Every writer has their own “toolbox.”
There are literal tools in it—our favourite pens, notebooks, our laptop (maybe a typewriter, if that’s more your style). But our toolboxes are also filled with strategies, things that motivate us, things that make writing incredible and pleasurable for us.
But there’s one tool many writers forget, or don’t even know they need. Self-compassion.
In today’s episode, host Rhonda Douglas will unpack why self-compassion is important for writers, and how we can expertly wield this tool to our advantage.
As writers, we can be our own harshest critics and most judgemental audience. But that doesn’t mean we have to be mean to ourselves.
[03:30] And it allows us to get that sense of momentum, right? I have 10 scenes to revise, I've revised four of them already, so I can see where I am in my progress.
[04:59] And they see themselves slide down the word count, and they see themselves not meeting their goal, and they beat themselves up so hard for this, so hard.
[06:04] Even when we know it's out of our control, we tend to think things like, “if I was really going to finish this book, it would be finished by now.”
[07:51] And then we notice the thought, and we say, “Whoa, hang on. Whoa, whoa, whoa, stop.”
[10:18] As writers, we're gonna have an incredible amount of setbacks.
[12:42] Other people can say, “Yeah, that happens to me too. Get up and do it again.”
[18:47] ‘Cause in the longer scheme, in the big picture of your writing life, the individual one time session, doesn't matter so much. And one week doesn't matter so much.
Intro: Well, hey there, writer. Welcome to the Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host, Rhonda Douglas, and this is the podcast for writers who want to create and sustain a writing life they love. Because—let's face it—the writing life has its ups and downs, and we wanna not just write, but also to be able to enjoy the process so that we'll spend more time with our butt in chair getting those words on the page. This podcast is for writers who love books, and everything that goes into the making of them. For writers who wanna learn and grow in their craft, and improve their writing skills. Writers who want to finish their books, and get them out into the world so their ideal readers can enjoy them, writers who wanna spend more time in that flow state, writers who want to connect with other writers to celebrate and be in community in this crazy roller coaster ride we call “the writing life.” We are resilient writers. We're writing for the rest of our lives, and we're having a good time doing it. So welcome, writer, I'm so glad you're here. Let's jump right into today's show.
Rhonda: So today is a solo episode just with me, on a topic I wanted to be sure to speak with you about. And, if you hear snoring in the background, that is my cocker spaniel, Mr. Darcy. He's having a particularly good sleep right now, and I don't wanna interrupt him, but just so you know, that could be going on. So, apologies in advance if you're hearing somebody snore in the background. It's not me, I promise. Alright, so let's dive into today's episode. I wanna talk about self-compassion as a tool for living the writing life that you dream of. So, I am a big believer in turning your book—when you're trying to finish a project, whether you're trying to finish a short story, a series of poems, or a novel, a memoir, anything book length—I'm a big proponent of turning it into a project, right?
We're trying to finish something. It doesn't have to take over our whole lives. It can be a project that we're working on for three months, four months, six months, whatever your timeline is, depending on what you're working on. And, so, when I do that, I love to break it down. Set a final deadline for finishing the draft, and then decide how many writing sessions I can get in in a week. How long are those sessions? How much can I write in that time? And then do the math, to see how long it might take me. And in my experience with the First Book Finish program, it's absolutely possible, with two or three really good writing sessions in a week, to finish a draft in three months. And so, the work that we do when folks first come into the program is—part of that work is setting up that project plan and setting a deadline.
And then, the same when we're working on revision, right? We set a deadline and we work backwards to give ourselves the plan. And what's great about that is it also gives us word count targets, kind of for the week, you know? Like, “this week I'm really hoping to get 3000 words,” or “I'm hoping to revise two chapters,” for example, or four scenes, or whatever. And it allows us to get that sense of momentum, right? I have 10 scenes to revise, I've revised four of them already, so I can see where I am in my progress. And there's nothing quite so satisfying as seeing yourself making momentum, seeing yourself rack up a word count. So much fun, like really gives you that extra dopamine hit. That sound was Darcy shaking his ears. He has big long cocker spaniel ears, and he just—they make a noise when he shakes them.
In case you're wondering if that was. Yes, so, super important to have a project plan with a deadline, and then to be able to track our progress towards it. However, another thing that often happens, is writers set that project plan, they set that deadline, and then something will happen, right? So, they plan to write three times, four times, 45 minutes each time this week, and they get sick, or their loved one gets sick and they have to provide care, and take on a little bit more in the week. Or, maybe they deal with a chronic health condition and they have a flare up. And their energy level just isn't what it was. Often what will happen is they'll see that slide. So, they go from, let's say, 3000 words a week, and now they didn't do any words this week. Or, they only did 500 words this week.
And they see themselves slide down the word count, and they see themselves not meeting their goal, and they beat themselves up so hard for this, so hard. Those of you who are recovering perfectionists, you are particularly gonna struggle with this. So you're gonna set yourself a goal, and whenever you fall short of that goal, you are going to be mean to yourself. You're gonna find yourself saying things like, “I knew this was unrealistic. I knew I couldn't do it. I knew I wasn't cut out to be a writer. I knew my life didn't lend itself to being able to finish this book.” And also, you will make it about you. So we never sort of say, “ugh, there's a lot of flu going around this year, and I got the flu, and it really took me out for a week, but I'm back on track now. And I'll catch up.”
That is a logical response, and for most of us, it's not the response that we have. Often we are so, so judgmental about it. Even when we know it's out of our control, we tend to think things like, “if I was really going to finish this book, it would be finished by now.” Or, “the problem is…” And then we tell ourselves a story about how we are the problem. “The problem is, I am so lazy. The problem is, I'm not disciplined enough.” We tell ourselves those stories, we make it about us, we personalize it. Maybe you're just tired, <laugh> maybe you're having a hard day. We all have hard days. So I want to talk about self-compassion, because there is a researcher in the United States. Her name is—I think she's in Texas—her name is Dr. Kristin Neff, and she's literally written the book on self-compassion.
It is called Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, and it is by Dr. Kristin Neff. And this book really shifted things profoundly for me. I was definitely someone who would say nasty things to myself like, you know, “yeah, I knew you couldn't do it. You know, this story's awful. Whoever told you you could write a scene. How can you even call yourself a writer, if you're not writing regularly? You'll never write as well as…” I don't know: Zsuzsi Gartner, my mentor. And so, “why are you even bothering? Everyone knows your work sucks. All the chances that you've had to have your work published, that's just luck. That's never gonna happen again.” I say the meanest things to myself, and it took me a long time to first hear myself being mean to myself.
So that really is the first step. The first thing we have to do, is we have to notice when we're being mean to ourselves, okay? And then we notice the thought, and we say, “whoa, hang on. Whoa, whoa, whoa, stop.” And we just stop the thought. And then replace it with something that's a little kinder, right? “You're tired, you're not gonna be able to write today, you're really tired. Why don't you go to bed early, read a book, and then get up tomorrow 30 minutes early and write that instead. Why don't you give yourself some extra time on the weekend? Why don't you do an at home, do-it-yourself retreat.” If you go to the resources section at resilientwriters.com, I have a free guide on how to create your own do-it-yourself retreat. And it's a tool that I use when I feel that I'm behind, or I wanna get a little bit ahead in my word count.
So, that is the first step. When you find it, you have to begin to notice that actually you're being pretty darn me mean to yourself. And the way to identify that is, would you say that out loud to another living human being? Would you turn to someone else and say—who's trying to finish a short story—and say, “who do you think you are? What made you think that you could be a writer?” No, you would not say that. If you wouldn't say it out loud to somebody else, don't say it to yourself. And, so, Dr. Neff has these sort of, three basic elements of self-compassion that she talks about. And the first one is self-kindness instead of self-judgment. So when you are suffering, when you are experiencing pain, when you are disappointed, when you're feeling regret, when you're sad, you wanna be kind to yourself, and you wanna think about how you would treat anyone else in that situation.
If you're feeling a little bit behind on your writing, maybe you've avoided a writing session or two, and you've just been struggling, and you have been—or maybe you're bringing a lot of extra creative anxiety to the process right now, and it's really standing between you and getting the book done, or getting your work done. How can you exhibit self-kindness? How can you be as kind to yourself as you would to a dear friend? Often the way through is self-compassion. And actually, there's been some interesting studies done, and she mentions in her book—people who are self-compassionate, it's really connected to our ability to be resilient, which is our ability to bounce back from setbacks. And as writers, we're gonna have an incredible amount of setbacks. Not only as we've tried to figure out the best way to express ourselves right now, and maybe the scene isn't working, and we have to come back to it tomorrow, and work on it again, and that's a little frustrating.
But also, maybe we'll be rejected the first time we send out a short story or a poem. Maybe when we go looking for a publisher the book won't be accepted the first time out. Mine certainly wasn't. And so, how do we bring self-kindness to it instead of self-judgment? The second basic element of self-compassion that Dr. Neff talks about is recognizing our common humanity, versus isolation. So, we recognize that what we're experiencing is all part of the shared human experience, and no one is perfect. Again, hard for those of us who are trying to overcome perfectionism. To realize that everyone has a weakness. Everyone has days when they're just not at their best. Everyone works towards a goal and finds themselves tripping every now and again. And the people that actually make progress are able to be kind to themselves, are able to see that everybody struggles, and to get up again and go back at it tomorrow.
What I love, for this, for making sure that I can see that it's not just me, that it's a shared human experience and not feeling isolated, like, that feeling like I'm the only one getting rejected with my work, or I'm the only one who struggles with perfecting dialogue. You know, that kind of thing? Is community. So, whatever you can do to build community, whether it's through something like, a formal community like we have in the Writer's Flow Studio—shout out to all my Writer's Flow Studio peeps—if it is something like that, or if it's a local meetup with other writers, or if it's attending a writing workshop. Whatever you can do to make other friends who are writers, so that you can understand that this is something that happens to everyone. And, you know, when you're in a community, when you have a community, you can say, “ugh, this manuscript is really kicking my ass this week.”
And other people can say, “yeah, that happens to me too. Get up and do it again.” We all have bad—we all have writing sessions that are not as good. We all have writing sessions where we struggle. And so that's critical. That third point—that second point, rather, that she mentions about self-compassion. So, the first one is around self-kindness instead of self-judgment. And the second one is recognizing our common humanity. That these are shared experiences that many people have, and we're not alone. The third basic element of self-compassion is what she calls “mindfulness versus over-identification.” And this is the ability to put our situation into perspective, and not getting swept away by negative thoughts or feelings. This is the ability to recognize that a thought is just that—it is just an impulse, in your brain, something going through your mind, and it will be gone in a few seconds and you will have another one.
I'm gonna have something like 60,000 of them during the day, or more. And they come and they go, and you are not your thoughts. For a long time I thought I was my thoughts, and I thought that every thought I had was true. So that if I thought, “ugh, this scene really sucks,” I thought that was true. And, I would extrapolate that to also mean that I sucked as a writer and, oh yeah, also as a person <laugh>, because I was so identified, right? I was over-identified with that thought. And so mindfulness is that ability to see your thoughts, to be present in the moment, but also to observe your thoughts and to see them as just that. As thoughts, and not as you, the person. You are a person who has thoughts, you are not your thoughts.
And that helps us to not get swept away by the negative feelings. I often tell people in First Book Finish that they will have these moments where they feel like what they wrote this morning was brilliant, and then they'll get up tomorrow and write—and the same passage, they'll think it's awful. And they're wrong both times. They don't have a good grip on their own work at this point. And we never know if the book is any good until we finish it. And there are many stages involved in a book. And, so, even if it's true, and what you wrote this morning isn't that great, oh well. There are many chances for you to improve it, and for you to learn and grow as a writer. And that's what it's all about, right?
So, I think learning to be more compassionate with ourselves, so instead of judging and criticizing ourselves because we feel inadequate, we feel like you know, we're not yet the writer that we want to be, self-compassion means that we are kind and understanding when these things happen.
Because, as Kristin Neff says, “whoever said you were supposed to be perfect?” And for many of us, we've told ourselves that our writing has to be perfect. But what if it doesn't? Can you imagine what it would feel like if your writing didn't have to be perfect, that you weren't trying to always write the perfect sentence, the perfect line, the perfect poem, every single time you sat down to write. And you could understand that writing was an iterative process, where it builds on itself over time. And, can you let yourself imagine how that would be different, how you might shift your thinking to be more compassionate to yourself, with yourself, if you thought of yourself as a learning, growing writer who is getting better the more you write.
So, what if you switch some of your inner dialogue around? So that noticing when you say to yourself, when you begin being mean to yourself, what if you say things to yourself like, “I'm proud of myself for writing today. The most important thing right now is to get the first draft down. I'm gonna edit it later. Progress, not perfection. I'm in this for the long haul. I'm a writer, so I write, everything else is out of my control. If I need to learn more about story structure, I can do that. Right now, I'm just enjoying the draft. People have told me how much they enjoy my writing and I'm gonna believe them,” which is something I say to myself all the time. I think it's really helpful, when you are in the habit of beating yourself up with your own thoughts—as many of us do—to begin to notice that and to begin questioning it and stop punishing yourself for not living up to your ideals all the time.
Recognizing that some of our ideals have been fed to us by the culture, and are not realistic anyway, right? Be like, “write every day, and write 1000 words, 2000 words, several thousand words every day,” is not realistic for most of us. And sometimes writing every week isn't realistic. If you come down with COVID, I hope you're taking care of yourself so that you can bounce back and be more productive next week. And so, just finding a way to release that grip that your thoughts have on you, your negative thoughts have on you. Sometimes when I try to shift my negative thoughts about writing to be more self-compassionate, I can find it difficult. So if I try to go from, “ugh, my writing sucks” to “my writing is brilliant,” it's quite a leap. But if I'm saying to myself, “ugh, I'm no good at writing dialogue,” I can shift it, to, “I'm learning how to write dialogue. I'm committed to getting better at writing dialogue. Right now, I'm just gonna get this draft down. But I know that I'm in this for the long haul and I'm learning and getting better at writing dialogue,” and that feels like a realistic thought to me.
Also, I love the idea of being in it for the long haul. ‘Cuz in the longer scheme, in the big picture of your writing life, the individual one time session, doesn't matter so much. And one week doesn't matter so much. If you look back on it, from a lifetime of writing, of always getting back up and doing it again, of always going back to the desk, of deciding that you are a writer who's learning and growing and in it for the long haul, it's easier to be compassionate with yourself, around your writing, when you think of it from that longer term perspective, and what you will produce over the course of a lifetime as a writer.
But most of all, the practice of becoming more self-compassionate is critical for those of us who are intending to be writing in the long term. We're not just wanting to finish this book, we're wanting to finish many books, right? We wanna finish this one so we can get it done and get it out into the world so we can move on to the next project, and the next. Cuz we have a lot of things we wanna do, a lot of shiny new ideas all the time. And so, being self-compassionate is part of the strategy for how we write for the long term and how we achieve our goals for ourselves and our writing life, and how we have a writing life we love, because who wants to suffer all the time? And if you felt like you were suffering all the time, because every time you sat down to write, you just were saying mean things to yourself all the time, who would want to sit down to write?
It would feel bad. Your brain doesn't want you to do things that feel bad. So practicing self-compassion is important for helping us to realize our writing goals. So I'm just gonna review those three things from Dr. Kristin Neff in her book on self-compassion. And if you like reading this kind of thing, highly recommend getting the book. But those three elements are: shifting to self-kindness and away from self-judgment. Noticing how you talk to yourself, and being as kind to yourself as you would to another person. If you wouldn't say something out loud to someone else, don't say it to yourself in your head. And the second one is noticing and recognizing your common humanity instead of feeling isolated. So recognizing that this is all part of the shared human experience and certainly all part of the shared writing experience. No one is perfect, we're all in this together.
Building a community that can support you and understand you, as you are experiencing these things, is super important as well. And then the third one is fostering mindfulness, instead of over-identifying with negative thoughts, over-investing in those negative thoughts and letting them take over, letting those negative thoughts just be accepted without question as though everything you think is true. So that's what I wanted to talk to you about today. I think that self-compassion—I know that self-compassion is the way to a writing life you love and a way to achieve the writing goals that you have in your life, because self-compassion is a key ingredient in resilience. And resilience is what we're gonna need to keep us writing and producing the work that we're here to produce, telling the stories and writing the poems that only we can write. So I hope this has been helpful to you, and I really appreciate that you're here with me every week, and I will see you this time next week. Take care.
Outro: Thanks so much for hanging out with me today and for listening all the way to the end. I hope you enjoyed today's episode of the Resilient Writers Radio Show. While you're here, I would really appreciate it if you'd consider leaving a rating and review of the show. You can do that in whatever app you're using to listen to the show right now, and it just takes a few minutes. Your ratings and reviews tell the podcast algorithm gods that “yes, this is a great show. Definitely recommend it to other writers.” And that will help us reach new listeners who might need a boost in their writing lives today as well. So please take a moment and leave a review. I'd really appreciate it, and I promise to read every single one. Thank you so much.