How Writers Can Avoid Fixating on the Negative

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on October 13, 2015 • views: 1112

Tame Negative Beast 2aFunny thing happened to me this past weekend.

I had planned a 10-day writing retreat by the ocean to pound out the edits for my literary novel that’s coming out next April. (Read more about Loreena’s Gift here.)

The plans had been in the works for months. To accomplish the trip, I doubled up on all my freelance projects to be sure my clients would be taken care of during my hiatus. That meant writing up to 20 articles a week, in addition to editing, posting, invoicing, etc.

I’m also in the middle of a book launch for Rise of the Sidenah, my fantasy novel released September 24th. That means I had a number of other things to complete before leaving, as well, including writing blog posts for the book tour, managing the give away, and organizing other marketing activities related to this release.

On top of that, I’m a member of the symphony (I play French horn), which meant I needed to attend rehearsals and prepare the music for Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty Ballet,” which we performed twice with the Eugene Ballet Company the Friday before I was scheduled to leave.

And of course there were my blogs and newsletters and social media tasks to complete as usual. Suffice to say that by the time the plane took off early Saturday morning I was beat and looking forward to a few days where I could focus exclusively on my next book.

But things were about to go wrong…very wrong. And like many writers, I very nearly fell into a pattern that could have made things much worse.

Writers and Negative Thinking Tend to Go Hand in Hand

I have a theory. When things go wrong, writers tend to do two things:

  • Think negatively.
  • Blame themselves.

“You think: How did I let that happen?” says motivational speaker and writer Michelle Ghilotti Mandel. “What a (fill in the blank) I am. I can’t believe I did that, AGAIN. If only I could rewind.”

These aren’t the greatest feelings, she says, but “we live our lives in irony. Though we dislike how we feel having just tripped-up, we continue to beat ourselves up way after the fact. We cause our own suffering. Furthermore, we seem to forget that when we make mistakes, we grow.”

Well, I’ve heard this before, but when things went wrong for me on Saturday, I had a hard time imagining the growth taking place.

You see, I got to the rental care agency to pick up my vehicle, and the representative promptly looked at my driver’s license and told me that because it was expired, he couldn’t rent me a car.

Expired? I had to look twice. I couldn’t believe it. I never received the usual renewal forms in the mail. With everything that was going on, renewing my driver’s license was the last thing on my mind.

(Note to readers: check your expiration date now.)

I asked if there wasn’t something they could do. After all, the license had expired only about a month before. It’s not like I was some criminal delinquent going around trying to break the law.

No, there was nothing. It was against the law to rent to a driver with an expired license. The representative advised me to check with another rental car agency.

I did that. The lady was very nice. She engaged me in conversation, eventually discovering that I was a writer and asking about my book. We got as far as exchanging our favorite titles, and I even left her some information on Rise of the Sidenah. But then she ended up telling me the same thing.

The license was expired. There was nothing she could do.

I was stunned. Seriously? After all that hard work and preparation, I was going to be stranded at the airport because I failed to attend to the expiration date on my driver’s license?

Visibly upset, I tried to think. I could catch a ride to my destination, but it was three hours away. It was also a small town without rental cars for the return, or even a way to get to the grocery store to stock up on food. I had planned it that way—somewhere quiet, peaceful, and removed. But that also meant there were no places within convenient walking distance to get food or supplies. Going there without a car wasn’t a good option. I was stuck. Firmly stuck.

Seeing my distress, the kind agent tried to help. “It’s the journey, not the destination,” she advised.

I know she had the best of intentions, but at that moment that was certainly the last thing I wanted to hear.

It was a Saturday. There was no way to contact my Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) until the following Monday. There was no way to renew online—I checked. There was no information about a grace period that I could use to put the rental car agency’s minds at ease. There was absolutely nothing I could do but get a hotel and wait it out.

Going on 36 hours now with no sleep, I pulled out my trusty laptop, found a hotel with shuttle service, and hitched a ride over. Of course, I was too early to check in, so I hauled all my luggage, including my French horn (I had planned to practice for the next concert while I was away), to a nearby chair in the lobby and sat.

Let the negativity begin.

Writers Easily Fall Into the Negativity Trap

It’s not just writers that think negatively, but because many of us are perfectionists, we’re extra skilled at it.

It’s not all bad. Being able to find where a story is falling flat is a good thing when we’re editing. We need sharp eyes to discover the flaws in our prose. But thinking negative thoughts when you’re already in a bad situation isn’t helpful.

Unfortunately, the brain tends to be wired this way. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: the New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, says that we naturally fixate on negative experiences.

Author Carolyn Gregoire noted in a Huffington Post article that according to Hanson, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experience and Teflon for positive ones. The brain is constantly scanning for threats — which of course was in our favor as we evolved — and when it finds one, it isolates and fixates on the threat, sometimes losing sight of the big picture.”

That means that when dealing with a rejection, bad review, poor sales, or the loss of a favorite editor, a writer’s brain is going to focus on it, and run the negative script over and over.

As I sat there alone in that hotel lobby waiting for a room my brain kicked it into high gear. Most likely, I mused, the DMV was not going to help me out. According to the Idaho website, the only way to renew a license is through the mail or in person. I could potentially try through the mail, but would waste all my vacation days stuck near the airport while waiting for it to come through.

I might as well turn around and go home, my negative voice said. What else could I do? The retreat was ruined and my only recourse was to return home and get the edits done there. I’d have to say goodbye to the money I’d spent on the plane ticket, the hotel, the meals, etc., as they would be all for nothing, just money thrown into the wind. In addition, I probably would be facing a driving test when I returned. The license had expired after all, so most likely I’d have to study for that too on top of everything else.

Can you imagine how I felt after thinking these thoughts?

Writers Have a Way of Making Themselves Feel Worse

When I finally got into the room, I was truly heartbroken. My lovely getaway was underway without me, and it looked like I was going to be left behind for good.

By this point, though, I was aware of what was happening. I was feeling the emotions tied into the loss, but I knew if I fed that beast I would only feel worse.

We have such a talent for that, don’t we? Making ourselves feel worse!

“I can rail against the disaster of a laptop that has been blown up,” says blogger and Rector Christopher Page after a computer shop not only failed to fix his laptop, but crashed it completely. “Complaining changes nothing; it only increases my stress in a situation over which I have no control.”

I could blame myself for not having checked my expiration date (does anyone do this?), but considering everything I had to accomplish before I left, it seemed a trivial mistake. The same is true when we receive bad reviews or rejections or whatever—we can blame ourselves, but what good does that do? Why don’t we instead pat ourselves on the back for even having completed a book in the first place, or for having achieved publication, or for making a go of this writing gig at all?

I decided to try to change my thinking. First, I had to accept what had happened. Instead of blissfully setting off on my writing retreat, I was stuck in a hotel at the airport. I had to come to terms with that.

“Accept where you are,” Mandel says. “You will immediately suffer less. Remember this is merely one moment in time. It only defines you and your worth if you choose to make it a defining moment.”

My next step was to answer this question: What was the worst that could happen? The answer: I’d have to go home. I’d be out all the money I had spent to travel, but I would still have my ten days to get my edits done. I could still pour all my energy into something that mattered. As Neil Gaiman famously said in his graduation speech:

“Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art.”

Job number one was to get some rest, food, and exercise, and prepare myself to work on Sunday, so that the day would not be wasted. Monday, I would call the DMV and see if they would help. If so, I would be doing the happy dance. If not, I’d be headed back home. I needed to come to terms with either option.

Find a Way to Process the Negative Emotions

Next, I had to find ways to deal with the emotion. This I know—we can’t escape feeling bad. We can’t stuff it away. Repressed emotions cause illnesses. (Read this post to learn more about that.) So I needed to find a way to deal with how this event made me feel.

Have you done that? Have you paid attention to the way a rejection or writer’s block or negative feedback makes you feel? Or did you just tell yourself to move on while carrying around the knot in your stomach?

We have to ease that knot. The only way to do that? Be kind to yourself.

That one’s hard, isn’t it? So much easier to beat ourselves up for something.

“Do you listen to yourself?” says research analyst and writer Juliet du Preez. “Do you hear what your body, heart and soul are saying? It’s important to rest if you are tired, to take a break if you have been mentally overworking, to make changes if you are dissatisfied, to seek help if you need it etc. It’s another key to success and happiness. Paying attention to yourself is part of a positive life journey.”

So after catching up on my rest for a couple hours, I took myself out to a nice dinner. I didn’t really feel like it, but I knew that it was a good idea. What do you know? After I finished a delicious baked pork chop with mushroom sauce along with some melt-in-your-mouth green beans and potatoes, I did feel better. I was able to return to my room, finish up some writing tasks, stretch my aching muscles in a yoga routine, and collapse for a good night’s rest.

5 Steps to Keep a Bad Situation from Getting Worse

Sunday morning dawned bright and beautiful. I threw on a hat and went for a long walk. The leaves had changed colors on the trees alongside the road and were gorgeous to look at, say nothing of how fun it was to trample through those that had blanketed the cement. When I returned I had a nice breakfast, shared some fun tweets with my friends online, and returned to the room ready to work.

How will all this turn out for me come Monday morning? I have no idea. I could be facing another disappointment, and there’s really no way to fully prepare for that. But for now, I’m feeling more myself, and enjoying a day of getting some writing done.

My goal in sharing this story is not only to have you all check your expiration dates (ack!), but to share a slice of life when things went horribly wrong. It happens to all of us, and we writers tend to hit ourselves a bit harder when it does.

In summary, here are some tips to help you deal with it:

  1. Accept: There’s a reason this is the first step—as long as you fail to accept what’s happened, you’re going to suffer. Initially, I resisted the fact that I was stuck at the airport. I was supposed to be sailing down the highway on my way to the coast. How could this have happened? As long as I railed against DMVs and government agencies and stupid rules, I kept myself in a stressful state. Only by accepting the situation could I move on to dealing with it.
  2. Grieve: This is a key part of the process and may come in spurts, but it’s necessary. The instant you accept whatever’s happened (the publisher didn’t like your story, for instance), you’re going to feel the corresponding emotion: sorrow, disappointment, frustration, etc. Recognize the feeling and realize that you’re going to have to deal with it. If not now, than soon. For me, I couldn’t give into it while at the airport. I had to research my options, and figure out what to do next. But once I got into the hotel room, I could let the emotion sweep over me, and actually feel what I felt without stuffing it away.
  3. Be kind to yourself: Most of us miss this step, but it’s so important! If you’re going to have the strength and the energy to tackle the next thing—whether that be calling the DMV (with your fingers crossed), sending your story out again, or writing a new story—you must refill the well you just emptied by going through this difficult experience. You need to tend to your body with good food and movement, and to your mind with soothing thoughts. Maybe you call a good friend, journal, meditate, or watch a funny movie. The only way to get yourself into a better state is to do something nice for yourself. Don’t skip this step or you’ll simply carry around the negative feelings and thoughts for the next who-knows-how-long, and they will affect anything else you try to do.
  4. Plan: This is where you plan what to do next—but you must be feeling better If you try to plan while you’re feeling badly, your decisions will reflect your emotional state. (Read more on that here.) Once you’re feeling more like yourself, you can evaluate your situation and see where you need to go from here. Maybe you need to hire an editor to look over your story? Or just sent it out to more recipients, to increase your odds of success? Or double up your marketing efforts to get more eyes on your story, so your good reviews outweigh any negative ones? Whatever it is, this is the time to plan your strategy. As for me, I’ve prepared what I’m going to say when I get the DMV on the phone Monday morning. I’ve even found the Idaho code on driver’s licenses that outlines when extensions may be applied (she said hopefully).
  5. Forget it. Okay, this is the hard part, because as the neuroscientist said above, the brain is hardwired to remember the negative. “We’ve got this negativity bias that’s a kind of bug in the stone-age brain in the 21st century,” Hanson says. “It makes it hard for us to learn from our positive experiences, even though learning from your positive experiences is the primary way to grow inner strength.” Yes, we can learn from negative experiences, but we definitely don’t want to dwell on them. It’s much better for us in the long run if we focus on the positive. “[Lingering on the positive] improves the encoding of passing mental states into lasting neural traits,” says Hanson. “That’s the key here: we’re trying to get the good stuff into us.” So do your best to put the negative experience behind you. I know it’s not easy. If it turns out that I have to go home after working so hard for these few days, I’m going to be kicking myself for awhile. But I’ll try to catch myself, and flush those thoughts. Forget about that rejection, that book that didn’t sell. Focus instead on the acceptances, the encouragements, the praise, the positive feedback. These are the things that will motivate you to push forward.

Note: Monday was Columbus day, so the DMV was closed. Yet another day in limbo…my aren’t those colored leaves pretty? Yes, I’ll focus on them.

Note #2: Tuesday I finally got to talk to the nice ladies at the state Department of Transportation, and after going through the application process, had in my possession a license extension that allowed me to break free. By Tuesday late afternoon I had arrived at my writing retreat. This time, it was the destination, and man was I happy to get there.

Have you had a similar experience where everything you worked so hard for fell through?

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Comments (4)

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  1. Mary Rowen says:

    Wow, Coleen, first of all, so sorry this happened, and I’m so glad it turned out OK in the end. You really deserved that retreat after all that!

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s really helpful, and I love how you outline the steps we can take after a rejection or disappointment or tragedy. You’re right, it’s hard to be good to yourself, especially if you feel partially responsible for the bad thing that happened. Here’s my story, FWIW:

    This summer, my family had planned a nice vacation with a bunch of extended family, including my mother and my husband’s mom, both of whom are in their late 70s. We took a cruise from Boston to Bermuda, and the trip had been planned for months, with lots of shopping and other preparation. Then, on the second day of the vacation, the whole group of us went out on a little boat expedition, and my mother fell on the boat and broke her hip.

    Talk about things taking a bad turn. We were in Bermuda at the time, so my mom and I spent three days in the hospital there. All very hard to believe and accept. Also, I kept blaming myself for bringing my mom on the expedition, although there were several other older people on it, some older than her, and all were fine. In truth, it’s a pretty safe thing to do, but I just kept wishing and wishing that I hadn’t encouraged her to come with us–at one point, she’d said she might enjoy staying on the cruise ship more, but I’d told her the expedition would be much more fun–and kept beating myself up.

    Of course, the vacation couldn’t be saved for her; she was airlifted back to Boston for surgery (my two brothers met her at the hospital). And it was pretty much ruined for me as well, but I was finally able to realize that the accident wasn’t my fault, and that even though I didn’t have a marvelous, carefree time, I met some amazing people at the hospital and in the city of Hamilton, and had experiences that I never would’ve had if I’d been frolicking on the beaches with the rest of the group.

    My mom is also doing great and is walking well. She is now also realizing that there was a silver lining in her experience, as she spent so much more time with her kids and grandkids this summer than she ever would’ve if she hadn’t been injured. And because of her injury, she’s met lots of new friends. And we hope to take that trip again sometime soon!!

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Mary. Oh my gosh, your poor mom—and poor you! Of course you must have felt so terrible. Ugh. I can only imagine. That must have been so difficult. My step dad has been through two hip operations and it’s tough enough when it’s planned for. I’m so glad you all made it through okay but of course you must have felt the loss of the vacation you planned so long for. 🙁 I guess sometimes things just happen and all we can do is roll with the punches as best we can. So glad your mom is walking well!!

  2. Chere Hagopian says:

    Omigosh, I’m SO sorry this happened to you!! But I’m glad you were able to get an extension on your license so you could get to your retreat after all. The same thing happened to my aunt once when we were travelling together. In her case, they were not going to let her get back on the plane to go home because her license had expired during our trip. She owns a business and was taking care of her son who had a lot of complicated medical issues, so not getting home was not an option. The people at the airport had mercy and let her on the plane, thank God, but it could have gone really badly. This could happen to anyone, so you should really be nice to yourself. After all, this mishap may become part of a fabulous book someday. I really hope the rest of your trip is magnificent!

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Chere! Yikes! Can’t believe they would not even let her on the plane! Good grief. I’m sure it wasn’t expired for very long. So glad she made it. Ha ha ha. Yes, now I definitely have a way to strand a character if I need it! Ha.