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It’s Not Me, It’s the Story

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We’re thrilled to have returning guest Danielle Davis on Writer Unboxed today! Danielle has had dark fantasy and horror published in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, The Astounding Outpost, and multiple anthologies. You can find her on most social media under the handle “LiteraryEllyMay” and at her website, literaryellymay.com

It’s Not Me, It’s the Story

Have you ever reached a point where you couldn’t see the path forward while writing your story, and found yourself saying, “What is wrong with me?” It’s an easy trap to fall into, to see our stories as a projection of ourselves and to equate our story’s perceived value with an internal sense of worth. We put so much of ourselves into our writing that it’s a natural tendency to create an inflated sense of connection between the two and to take it personally when the story doesn’t want to work the way we want it to. This, in turn, drains motivation and makes it hard to move past those negative feelings.

In her TED Talk, “Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection,” Reshma Saujani provides the anecdote of a friend who is an instructor at the University of Columbia. During office hours with his computer science students, he noted that men struggling with an assignment would say, “Professor, there’s something wrong with my code.” But when the women came in, they said, “Professor, there’s something wrong with me.”

This resonated with me. I, too, struggle with the culture that Saujani coins “perfection or bust” when I’m working on a story. I often beat myself up about not being further along as an author or tell myself that it’s a personal failing on my part. I tell myself that mine are pipe dreams and I’m just not cut out for this work. It’s a pervasive thought, that you aren’t enough, and if you’re not careful, it can fester and grow into a writer’s block that sticks.

Not too long ago, after wrestling with a sudden dead-end in my WIP, I went to my husband and lamented, “It’s not working out. I think I’m just not the writer for this story.” He very quickly (and correctly) called me out about it. Talking with him made me realize that it wasn’t ME. I wasn’t the failure. Elements in my story needed to be improved. A few tears and several days later, I realized what wasn’t working and made the necessary corrections. And it began to move again.

In the process, I began to identify several ways to fight that sense of personal failure and inadequacy:

  • Realize you are not your story. Your story is like a clock, full of small cogs and gears that have to be precisely and finely tuned in order to work properly. You are merely the clockmaker, tuning those gears and lubricating those passageways. It is your job to tweak it until it comes together and flows. Working on your story is a job to do, not a definition of what value you have as a person.
  • Understand that you are not the sum of your accomplishments. If you tie your self-worth to what you’re able to achieve, you will always be chasing a moving target. You are worthy of the story just by the fact that you are the only one who can write it. You have intrinsic value that goes far beyond any one story, and you need to identify that finishing it is a goal, not a reflection of you.
  • Call a friend. Reaching out to others when you start to feel like a failure can be an important way to remind yourself of the value others see in you and can bolster your own self-confidence. What might seem unmanageable in your story when you’re sitting at home by yourself can be tackled more easily by opening up to someone you trust, someone who understands what you’re going through. While this may be a writer friend, it doesn’t have to be. Anyone who can boost your confidence may help.
  • Practice healthy coping skills. This is a tough one, as it’s often the hardest to teach yourself to break the I’m-not-enough cycle. When you find yourself becoming emotionally dependent on the success of your story, take a mental reset: take a walk, play with the dog, take a bubble bath. These things can help break the emotional ties you’ve formed with your story and can put you in a healthier state of mind to tackle your story’s challenges.

We need to realize, when we hit that wall with our writing, that it’s the story that’s not working out at the moment. That, like the cogs in a clock, the singular components in the machine of the story aren’t doing their jobs. It’s not that we are personally failing our story or at storytelling, and it’s not a sign that we aren’t capable of success. It’s just a puzzle piece that’s out of place.

Have you encountered a time where you felt like you weren’t the right writer for your story? What did you do to turn it around? How did you bypass the “perfection or bust” mentality and persevere?

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