear into the car, but in the backseat. It gets to ride in the car. It does not get to tune the radio, give directions, or indulge in snacks. Once fear and procrastination are NOT in the driver's seat, you can move forward—one car length, one lane, one road, one highway at a time. Your muse is calling. Answer it. Let fierce compassion and a stubborn curiosity accompany you on the writer's path.

Accepting an invitation, a call to write, is to be initiated into the writing life. It's humbling to write from your heart and your imagination. It makes me feel quite vulnerable, which in turn, feeds my procrastination beast. The best way to defeat the beast that rears its ugly head again and again is to practice self-compassion. Every day. Baby steps. And don't forget the pats on the back.

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