When I first started writing Loreena’s Gift, I remember calling my mom up in a panic.
After exchanging the usual pleasantries, she asked me how the book was going.
“Mom, she’s blind!” I burst out. “My main character. She’s blind! How the heck am I going to do that?”
To this day I don’t know why Loreena came to me this way, but there she was, living with her uncle in small-town church, blind from a car accident since she was nine years old.
Mom said something encouraging. I was sort of stuck, anyway. The character wasn’t going away, and there was no miracle cure to help her regain her sight. Half the time while writing the book I had my eyes closed, imagining what it would be like to be without my own vision.
After I finally finished and sent the manuscript to publishers, I remember starting my next book and feeling like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I could see! Seriously. It sort of felt that way writing from the point of view of a character with all five senses working normally. There are still challenges, though. The main character this time is male. Again, I’ll be changing my viewpoint as I step into his shoes.
Writers do this on a regular basis. We take on other personas. We’re like actors in that way. Sometimes our choices pay off, but sometimes, they don’t. (Stories are abandoned every day that just don’t “work.”)
How do we know when to follow our instincts, and when to stop and rethink what we’re doing?
Can Writers Really Trust Their Instincts?
“Most writers have better instincts than we may think we do,” says award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter and author Harrison Demchick. “We just have to learn to trust them.”
It can be difficult. We doubt ourselves. Is this really right? we think. Or am I making a mistake?
“There’s nothing wrong with this,” says writing teacher Janice Hardy, “it’s how we learn and how we improve our books. But one of the things we also need to learn is to trust that writer’s compass, trust our instincts, because they usually know what they’re talking about.”
Writing the first draft of a story has often been compared with trudging through the jungle, or struggling through a marsh, or somehow making our way over some rough terrain or other. There is no map for how to get through it, no prior road signs to tell us where to go. We have only ourselves and our imaginations and that frightening blank page. It can be really hard to trust that somehow, we’ll figure it out.
It’s a scary thing to do. In the middle of the jungle, we often think that surely we’d be better to seek out the advice of someone more experienced. Sometimes we follow through on that thought and find an editor, mentor, craft book, or something, seeking a predetermined route to where we want to go.
Yet writing remains stubbornly resistant to any outside direction. Sure, there are some basic plot outlines to follow, particularly if we’re writing genre fiction, but so much of it is up to us. That’s what makes it fun—and frightening—and why we must learn to simply trust ourselves as we go along.
“People often ask me for recommendations on resources for learning to write, and I’m happy to give them,” says historical fiction and fantasy author Anna Elliott. “But when I’m drafting a novel myself, I very rarely use it in any conscious way….I suppose I’d have to say that in my own writing I tend to rely on something closer to basic, gut-level instinct.”
That’s not to say that craft books and editors don’t help, however. We all want to improve as we go, and that involves learning new skills.
But here we come back to a rather puzzling place. We should follow our instincts, but what if we still need to learn something, or get better at something? Think of the writing you did ten years ago, and compare that to today. Likely you’ve gotten better, through practice, critiques, and continued education. Over time, your new skills became, well, instinctual.
So what’s the difference between instinct and skill? Is there one? And how do you know if you need more of one or the other?
Instinct or Skills? Which Do We Need at Any Given Time?
“I think some aspects of writing seem like instinct, but they’re really skills,” says romance and fantasy writer Jami Gold. “Think of a musician who has studied beats, rhythm, and composition. Many of those same skills can be applied to writing.”
Stacey Kendall Glick of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management agrees that good writing is a combination of both instinct and skill:
“I think that good writing is a sometimes dysfunctional relationship between instinct and skill, and the right combination of the two is what makes great writers great.”
It’s true that when we learn new skills—as long as we learn them really well—they can begin to feel more like instincts. Ask any writer working on a second or third or fourth novel. We know more. We’ve learned more. We have higher expectations of ourselves. Sometimes it can make the writing harder, as we’re more keenly aware of what’s not up to snuff.
How can we tell? We just feel it. It’s become instinctual. And that’s a good thing.
After all, it’s not like we possess all the instincts needed for great writing straight out of the womb (though some rare geniuses do). Instead, we need to rely on the natural instincts we have, but pair them with life-long learning so that they continue to expand and become increasingly more powerful.
“I think the ultimate goal of any author should be to internalize the basic rules of storytelling,” says Elliott, “internalize them so deeply that our instincts take over as we write, and the rhythm of a good story becomes as natural as the rhythm of our own breath.”
That can take time, however. Fortunately, our instincts can often tell us when we need to learn more. We may know that something’s wrong, for instance, but not know exactly what or how to fix it. That gut feeling can drive us to seek out the education we need.
We grow up with some instincts more well-honed than others. If you’re a musician, your ear for the rhythm of your prose is likely to be reliable, but your sense of plot? Maybe not so much. Or you may be a master at plotting, but have less of an ear when it comes to dialogue.
These are things we learn as we go, if we’re dedicated to getting better at the craft of writing. Over time, the more we learn, the stronger our so-called instincts become.
Instincts and skills. They’re two sides of the same coin. But as long as we keep learning, we can grow to trust our instincts nearly completely, can’t we?
Powerful Emotions Can Drown Out Our Instincts
Leadership author Scott Berkun says that it’s not always wise to follow our instincts.
When we’re being influenced by something else, for example, like a recent emotional experience, difficult challenge, or just a bad day, our instincts may prove unreliable.
“Depending on what happened to you yesterday,” he writes, “the way your instincts respond to what happens today will change. Instincts are not static. We are heavily biased by recent events….We are also prone to influence from people around us, and their behavior changes what our instincts tell us.”
Think about how you feel after your manuscript has been rejected, for instance, or critiqued. Your instincts may tell you on that day to burn the pages and forget it. Best not to listen to them when that happens. Instead, wait until you’re feeling emotionally centered again to tackle the weaknesses in your story.
Anxiety, too, can overpower our instincts, leaving us confused as to what is a gut feeling and what is just fear talking. We may feel something strongly, for instance, and believe the feeling is an instinct, when actually it’s just a powerful emotion. In truth, instincts are often much quieter feelings, whispered voices that talk to us when all else is still.
Says change consultant Cheryl Brewster,
“The weeds of distraction, overwhelm, worry and stress can skew your intuitive discernment, gut instincts, emotional guidance system, ability to think clearly and plan effectively.”
Getting caught up in emotion, she adds, can make it more difficult to get in touch with our true instincts—that inner guidance that is so intelligent. She recommends moving into a more positive emotional state before seeking out intuitive wisdom.
In general, if you’re experiencing an “instinct” at the same time as an emotion, be cautious. Use exercise, meditation, yoga, music, or some other stress-relieving activity to become calmer before you trust what your instincts are telling you.
Trust Your Instincts, but Keep Learning
Regardless in where we are along the writing journey, on the whole, we probably should listen to our instincts more often. It’s those little voices that tell us when something is “off” about a story, even if we don’t want to listen.
“Much of the time, we know when something we wrote is not working,” says Demchick. “We may not know exactly why…we know in our hearts that this manuscript we spent so much time on is not done yet. And we only reach our full potential as writers when we learn to trust that instinct and improve our work.”
Deciding not to heed those instincts often happens in the editing process. Afraid we won’t be able to fix what we know to be wrong, we rationalize our feelings away. Usually in the end, though, we come around to realizing our instincts were right.
“I knew on the first draft of Blue Fire that there were certain problems,” says Hardy, “because my compass was pointing right at them and yelling ‘DANGER! DANGER!’ But I ignored it, because I was nervous about writing my second book and freaking out over it (which is totally normal).”
When her critique group confirmed her instincts, she went back and addressed the problem. Sometimes, we need confirmation from people outside ourselves to remember that yes, in most cases, that nagging gut feeling was doing us a favor.
Instincts aren’t just for writing and editing, however. They can also help steer us in the right direction when it comes to our creative careers. Whatever advice we may seek, in the end, we must do some soul searching to come up with the right path for ourselves.
“I’ve benefited from other writer’s sage wisdom in the past,” says freelance journalist Terri Morgan. “But lately, I’m starting to wonder if I would have been better off ignoring some of the advice I’ve received and trusted my instincts instead.”
Terri goes on to explain that after hearing from a college professor that non-fiction was more financially rewarding than fiction, she embarked on a freelance career and didn’t look back for 26 years. Then something inspired her, and she finally wrote that novel.
“Will it pay the bills?” she says. “That remains to be seen, but chances are no. Do I wish I’d stuck with fiction over the years? Yes and no. I’ve enjoyed my career, but I’ll never know what I could have created if I’d dedicated my career to writing novels. So do I have any advice for writers? Just two tidbits. First, trust your instincts. And second, don’t take anybody’s advice, even my own.”
I was fortunate. I had a lot of encouragement when it came to Loreena’s Gift, which helped counteract the worry and self-doubt. In the end, I couldn’t do anything but follow the story as it came to me. That proved to be the right decision.
If you’ve got the monster of self-doubt yelling at you, take a long walk, a long drive, or a hot bath, get calm, and ask that inner voice for its advice.
When you look back many years from now—whether you followed your instincts or not—you’re likely to realize they were spot on.
Do you always trust your writerly instincts, or does self-doubt sometimes threaten to derail your progress?
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