“Who do you think you are?”
“You’re not really a writer – why not just be a reader and be happy with that?”
“Does the world really need another mediocre poem or story?”
“This sucks! Who’s even going to read it – why bother?”
I Have a Troll Problem
My friend Max is a nasty piece of work.
He says things to me that other people would never say. He always knows exactly what buttons to push and how to make me feel horrible about myself.
If I listen to Max, I stop writing.
But here’s the thing: Max isn’t real – he’s just the troll in my head.
For years though, I listened to this voice as though he was real, and as though he told the absolute, verifiable truth.
(Yes, the voice is a “he” – internalized patriarchy much? Anyone else have a male internal editor or is it just me?)
I was talking to my friend Kim recently about the struggles writers face to finish writing their books and she talked about constantly doing battle with herself to finish a writing project. She said she was always fighting the troll in her head.
And I immediately recognized Max.
Years ago, I was working with a coach to help me overcome that same battle and my coach suggested that I externalize the voice and give it a name. And that’s how Max was born – you can see him in the picture above.
(For the record, I do know that this stuffed creature is actually the Wild Thing from Where the Wild Things Are and it was the little boy in that Maurice Sendak book whose name was Max. But hey, he’s my little internal bit of nastiness and I can call him what I like.)
This trick has helped me immeasurably over the years. When I sit down to write, I prop Max up nearby. Then I tell him to just sit there and shut up for an hour or so and I’ll come talk to him later because right now, I’m writing.
And this bit of nonsense really works for me to help fight the troll that lives in my head.
Do you know that Norwegian fairy tale, the Three Billy Goats Gruff? My grandmother used to tell me that one when I was a little girl and I was terrified of the idea of an ugly troll living under a bridge, waiting to pounce and eat you alive. (I still feel creeped out by the dark underside of bridges. Thanks, Nan!)
And yet I’ve had my own troll living in my head all these years, telling me not to bother even trying to become a better writer, that I was going to fail anyway and had better not waste my time.
Does that voice sound at all familiar? Congratulations, sister – you’ve got a troll living under your bridge too. Time to send him packing!
But exactly how to do just that?
In my desperation to quiet this voice over the years, I have read everything I can possibly get my hands on about the science of creativity and the conditions that allow writers and other artists to create with ease.
Recently I’ve been developing a special programme called First Book Finish, which is targeted at helping women writers finish writing the books they’ve started and in the course I’ve gone deep into the science, tools and techniques that I’ve learned and tried successfully myself over the years.
So here are a few quick ways I recommend for you and your troll based on both the science and my own experience:
Embrace a growth mindset.
This tip is based on the work of researcher Dr. Carol Dweck, who literally wrote the book on this based on her research at Stanford University. When we have a growth mindset, we hold a basic underlying belief that our learning, skills and intelligence can grow with time and experience.
When we believe we can get smarter, we realize that our effort has an effect on our success, so we’re happy to put in the necessary time, which naturally leads us to the success we’d hoped for – or at least much more success than we’d get if we just gave up without trying.
So fine: let your troll tell you that your writing isn’t any good. And then you tell your troll that this is completely okay with you because you’re going to keep working at it so you can get better over time.
You might think of your writing group as just a set of transactional relationships – they critique your work, and you critique theirs. But science is reminding us exactly how social human animals really are and how integral a sense of community is to our well-being.
It’s no different for writers. We write alone a lot of the time, but that doesn’t mean that we have to feel alone. We can join writing groups (or create our own), attend literary readings around town to connect with other writers, or even join a meet-up where writers gather to do an hour of writing together each week.
As we connect with each other, we understand how all writers face essentially the same set of issues. However you manage to create a writing community for yourself, you use it to help you feel less anxious about the whole creative process.
Set-Up Accountability Structures
This tip comes from the social science related to so-called “high performance” or how people achieve their goals. The basic idea is that telling someone about your writing goals helps you to achieve them.
What I find funny about the idea of accountability is that we instinctively know it works in other areas of our lives – we’ll arrange to meet a friend for a walk knowing we’re more likely to do it, we’ll join formal programmes and groups to help us lose weight or stop smoking with other people – but we rarely use it as part of our creative practice. But why not? If it can work to help people stop smoking, it can work to help you write 7 more pages this week.
Give this a try and see how it feels. The trick is to find loving accountability: someone who cares about you and your goals enough to hear your challenges while continuing to also hold you to the promises you’ve made to yourself.
Get Your Own Troll Doll
Okay, I confess I can’t actually find any science to back me up on this one. But externalizing the critical voice of the troll in my head has 100% worked for me and so I offer it to you as something else you can try when you’re struggling.
Find the troll or monster doll that best represents the physical presence of all the horrible, mean things you say to yourself about your writing and use it as a prop to hold your fears while you get busy writing. I keep mine perched on a shelf near my writing desk but you could muzzle or gag yours, or stick them in a box if you like: whatever makes your writer heart happiest as you take your revenge.
Try giving it a name. (C’mon, you know you want one of these now.)
I’d love to hear how your internal voice manifests itself around your writing and if the troll analogy makes sense to you. Come join me over on my Facebook page tomorrow (Friday, May 3rd) LIVE at 5pm Eastern and we’ll talk about our personal writing trolls and how we can shut them up for good.
DEATH TO THE TROLLS!