Silencing Your Inner Saboteur

By Sherry Peters

General non-fiction, Personal growth

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22 mins

Chapter 1 - What is the Saboteur

Your inner saboteur is the little voice inside your head telling you you can’t do something, it’s too hard, you are not good enough, nobody wants to read your work, you have nothing valuable to say, you have no ideas, what’s the point you messed up today, yesterday, why bother trying, and that you are lazy so obviously you are not a writer, otherwise you’d be writing.
Your inner saboteur is the self-doubt inside you which prevents you from starting a new project, working on a work in progress, or submitting to markets and agents. It is every negative comment you have ever told yourself or thought about yourself. It is every limiting belief. It is the devil on your shoulder and your security blanket. Your inner saboteur criticizes you, berates you, and seduces you.
Some people call this inability to write writer’s block. They call the lack of motivation to write procrastination. Writer’s block and procrastination are symptoms, not the root of the problem, they are the result of listening to your saboteur.
There are dozens of books with writing exercises and prompts to kick-start you out of your writer’s block, to get you writing. There are just as many books on finding time to write, making time to write, and how not to procrastinate. Those books are mere band-aid solutions treating the symptoms of the disease, distracting you from the real problem--your saboteur. They work, but for how long? You can put a band-aid over an open wound, but until you’ve dealt with the sliver inside, you are not going to heal. You can learn all the time management techniques in the world; you can do all the writing exercises in the world, and they will work for a time, but unless they fit with your writing project, fit into your life, and deal with the underlying issues of what is getting in your way, they are not going to last long-term, ultimately leading to greater frustration with the writing process.
Of course your saboteur is going to promote these temporary solutions, push that it is simply writer’s block or procrastination, that you are lazy. Your saboteur doesn’t want you looking too close at the real problem because to look closely means you would discover your saboteur, realize that the saboteur is the root of the problem, and would do something about it. That’s the last thing he wants. So your saboteur will tell you that if you had one more book on how to write, if you made more time to write, then your problems are solved. And yes, they will be, temporarily. But your saboteur is still there, festering, whispering in your ear.
Don’t I mean an internal critic, inner editor, or censor, not a saboteur? To call it a critic, editor, or censor is far too kind for what it is: your inner saboteur. Your inner critic, editor, or censor can be just as harmful as your saboteur, but they can serve to keep you on track if we listen to them at the right time.
Your inner critic is expert at criticizing what you are writing, often demanding perfection. Your critic tends to give you plenty of advice about what is wrong, but is never very helpful. This is particularly harmful when writing early drafts. Jack Heffron, in his book, The Writer’s Idea Book, calls that voice The Critic. In talking about hearing the voice of The Critic while writing early drafts, he says, “When you hear the voice of The Critic telling you your idea is stupid, your writing dull and pedestrian, tell the voice to wait. He may, indeed, be right. And he will have his turn, you promise, but it’s not his turn now.” (Heffron, 19). Is there an appropriate time for The Critic to speak? Heffron implies there is. Your critic is allowed to demand perfection during the editing process, not before, and not after. Anything else said which is attributed to The Critic, is really the saboteur.
What about the inner editor? The editor, much like the critic, demands perfection. He is more worried about correcting grammar and typos and formatting rather than letting you move on to the next scene or chapter. Your editor will tell you that a sentence isn’t quite right, that maybe you need to insert a comma but then tell you to take it out. He will tell you to take your time, to make sure that each sentence is perfect and exactly what you want to say, and if you can’t think of the perfect word for several days, that is just fine. The editor can slow the writing process and can paralyze a writer. Heather Sellers in her book Chapter after Chapter, says that the editor has its place in helping you edit. “The Little Editor does mean well. She knows you are terrified of making a fool of yourself, and she’s truly trying to help. It’s just that the fear she induces is not conducive to writing.” (Sellers, 157). Your inner saboteur loves to take advantage of the fear created by the editor, stirring it up, exaggerating it in your mind. When you are editing, that is when you need your editor to help with the grammar, typos, spelling errors, and constructing the perfect sentence, to make your writing the best it can possibly be.
And then there is the other name, the internal censor. My preferred definition of the internal censor is that voice that tells you what to and what not to write, mostly what not to write, telling you to watch what you write, there shouldn’t be so many swear words, or explicit sex scenes, or a character with the same color hair as a family member, because your family is reading this and they’ll think that character is them. Or that people you know will be reading this and what will they think of you then?
Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way spends a fair bit of time discussing the Censor. She describes it as “part of our leftover survival brain. It was the part in charge of deciding whether it was safe for us to leave the forest and go out into the meadow. Our Censor scans our creative meadow for any dangerous beasties. Any original thought can look pretty dangerous to our Censor. . . Who wouldn’t be blocked if every time you tiptoed into the open somebody (your Censor) made fun of you?” (Cameron, Artist’s Way, 13). I agree with Cameron’s notion of the censor being afraid of new or creative ideas. It is not the censor who is making fun of you, though. The censor thinks it is only trying to protect you from being laughed at. The censor wants to keep your writing safe and hidden in a drawer, he wants to keep you from writing certain ideas, or from submitting your work because yes, you may receive praise and acceptance, but the risk of potential rejection and mockery is too much for the censor. It is your saboteur who mocks you, who laughs at you because you think you can write and submit and get published. It is your saboteur who laughs at you because he doesn’t want you to try. To try means you might succeed and success means your saboteur no longer controls you.
There are times when we need our internal censor. Particularly when we’re with other people. But there may be times in our writing as well, when we need to be sensitive to external issues and need to find a way to say things in a more gentle manner than we might otherwise.
The saboteur uses disguises like the editor, critic, and censor; it reminds us of negative experiences we have had, because it wants to keep us where we are. But by keeping us where we are, it is preventing us from growing intellectually and emotionally, and it is preventing us from expressing who we really are.
Your saboteur wants to keep you from following your dreams, achieving your goals, and he--I call the saboteur a he because mine is a he, yours may be a she--will do anything and everything to stop you. Maybe he doesn’t want you to be hurt. More likely, he doesn’t want you to succeed.
Often the saboteur isn’t particularly strong, achieving only a short episode of unhappiness or a few days where you “just don’t feel like writing.” When we permit those episodes of unhappiness or not writing to linger too long we allow the saboteur to take over, we begin a downward spiral of frustration with ourselves and our situation.
Which leads us to what I like to call:
The Gollum Analogy
I like to compare the inner saboteur to the character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Gollum is, of course, in the books, but I use the characterization of Gollum in the movies which is a beautiful and vivid interpretation by Peter Jackson.
For those who have not read the books or seen the movies, Smeagol was once a Hobbit who finds the magic ring of the Dark Lord Sauron. This ring is all powerful and Smeagol will do anything to keep it. This ring also provides him with unusually long life. As a result of owning this ring, Smeagol is cast out from his family and his community. He loses all sense of taste and fears the brightness of the sun so he retreats to the darkness of caves, where he forgets who he is. Gollum is the dark part of Smeagol’s personality which appears to protect himself and mostly the ring of power. Over the years, Gollum becomes the dominant personality. Like Gollum, the inner saboteur can take over if we give him too much time to play with our confidence.
In The Two Towers, the second book and movie in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Smeagol is drawn out from under Gollum’s control and the two personalities battle it out, much like we battle our evil inner saboteur.
Tell me if any of the following sounds like something your saboteur has told you:
“You don’t have any friends. Nobody likes you. Where would you be without me? I saved us. It was me. We survived because of me.”
The above is what Gollum tells Smeagol.
When we hear that voice, when Gollum gets too loud in our heads, telling us “Nobody likes you. You don’t have any friends. You survived because of me,” that is when the self-doubt sets in, and we start to procrastinate, and our creativity, our writing, is blocked. Gollum is so loud in our heads, we cannot hear our ideas, or the other voice, the one so quiet, saying we can do it, we do have friends, and what we write is worth reading.
Can the Saboteur really be silenced?
The short answer is, “Yes. Absolutely.” To do so takes a lot of work and focus.
As you go through this book and as you work on your writing projects, pay attention to your saboteur, and note when it gets loudest. Chances are, it will be loudest when a) you are making great progress; or b) when you are stuck or know something isn’t right but can’t quite give it a name.
When we are succeeding or on the verge of success, the saboteur will raise objections. An objection is when a part of us (the saboteur) prevents us from doing something, from staying motivated to complete a task, or from experiencing a state that we want. An objection is a negative conclusion that holds a limiting belief in place. It is a “cork in the bottle” that stops the flow of information or a shift into action. Objections are often spoken by parts of us (the saboteur), and spoken in negatives. They become our beliefs and conclusions.
What do I mean by limiting belief? A limiting belief is something negative we believe about others that are unfounded and limits our progress. One example we as writers have: Nobody wants to read what I have to write. How do we know if we haven’t tried to submit it anywhere, or even if we write something small and for fun for family and friends? An example we might experience in our day-jobs: There’s no way I’m going to get that ergonomic keyboard or some other useful tool for work. These limiting beliefs prevent us from asking for what we want.
Often the saboteur strikes when we emotionally or intellectually know something is wrong. In coaching, we say that everything, every action, when our bodies hurt or our minds or hearts protest, it is because what we are protesting doesn’t sit right with us, and that something is important and needs to be looked after. Just as our bodies hurt when something is physically wrong with us, so our creativity protests when something isn’t right with what we are writing. Either we have tied things up too neatly to go on; we aren’t as in love with the story as we should be; or you have an uneasy feeling about the agent you’ve queried.
There are other objections as well, the external objections such as: “I really don’t know enough about writing,” “This isn’t commercial enough,” “Nobody wants to read this.” These objections are often directed at our frustration with the business side of writing and because of that frustration, enforce our negative beliefs about ourselves and our writing.
To silence the saboteur, it is important that we find out what it is objecting to. When we figure out the objections, what the problem is, and what is important to us about that particular objection, we can deal with it. To do so, we need to open up a controlled dialogue with the saboteur.
The saboteur will do anything and everything to stop us from achieving our goals. Why is that? Ask your saboteur. More than likely, it is out of a need to protect us from getting hurt should we be rejected or never make it to the level we would think of as success. That’s very noble and indeed well intentioned. Ask yourself: What would hurt more, quitting now and giving up on my dreams, or pushing through the years of rejection and waiting, never getting published, but knowing I tried everything and did my very best? What if you do reach your goal? What if you do achieve your dreams? Who is to say success isn’t around the corner?
One night I was sitting at my computer staring at the screen trying to work on my novel. I had just received another rejection and was frustrated with my lack of sales of short stories, lack of progress in finding an agent, and with the mediocrity that was the novel sitting in front of me. I decided then, that I was done writing. I quit. I would fill my time with going out with friends and going to movies and reading all those books on my to-read shelves, (yes, that is plural), and I cried. I wept for my lost dream. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t quit on myself or my dream. I hadn’t tried everything yet. An hour later, I turned on my computer and I continued to write. A month later, I signed with a literary agent.
I have faced many, many frustrations since, but I know that until I have exhausted every possible avenue, I cannot quit.
In dialoguing with the saboteur, we find out what is important to us in our lives and about what we are working on.
Dialoguing with the Saboteur
My Gollum is a very nasty creature, full of hatred, and he can be incredibly loud. One of Gollum’s favorite things to say to me is: “You are so unoriginal. Your story ideas have all been done before. No one is going to want to buy them.”
Why is this important to me? Originality is important for a few reasons, least of which is that I have always wanted to have something special to say, to stand out in some way. As a writer, originality is important, without it, chances are that I will never get a book deal.
My response to my saboteur is that maybe I am writing another vampire story, or werewolf story, however, I do have something original to add to the mythology and the elements are unique.
I also like to remember what Brenda Ueland says at the beginning of her book If you Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit, “Everybody is talented, original, and has something to say. . . Everybody is talented because everybody who is human has something to express. . . Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his true self and not from the self he thinks he should be.” (Ueland, 3-4).
So take that Gollum, I am original and I do have something to say.
Step #1 to Silencing Your Inner Saboteur: Dialogue with your saboteur, find out what is important to you and decide how you will dissolve this protest.

Exercises
Take some time now and write down some of the things your inner saboteur has said to you which have kept you from writing. Don’t take too long, just a few phrases.
For each one of those phrases, what is your saboteur protesting?
Why is that important to you?
How will you dissolve those protests?

Chapter 2 - Roots

Where does the saboteur come from?
In the previous chapter, we talked about what the inner saboteur is and the kinds of things he tells us. Isn’t it amazing the lies the saboteur comes up with? But where does he come from? How did it get to hold the power it has over us? Where was the saboteur born and what gives it life?
In order to determine the origins of the saboteur, we need to take a step back and have a look at the evolution and function of the human brain. Once we understand the emotional and creative function of our brain, we can then understand where the saboteur comes from, where and why it was born, and how it then uses that birth place against us.
Our brains evolved in three stages: the reticular brain; the limbic brain, and the cerebral cortex. Each stage of this evolutionary process serves a purpose which is key to exposing the saboteur.
Our Reticular or Reptilian Brain is the tiny enlargement on the brain stem which evolved 100 million years ago. It is responsible for our basic needs. It tells us we’re thirsty, hungry, cold, and it is responsible for our fight or flight response.
Our Limbic or Emotional Brain evolved about 50 million years ago, fits over our reptilian brain like a glove, and the two work closely together. This is where our more advanced emotions and emotional memories reside.
Our emotional brain links our physical and emotional awareness, has more sophisticated feelings, emotional impulses and needs. Its development unfolded through group protection and survival. So when we feel threatened, our emotional brain acts on instinct, feeling that physical threat, and puts us in a defensive state. Essentially, the emotional brain is focused on survival, especially the survival of the group, and responds with quick, black versus white, group-oriented actions to preserve the status quo.
To challenge our emotional brain with creativity and change with unknown outcomes, we feel threatened. Our emotional brain reminds us of a time when we were threatened and the outcome was bad for us, causing us harm, and so to protect us, it warns us away from any emotion that might cause the same harmful outcome.
If something happened to us to make us happy, or sad, or afraid, the associations are stored in this part of our brain. For example, if the scent of chocolate has happy, loving associations, our emotional brain is happy, full of love and relaxed. If chocolate has an unhappy, fearful association, emotionally, we remember that fear upon smelling chocolate, and retreat to our emotional brain.
Our Cerebral Cortex is 2 to 2.5 million years old, and is the majority of the grey matter, where all our remaining functions occur. It is also where creativity resides. In order for us to begin, create and finish a project, a story, a novel, we need to be emotionally relaxed and happy so that we can function in our cerebral cortex. The saboteur uses our past negative experiences to keep us fearful and in retreat in our emotional brains so that we are not able to create.
The cerebral cortex works fairly independently of the emotional and reptilian brain systems. The cerebral cortex relies on visual stimulation rather than auditory or kinesthetic stimulation needed by the emotional and reptilian brains. However, for creativity to flow, we need to tap into our emotional brain and connect it with the cerebral cortex. We can do this through visualization and positive emotions. If we can visualize ourselves succeeding and being creative, and associate that with the safety, confidence, happiness and overall positivity, we are able to win over our emotional brain, make it feel happy, relaxed and secure, so we can engage our cerebral cortex and be more creative.
The emotional brain, the part of us that instinctively wants to protect us, that developed out of a genetic need for survival, is the birth place of the saboteur. A specific and particularly hurtful comment or moment in our lives is what gave birth to the saboteur. And it is the saboteur who feels threatened when we attempt anything that might lead us to the same conclusion as that initial comment or moment.
The saboteur then speaks to us in a negative, hurtful, tone of voice to keep us feeling threatened and keep us in its protective nest of survival, preventing us from tapping into our creativity. The saboteur makes us believe we are being kept safe, when in reality, it is controlling us from a position of fear.
To better understand the origins of the saboteur, we need to determine which negative past experience gave it birth.
Examples of past negative experiences
At some point in our lives, someone has said something particularly negative or hurtful which has stuck with us, buried in our subconscious. They have told us we’re bad, not good enough, can’t do something, can’t catch the ball, can’t run fast enough, can’t play a musical instrument or sing well enough. Maybe it was a parent, or teacher, coach, bullies, and even those ultra-competitive classmates.
Let’s look at some examples and then we’ll discuss why a particular experience gave birth to the saboteur.
The ultra-competitive classmates: You remember those, in the hallway after a test or exam asking everyone “What did you get for question x?” Maybe they whined that they were sure they’d failed the class, when everyone knew they were the smartest one there, straight A+ student. They probably did believe they had failed the test because they’re such perfectionists. They also succeeded in making everyone else anxious about their own grades, if not a complete failure, once they started bragging about their A+ and asking everyone else what mark they got.
Maybe you were one of those ultra-competitive classmates. Unfortunately, I was. I remember a particular report card day in grade two. I lay on my bed crying, it was the worst report card ever. I received a B. Up until then I’d received all As and A+s. To me, a B was the same as an F. I thought my world had come to an end.
In the ultra-competitive classmate, there is an underlying need for perfection at all times. The expectations they place on themselves are often impossibly high. The saboteur is hard at work in these people and their behavior is the result which also affects and possibly infects those around them.
Bullies: Bullies make everyone around them feel bad about themselves. It is what they do. They do it to feel better about themselves and to make themselves look good to others. Female bullies have a tendency to do their job in an emotionally hurtful way, kind of like Gollum, actually, telling you in direct and roundabout ways, that nobody likes you, you are ugly, not worth caring about, you can’t dress right, you are too smart, and you are not cool enough. Bullies make you think that there is something essentially wrong with you and everything you are and believe.
Coaches: I would venture to say that most coaches are good coaches, and they have a duty to tell you if you are not up to the playing level which is expected of you. However, here we are talking about the bad ones. The coaches who single out a player on the team and are extra hard on them, or will bench a player, or will criticize a player without teaching them how to be better.
Teachers: Like coaches, most teachers are good teachers, and they too have a duty to give you the grade you’ve earned. Maybe they were right to give you a failing grade in your composition class. But that failing grade, without any constructive criticism, and I mean constructive, helpful, criticism, such as: there was no conflict along with instructions on how to add conflict to a story, sits in the back of your mind, growing tumors, coming out as a thought that says “I can’t write, I failed composition in grade 7.”
Family: Families are, unfortunately, the biggest breeding ground for inner saboteurs. Julia Cameron mentions that her students have often used a picture of a parent to represent their Censor. (Cameron, Artist’s Way, 12). Siblings, particularly older siblings, when they’re in their be-mean-to-the-younger-sibling phase, will tell you that you can’t play games with them because you are the baby, or not good enough. Parents, because they’re looking out for you, will tell you that writing will never pay the bills so keep it as a hobby and get a good education and a good, steady, secure job. Pulitzer Prize winning author Carol Shields told me once when I asked her about sharing my writing with my family, she said, “Don’t. Especially when it is a work in progress.”
I maintain that policy.
There are some exceptions to the family rule, of course. For some writers, it is okay to share their works in progress with spouses as they often prove to be excellent beta readers. It is important to know your family, and know yourself. From my family, I will only accept the ‘Mom critique’ of “This is fantastic, you are amazing, the best writer ever.” I know I won’t get it, I’ll get honesty instead, so I don’t let my family read it.
Defining the Saboteur's Conception
It can be painful to think back to the source of the negativity in our heads. We need to wade through it though, to find the root of the saboteur. When we remember those negative comments, we are returned to our emotional brain, afraid to be creative because we hear those negative comments in the voice of the one who first spoke them. It is because of that person, that we have developed this habit system of retreat, this need to protect ourselves. The saboteur makes use of this habit to keep us where it thinks we are safest. But instead
of making us feel safe, we are left tense and uncreative and therefore frustrated.
By allowing ourselves to go back to that moment and figure out what and who hurt us with that negative comment, we can relax and move out of our emotional brain back into the creativity of our cerebral cortex.
Recognizing that initial trigger will help us to halt the retreat. When the saboteur twists that initial hurt, we again tend toward retreat. Once we engage the saboteur and recognize the triggers it uses and why they are important to us, we can respond appropriately, deal with the issues if they need to be dealt with, and once again relax back into creativity, feeling safe and taken care of, and we are able to stay there longer, and are less likely to retreat so quickly.
When we remember that original comment, the root of the saboteur, we can see how small and insignificant it is which allows us to take away its power over us and silence it. It is rarely just one person who is the root of the saboteur, but of the two or three, there is usually one voice which is most dominant. We will look at that more in the next chapter. In the meantime, it is time to wade back through our memories and find out where your inner saboteur comes from.
If I think back to the root of my saboteur, this is what stands out for me: I always received poor grades in composition classes in elementary school and junior high. It hurt because at the age of seven, I decided I was going to be a writer and had started writing stories. I thought they were all fantastic stories, my teachers apparently disagreed. Now, I don’t actually remember what grades I received. I was a nerd in school, so probably if I received a B, I was devastated. But I do remember one of my junior high teachers making the comment about my Halloween Horror story, that it wasn’t a story. To this day I disagree. It probably wasn’t a great story, but it had a beginning, middle and end, had some horror elements, etc. everything necessary to meet the definition of a complete story. However, the comment that stuck with me was that I don’t know how to write.
My saboteur knows how important writing is to me, and always has been. Writing is all I have ever wanted to do. But the writing life is rife with rejection and heartache, which my saboteur thinks he needs to protect me from. Therefore, my saboteur took the teacher’s comment that what I’d written wasn’t a story, and twisted it, expanding it to everything, telling me constantly that I don’t know how to write short stories, or novels, or even this book. Especially this book. Every rejection, no matter how personal, is proof that I don’t know how to write. Every acceptance must be a fluke and I am not deserving of it so I’d better keep quiet and hope they don’t figure out their mistake and turn me away.
Looking back as an adult, I recognize that the comments from that teacher were specific to that one story, not everything I have ever written. The comment hurt so much because all I have ever wanted to be was a writer. Every comment or suggestion that is even remotely negative about my writing sparks my fear that I will never be a writer.
My response to my saboteur is to first place the comment in perspective. It was specific to that story. Maybe my teacher should have taught me better. Perhaps her comments should have been more helpful. If it wasn’t really a story, tell me why and what I could do to fix it.
Then I need to transform this negative comment into something positive. The comment that it wasn’t a story created my eternal need to know how to write better has pushed me into pursuing workshops and grad school and to continuously work harder to be a better writer, which will only move me closer to my dream. I can also visualize a time where I have survived all those rejections, I have studied the craft, I have persisted, and the result, the reward, is that book contract.
Step #2 to Silencing Your Inner Saboteur: Look back with some objectivity to those comments which hurt us, push them back into their narrow context, and transform them into a positive outlook and experience.

Exercises
Think back to those times when people said negative things about you, told you you couldn’t do something, couldn’t or shouldn’t write. Write down the name of the person, what the situation was, and what they said.
What made that comment hurt so much?
Take time to respond to each of their comments. Put that comment or experience into context. How can you transform it to a positive comment, thought, or experience?

Chapter 3 - The Dominant Voice

In Chapter 2, we talked about people in our lives whose negative comments about us or toward us became the breeding ground for the inner saboteur. Now we’re going to identify which of the many voices on the list you made at the end of Chapter 2 is the most dominant. We will also look at the reasons why it is the dominant voice, and how it has permeated other aspects of your life.
As humans, we have a tendency to listen to the negative comments made about us, and forget the compliments. All too often the negative is more prevalent. Next time you are with a group of friends, observe how quickly the conversation turns to complaints. See how many of your friend’s Facebook and Twitter status updates are positive and how many are complaints.
Often when we’re asked what our ideal of something would be, what we’re looking for in a house, job, or life-partner, we respond with what we don’t want, rather than with what we do want. This is a habit that leaves us thinking in negative terms.
As writers, the negative only gets reinforced with those agent and editor rejections piling up, adding to the thoughts that no one wants what you have to offer, your writing isn’t good enough, nobody likes you.
Sure, we try to make the rejections positive. You’ve heard of the “really good rejection” where the editor or agent made personalized comments. Yes, it is good, it is a way to measure progress, someone did take an interest. But deep down in every one of us who received a “really good rejection” lies the thought “I am just not good enough. If they really thought I was a good writer, they would have bought my story/offered me representation/offered me a three book deal with a $50,000 advance.”
Gather a group of writers together, and we love to talk about the rejection horror stories. They make for great storytelling, especially from the most prolific and widely published authors. It is also reassuring to writers trying to break into the business, to know that even the biggest names in publishing were not always a success. Stephen King in his book On Writing talks about how he had three novel manuscripts completed before Carrie. Carrie sold first and he did eventually sell the others. (King, 69). Ask any published author, and chances are they will tell you they wrote at least two or three novels before getting that cherished first book deal. As aspiring writers, we thrive on these kinds of stories. They are reassuring. If it took them that long, then I am still all right. But they can also be just as devastating. It took them that long and look at how amazing they are. I am nowhere near their level. I will never make it.
It is at times like these, when you receive another rejection, or are struggling to sit down and write, that the negative and hurtful comments we experienced in our past, come out twisted and disfigured.
Out of all of this negativity, we hear one voice, the dominant voice of the saboteur.
The Dominant Voice
The root of the saboteur comes from a particularly hurtful comment or moment because it hit on something most important to us like our writing, our creativity, or our confidence. The voice of the saboteur is often someone close to us who has, hopefully unknowingly, or at least out of the good intention of wanting us to not be hurt--reinforced in some way that original hurtful comment and the twisted forms used by the saboteur. It becomes the dominant voice precisely because it is someone who is close to us and we know how well intentioned they are.
Remember the teacher who didn’t like your creative writing projects? Your saboteur does, and using that comment says, “See? No one likes what you write. That teacher was right all along. You can’t write. You should quit.” It becomes the dominant voice because we respected the teacher.
What about worrying about offending family? Heather Sellers compares a fear of offending to being clothed when we should be naked. She says, “Sometimes we write as though we are wearing a swimsuit in the shower. Sometimes we are so scared of the truth or of offending people with our very presence, our strength, our energy, our self, that we cover up. We all like to fit in. If the other girls are in swimsuits, well, by golly, we should be, too. Writers: If you aren’t naked, you aren’t doing it right. If you aren’t willing to show your sags, your scars, your beautiful arms, the small of your perfect back – your writing voice is going to keep sliding away from you. It will be clear to everyone that you are faking it. . . A book does not get written when an author fears her own voice, her own perfect body, her unique truth. . .” (Sellers, 162).
Sibling rivalry is also a great source of nourishment for your saboteur. You receive a rejection and your saboteur loves to tell you, “You never were as creative as your brother/sister. Why do you bother trying? No agent is going to sign you, they don’t want talentless, unoriginal authors. Your work in progress? Completely unoriginal. Remember the stories your brother used to tell in the car on family vacation? Now those were funny and original. Even your parents liked his stories more than they liked yours. They still talk about his stories.” Or it might say, “Your sister was right, she said you weren’t good enough for x, so what makes you think you are good enough to write?
Family expectations can also make a strong voice. The saboteur often resides in the identity of who we “should” be, and that identity is often placed upon us and reinforced by family. There may be expectations placed on you to write only inspirational fiction, rather than the historical romance you’d prefer. Maybe you have too many swear words and sex scenes, or not enough. The relatives will be scandalized by what you write, regardless of genre.
I have a deck of cards called In Their Own Words: Eminent Writers on the Craft of Writing, by Dona Budd, which I picked up a number of years ago at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. One of the cards is a quote from Erica Jong about writers worrying about what family will say. She says “Every woman artist has to kill her own grandmother. She perches on our shoulder whispering, ‘Don’t embarrass the family’.”
More often, family likes to treat your writing as only a hobby, a waste of time. Now that you’ve decided you want to write, pursue publication, the housework distracts you, family needs distract you, and it feels like everything distracts you because you still believe that writing is a waste of time. Your saboteur is quick to reinforce that belief. Family becomes the dominant voice because so much of who and what we are is connected to and resides within our family identity and our identity within our family.
There may be other comments your saboteur feeds off of. Have you ever heard a famous author say, “If you ever think about quitting or ask yourself if you are a writer, then you should quit, you are not a writer.”? This one nags at me constantly. I am one of those writers who thinks almost every day that I should quit. Does this make me any less of a writer? According to some, it might. I don’t think it does. My saboteur tries very hard to make me believe this makes me a failure as a writer. The saboteur will use everything to tell you, “You are not a writer.” This becomes the dominant voice because the author is a major bestseller, they must be right.
Sometimes even those first ‘good’ rejections become the voice the saboteur mimics. “Not quite special enough.” “Not marketable.” “Not quite right for me.” The saboteur translates those into, “Nobody likes you, they don’t want to read what you write, so unoriginal.” This becomes the dominant voice because they are one of the top agencies and they know what they are talking about, they must be right.
However well intentioned the person close to us is, it does not mean their comments don’t hurt us. The saboteur uses their voice because that person is so close to us, is supposed to love and care about our well-being. When we hear the saboteurs using that loving voice telling us something negative, we retreat back to our emotional brain where we think we will be safe and cared for.
Dialoguing with the Saboteur
To defeat the saboteur and deal with its dominant voice, we need to turn those negatives into something positive by once again putting them into perspective, into context, and give them a positive twist.
For me, the above example of sibling rivalry has become the underlying and most dominant voice. There are others, but this one is the strongest. It bothered me when I was a kid, and it pops up all the time: when I get a rejection, after talking with other writers about their projects which all sound so much more creative than mine, after I finish reading a good book, after I read a book I don’t like and I think that wasn’t so original, how did it get published and I can’t get an agent? It became the dominant voice because it reinforced what the teachers said about my writing: That it wasn’t a story, it wasn’t good.
It bothered me as a kid because even then, writing was my passion and it was all I ever wanted to do. My brother could care less. He was passing time.
Now here’s the catch to all of these negative comments we hear -- it is based on our perception of the situation, what has been said, and other people’s reactions.
A couple of years ago, I went for a walk with my mom and conversation somehow turned to the story my brother told, which the family always used as a regular punchline in various situations. She said, much to my surprise, that it was such a stupid story, which is why they were laughing. It was a good punchline, but not original or creative. I had read the situation wrong. Of course, it would have been nice to know it at the time, but it does change things for me now.
Likewise, the teachers’ comments and agents’ rejections may actually mean the story simply does not meet their taste, there may be some need for improvement, or any number of things. It doesn’t mean you should give up or that you can’t write.
Recognizing that the dominant voice my saboteur mimics is that of my parents’, I can take the right steps to silence that voice. I can hear what he says, and as before, I can now with my new, grown-up perspective, put it in its place. I recognize that my saboteur is once again hitting on the importance of the role of writing in my life. Not just that I want to be a writer, but that I need to have skill and talent to be a writer. Do I have the talent or skill? How important is talent and skill in being a writer? After some thought, I can respond and deal with these questions and doubt. There is a possibility that my brother is the more talented storyteller. What is he doing with that talent? Nothing. Talent is only a fraction of what it takes to be a writer. And just because my brother has talent, does not mean that I have none. It was Thomas Mann who said, “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Right. So maybe the story flowed easier for my brother, that doesn’t make him any more talented or original. As for skill, I’ve done many workshops, and developing into a better writer is a life-long process. I never want to stop learning and growing in my abilities as a writer.
This does not mean what they said to you doesn’t still hurt. Of course it does. That is why it is even more important now, to put that hurtful comment or action into context so that it doesn’t become our own negative belief about ourselves for the saboteur to feed on. The past is not your future! Again, pay attention to the tone of voice you and your saboteur use.
Step #3 to Silencing Your Inner Saboteur: Recognize the dominant voice the saboteur mimics, acknowledge why it hurt and develop a positive response.

Exercises
Looking back over the list you made at the end of the second Chapter, identify which of them is the dominant voice your saboteur uses.
What is the core comment--the root--of your saboteur?
Who or what reminds us most of that comment or experience?
What made it important to you and your thought process about your writing?
How has that statement spread to other aspects of your life?
Put that person, thing, or experience into context and perspective. How can you transform it into something positive?



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