The last time I left a party full of writers, the entire way home I thought about grief. Every writer I’d talked to that evening was facing some degree of grief about their writing. Too many rejections. A unpublished novel—or ten. Bad reviews. Poor sales. It seems as if there are a thousand ways to be thwarted in the writing life. There are also a thousand ways to be uplifted, inspired, and empowered. Unfortunately, it's just too easy to let the disappoints get in the way.
Sometimes, the disappoints get bad enough to draw us into a kind of spiritual void that leaves us feeling depleted and hollow.This is the Dark Night of the Writer's Soul: That feeling that you’re getting nowhere, are never going to be successful, and maybe just don’t have what it takes.
The Dark Night can literally drive you to drink. And it can also drive you away from writing—if you let it. There’s no telling how many talented writers gave up before they found success because they just couldn’t find a way back to the joy.
The good news is that there are many ways out of the Dark Night of the Writers’ Soul, and they aren't particularly difficult. Most successful writers got that way not because they never had Dark Nights, but because they got through them.
Working with writers as they go through rough times--and seeing them find a new day, new vigor, and new delight in their writing, has been one of the most inspiring aspects of my coaching practice. Over the years, I've helped writers use many techniques for moving past the Dark Night of the Writer's Soul. Here are eleven that work.
1. Acknowledge the Grief.
Negative emotions demand to be heard. Unacknowledged anger turns to rage or depression. Buried grief festers.
Don’t put a smiley face on your frustration. Don’t tell yourself you “shouldn’t” be feeling angry or disappointed. Don’t let people try to talk you out of your “negativity.” Getting rejected hurts. Admit it. Accept it. Give it a nod.
Write it down. Say it aloud: I am frustrated because . . . .
- My book is ranked at # 5,000,000 on Amazon.
- My beautiful poem was just rejected for the 28th time.
- My story collection got a horrible review.
Whatever it is, acknowledge it. Then get back to work.
2. See it as your initiation.
Soldiers go through boot camp. Some cultures put young people through grueling trials before they enter adulthood. Initiation is an ancient and universal rite. The frustrations of the writing life are a kind of initiation, too.
Seeing your disappointments as part of the trials you have to go through to become a writer—as part of your initiation into writerhood—gives meaning to the pain. It can help you develop a sense of fortitude, a feeling that you can meet this challenge. After all, you’re seeking entry to the Sacred Order of the Writer, an elite society that goes back thousands of years. You don’t expect it to be easy, do you?
3. Remember the frustrated greats.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered years of agonizing failure.
- Herman Melville died without a single work still in print.
- Nathanial Hawthorne didn’t attain significant success until he was in his 40's.
- Toni Morrison’s early novels sold poorly.
We’ve all heard stories like these. Still, it’s a good idea to go back to them. Knowing that many of our greatest writers went through the same pain we’re going through reminds us that rejections, poor sales, and the like have little to do with our skill as writers and much to do with fluke, chance, and the vagaries of the marketplace. Keeping this in mind can short circuit our self-doubt and remind us that we’re in very good company.
4. Practice radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance is a way of thinking that frees us from the expectation that life is fair and things always work out for the best. These are pretty myths and ones our culture holds dear, but let’s face facts: They just aren’t true. Good people have hideous things happen to them. Life sometimes deals sudden, random blows. Injustice abounds.
You can rail against the unfairness of it all. You can build a whole lifetime around your victimhood. Or you can accept life as it comes.
Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you don’t fight injustices, work hard, or hope for success. It means you do all that while also accepting whatever comes your way. And not just accepting it—but embracing it. Coming to a deep realization that the Universe is what it is, and not always what we wish it would be. That realization is amazingly liberating. As Mark Banschick writes in Psychology Today, “Acceptance doesn't mean passivity. It means freedom.”
5. Wallow and vent.
Here is the flip-side of radical acceptance—something you can do if you just aren’t ready for acceptance. It involves just letting yourself wallow.
Sometimes we need to sink into something before we can rise out of it. Sometimes we need to foam at the mouth, scream at the top of our lungs, and slam a few doors. Once in awhile, we need to climb under a quilt and feel sorry for ourselves. Yes, I know this goes against virtually every self-help book you’ve ever read, but I’m a firm believer in the value of wallowing in your pain, venting your anger, and letting yourself be sad—for awhile. I believe it can be necessary, and it can be healing—if it is done right.
The key to making this technique work is setting a time frame around it. If you’ve just spent a month in bed with the blues, it’s time for some serious re-evaluation (not to mention therapy). But in the face of the 74th rejection of your novel or a particularly stinging review, it’s okay to soak in a hot bath for awhile, allow yourself a good cry, and treat yourself like the wounded bird that you are.
Give yourself that. But know that it must end. Maybe you need an hour. Maybe you need a day. Maybe you even need a week. But then, you need to stand up, shake it off, and get back into life. Wallow. Vent. Then get going.
6. Turn it into play.
I miss the days when rejection letters came in the mail on typed white sheets of paper. You could do so many things with them! Make paper airplanes. Design origami cranes. Paper your walls. Use them as dart boards. The emailed rejection just isn’t the same.
Still, engaging play is a great way to bring yourself out of the Dark Night of the Writer. Finger-paint your disappointment. Make a board game out of your journey through the publishing process. Build a tower of blocks, each block representing a rejection. Go back to childhood and remember your favorite games. Use them to transform your grief.
Play taps into deep instincts and parts of your soul you may have shut the door on when you left childhood. As Stuart Brown explains in this inspiring TED talk, play is tied to human achievement, creativity, and intelligence. It is a valuable resource too often left untapped.
7. Commune and commiserate.
When I was working on my M.F.A. , I was having dinner with a bunch of fellow student writers one evening when we got on the topic of the different types of rejection letters we’d gotten. We were all feeling a little wonky about our writing, each of us aware that we had a long, hard road ahead of us, and we’d all gotten a lot of rejections in recent months, so there was a heap of blues at that table. But as we talked about the various types of letters we’d received—some cruel, some encouraging, some just plain weird—we found ourselves smiling, then laughing. By the time we left, we all felt as if the sun had come out after a gloomy day.
It’s absolutely true that misery loves company, and there is no shortage of other writers who are just as frustrated as you are. Connect with them. Share stories. Express your outrage. Discuss the different ways you all get through. Community is never more important than when you’re suffering and the best kind of community consists of others who are in the same boat. If nothing else, it lets you know you are not alone, and that is often enough to keep you going.
8. Celebrate your victories.
You’ve had a lot of triumphs. Don’t think so? Look harder. They’re there. Hurt is always easier to remember than happiness. Yet, the happiness is around—you just have to dig it up.
When you find yourself in a Dark Night of the Writer's Soul, think back to your victories. A published poem. A great comment from a teacher. A scene you’re especially proud of. Make a list of them. Post it. Raise a glass to yourself.
9. Shift your focus.
What should we writers really be focusing on? Not the rejections we’ve been getting—and not the acceptances, either. What should be getting our attention is our writing. The story or poem we’re currently working on. The specific word we’re looking for. The page or paragraph we’re on right now. Those things should be in the center of our vision. Everything else is just blurry background.
When you feel the Dark Night setting in, turn your lens to your work. Shine a spotlight on the page you are writing this minute.
10. Move it out.
Most of us know that exercise helps mood, but knowing it and doing something about it are two different things. Since bad moods can make us feel tired, it’s often easier to stay rooted to our chairs than get up and move. But even a small amount of exercise can bring you out of a Dark Night.
"The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong," says psychologist Michael Otto, author of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-being. "Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect." Moving alters your brain chemistry, boosts your energy--and simply gets your mind off your troubles.
The next time you feeling yourself sinking into a Dark Night, get up and move it out. Go for a run. Take a walk. Do some yoga. Put on some music and do the Dance of the Wild Writer. Get your heart pumping and see how alive you feel.
11. Be grateful.
It’s easy to forget that there are people in this world with stories to tell and no way to tell them. People who work in fields or factories 16 hours a day. Who have no access to education. Who have no books, pens, or paper. People who might be brilliant writers, if only their lives permitted it.
We who have the time and opportunity to write have been given something profound and powerful. Even if that time is just a half hour after work or ten minutes before the kids get up, it is a rare and precious gift.
When the Dark Night starts settling in, one of the best things we can do is engage gratitude: To remember how lucky we are just to be able to write.
If you find yourself in a Dark Night of the Writer, remember above all that you aren't helpless against the darkness. There are ways to get through. You can learn, as I have have over the years, how to stand firm as you wait for the dawn--or to dance by the light of the moon.
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