Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lies Writers Tell Themselves

I am not a morning person. I loathe getting up early, as in before 10 a.m. For a few years, when my husband and sons went camping for a week each summer, I'd work from noon to four, have lunch/dinner, relax, do chores and errands, see a friend, then work and read again from 10 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., turn in around 3:00 and awaken, refreshed, around 11.

Sadly, this is no way to conduct a responsible adult life when I’m not alone. Instead, I get up every weekday by 6:45. I eat breakfast with my younger child and deliver him to school before 8:00. Then I often go to a breakfast meeting I've willingly scheduled, I sit at my desk and open my computer. I work, I write, I edit, I talk to students or clients.

I pass for normal every morning and function mostly, I'm convinced, because of the lie I tell myself when the alarm first rings, which is this:  I'll just get my son to school, and then I'll come straight home and go right back to sleep. I tell myself this lie nearly every morning. Except for a morning or two each winter when the annual major cold arrives, the lie doesn't become the truth. I know this – that I am not going to come back home and go back to bed – but I persist in telling this to my semi-conscious self in order to make myself get up.

This came up the other day in a conversation with a writer who told me that if it weren't for the lies she told herself on a daily basis, she'd never have gotten her memoir completed (now signed by a small literary press; translation: it will be published though little money will likely ensue). Some of her sillier daily lies went something like this: The house will clean itself. My kids will fondly remember this time as the wonderful year they got to watch endless TV, eat peanut butter sandwiches for dinner, and their silly mother forgot to make them practice piano.

Her more serious daily lie goes like this:  Just go ahead and write whatever you want because no one is ever going to read it anyway.  She tells herself this lie, despite two traditionally published novels, dozens of essays, and a poetry chapbook.  The lie is necessary, she says, because it allows her to be daring on the page and to block out thoughts of what comes after the final draft – agent review, finding a publisher, critics, readers, marketing. Yes, she admits that it's a lie, that deep down, she's fairly confident what she writes will make its way to readers, but if she thought about her words existing anywhere out in the world while she's still at work on early drafts, she'd panic and possibly stop writing.

Driving home from our (yes morning!) coffee chat, I wondered if there were any lies I tell myself while I am writing. One that bounces around my brain when I'm in the first draft of a personal essay is: I'll never be able to finish this in a way that satisfies me. I believe I persist in this particular lie so that I won't skip over the necessary mental (and often emotional) steps involved in writing the all-important middle of the story. Even if I already have a great ending in mind, I am still convinced I'll never get there, and that's a good thing. It means I won't just skate over the middle, never going deep enough.  If I never really believe the end is in sight, I'll spend more time getting that middle right.

Another lie I tell myself is: I have no business writing this; I don't have the skills or experience to tackle it. Why this lie? Because if I feel too confident, if I don't have a simmering case of being a bit of a fraud, then I tend to write too quickly, with less care, and less respect for the particular piece. So I tell myself, You can't write that, and in some counterintuitive way, this keeps me going. Maybe I want to prove myself wrong. Or perhaps a part of me recognizes that one always has to write that very first….book review, scholarly article, prose poem, short story, lyrical essay, something… and so the fear is necessary. Then, while I am scolding myself that I shouldn't be writing the thing I'm currently writing, I can remind myself that in the past I've written many things I had no experience with the first time around either.

I suppose there are other lies I tell myself too, but I can't think of them now. It's 8:15 a.m. and I'm thinking of going back to bed.


Maddy said...

This is so interesting. I heard a whole programme on motivation [in connection with women in business on Woman's Hour radio ] but it's equally applicable to writers, namely, the little voices in our heads which tell us a] we're not good enough and b] who are we kidding.

I also came across some psy stuff for the children about virtuous and vicious circles of thinking which I believe would be just as applicable to us, to somehow negate and cancel out the voice of doubt.

kario said...

I need to get me some of that mojo where I tell myself lies in order to write. Most of my 'writer lies' come in the form of writing avoidance. I love knowing that someone as talented and prolific as you secretly wishes to sleep until nearly noon. Maybe that will be my new mantra: "Lisa would just sit down and write even though she wants to go back to bed." Something left over from boot camp last January, perhaps!