When I was working on my second book, along with 12 short stories I was also creating a fascinating story in my head about all the things standing between me and finally finishing this book.
First of all, I was BUSY, yo! I had a full-time job in the voluntary sector, was in graduate school, and single-parenting a teenager to boot. I felt super defensive about this, but mostly I felt tired. I wanted someone to hug me and tell me that everything was going to be okay and it would all get done.
Everything was eventually okay, but of course it never did “all” get done and it still isn’t “all” done.
I am a human with unrealistic expectations about how many tasks can reasonably be sandwiched between dawn and dusk — it will never all be done and I’ve come to accept that.
This ongoing acceptance comes with a certain number of dirty dishes left on the counter while I get my writing sessions in for the week.
But the book did get finished, and my writing still does get done.
I could tell you a dozen tiny practical little steps I took to finish the book. (Such as rewriting a dozen stories, just for starters!)
But in the end what really happened was that I figured out how to get out of my own way.
If you’re wondering how to move past some of the writing blocks or creative resistance you may experience as you try to finish up your book, here’s my best advice for how to get out of your own way.
Learn to Embrace Optimal Over Perfect
Ben-Shahar works in the field of positive psychology and he contrasts Perfectionism with something he calls Optimalism. I’ll leave you to dive into his work more deeply for yourself, but I think it is helpful to ask ourselves what an “optimal” writing life looks like, rather than setting ourselves up for failure with very high standards.
The definition of optimal is essentially doing your best in your current circumstances, with a healthy dose of self-compassion on the side. Doesn’t that sound soooo much better than pushing to perfection?
My shoulders relax just taking in that definition: doing your best within your current circumstances.
If you entered 2021 with a whole looong list of writing resolutions, can you review that list to ask yourself what optimal might look like?
I used to think that having compassion for myself and not over-striving with my goals was settling for a mediocre life. I used to also get stomach ulcers, lose sleep at night and go months without writing. I like my optimal life much better than my trying-so-damn-hard-to-always-be-perfect life.
Learning to overcome my perfectionist tendencies has been a long road for me, I admit — and I’m still in recovery. But I’m also enjoying the process!
The more I can accept reality and have some self-compassion for my failures, the easier it is to embrace the joy in my writing life and (paradoxically) be more productive. Weird how that works, eh? 😉
Know You Will Never Be Ready
If you find yourself, consciously or unconsciously, telling yourself: “I’m just not ready to finish my book and get it out into the world. I need to learn more, read more, take more classes, talk to more writer friends. I’M NOT READY!”
Hear me out on this: what if it’s true that…
No one’s ever ready. It’s true that having a good start can help, but what’s a good start? An idea and some pages: this is all any writer has when they start a book.
Thinking that you have to achieve the magical sparkling unicorn state of “ready” could just be your perfectionism talking — and perfectionism is the enemy of art.
No one’s ever ready: what if you dove in anyway? (What’s the worst that could happen? You wake up a few months from now having written 100 more pages than you have now?)
I needed to acknowledge this for myself because my greatest fear was that the rest of the world would see I wasn’t ready and judge me harshly for it. Discovering that even my most accomplished and awarded writer friends nearly always felt that they too weren’t ready — even AFTER they’d published the books! — was (and still is) a source of deep and abiding relief to me.
No one’s ever ready. You won’t ever feel ready either, so you may as well join the rest of us out here, writing away and giving our creative dreams a shot in spite of it.
Science is continually 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.
My second book was birthed in community, as so many books are. The writers in my fiction group (#shoutout!) gave each of those stories their loving attention and helped me make them as strong as they could be.
And recently, I spent 2020 writing in community with the writers in The Writer’s Flow Studio and my First Book Finish program. I am incredibly proud of those women for the way they continued to show up for themselves and one another despite the infested rat’s nest that was 2020.
Community motivates, encourages and keeps us going on the days we’d probably convince ourselves to quit if we were left all alone with the voices in our heads.
The other role of community for writers is related to accountability. There’s a lot of scholarship that 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 accountability 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.
How to Get Out of Your Own Way
All the time I’d been thinking that the trick to becoming a better writer lay in learning more about craft, but the truth was that until I fixed my mindset around my writing, I wasn’t able to make any consistent progress.
This left me with a half-written book of short stories, a half-finished book of poems and an abandoned start (120 pages worth!) of a novel. I could start lots of new projects, but I couldn’t finish anything until I learned how to manage my thought process around creation.
I had to get out of my own way.
And if you struggle with being consistent enough in your writing to actually finish the work you start, then I want to recommend you do two things to help you get out of your own way as well:
- First, commit to finishing. Decide right this very minute that you will do whatever it takes to finally finish the book you’ve been burning to write. Decide that 2021 is the year you finish and then make a plan to get it done.
- Second, fix your creative mindset. Your thought process is not set in concrete and you can change it if you decide to do that. It’s just a different kind of creative work, but as a writer I know you’re no stranger to hard work. 🙂
Speaking of getting out of your own way…
If you’ve been trying to write a book but are having trouble finishing, I want to invite you to join me for my free Live Masterclass next week. I’ll go deeper into this topic: 4 Secrets of Published Writers — How to Finally Finish Your Book in 3 Months or Less…without all the anxiety, doubt and self-sabotage.
There are a couple of time slots available, so choose the one that works best for you:
Would love to see you there and have a chance to connect! xo