Several years ago, I was attending a writers conference, taking part in a panel discussion called “What’s Keeping You From Finishing That Novel.” My fellow panelists— much-decorated, well-published authors —were swapping war stories about the things they will do to avoid writing. You know, those quick diversions we all find, like de-pilling a sweater or remodeling the neighbor’s kitchen.
It was amusing, and the audience was enjoying it, but I’m watching their faces and thinking: This isn’t it. This isn’t “What’s Keeping You From Finishing That Novel.” So I said: “You know, I’d like to talk about what kept me from finishing projects for years. I have demons. Personal demons.” Having written both fantasy novels and self-help books, I felt well-qualified to address the issue.
There are two common varieties of demons that prey on writers. The first, Original Demons, are the most basic human fears that make it difficult to sit down and write, and—once we do sit down—to write with authority and authenticity. The second, Intimate Demons, are the particular emotions that attach themselves to a specific project and will either hinder or aid that project, depending on how the writer handles them. Both types of demons are subtle and tenacious.
Before we confront the demons, however, we have to discuss their devious ability to hide from us. The authors at the “What’s Keeping You” panel were not talking about demons, but enumerating techniques for avoiding them. Avoidance techniques are usually learned in childhood. As children, we unconsciously develop ways to cope with pain, sadness, loss and anger. As adults, we cling to those same coping mechanisms (hiding, defending, creating illusions, losing focus), repeating them over and over until they become habitual—thought ruts that over time become torrential river canyons down which we pour our consciousness.
These synaptic ruts are well-worn and therefore hard to detect. They can assume the tiniest of forms, such as distracting thoughts (checking Facebook again), or they can take the grandest forms, such as learning a new profession (say, astrophysics) to increase your income and have more time to write. Avoidance techniques can wreak havoc on our writing. Conversely, if we learn to monitor them, they become our first line of defense and warning system that a demon is lurking.
I recently stopped writing in the middle of a chapter of a novel—in the middle of being on a roll—because I needed to write an outline. It was crucial, but for me there’s a demon attached to outlining.
The spatial-relations part of my brain is a weak link, and demons prey on weakness. Love of words, check. Sense of humor, check. Sense of drama, check. Structure, not so much. It has always been this way. In sixth grade, I wrote a poem for Danny Davis’ English class assignment in exchange for him doing my metal-shop project. That Craig is a bright boy, but he doesn’t excel at putting things together.
Brain science says that this kind of negative reinforcement, backed by lack of effort, atrophies the neural pathways necessary to the task. So when I tried to write an outline, I was flexing this pathetically weak brain muscle at my 45-chapter novel, and feeling more and more like the 97-pound weakling at the beach getting sand kicked in his face. Every time I sat down to work on it, I immediately felt inadequate and stupid. Here’s the tricky part—I didn’t know that’s what I was feeling, because I have well-oiled avoidance techniques. They start up so fast and so hard that I don’t even get a chance to know I have a demon, much less meet him.
I’m looking at that outline and thinking: “I’m hungry. Well, not really hungry … come on, work, then reward, a couple of chapters outlined and then … hey, email. I better check it. Wow, you can buy martini olives online, who would have thought? A little snack would be good right now. There’s orange juice and cookies and pie and … man, I really should clean the fridge; there’s some yogurt in there with more culture than a Viennese opera groupie.” Dental torture would be preferable.
When we sit down to face a difficult task or when we wish to share an emotional truth, we are often pitting ourselves against our demons, and our avoidance techniques kick in. We may find that we use cleverness in place of honesty. We may not finish anything or show our work to anyone. We may show our work to everyone before it or we are prepared for the consequences. We may criticize ourselves mercilessly (a clever way to avoid working).
Is this sounding hideously debilitating? The point is that when we become aware of and examine the difficult stuff, the dark stuff, it makes us better humans and better writers. It’s counterintuitive.
So I sat down every day for three weeks and watched my brain flail like a fish. I wanted caffeine so badly, and then I wanted more pie, and then I wanted to shop the Internet for sandals, and then I wanted, I wanted, I wanted not to be alone with my anxiety about failing. There it is. My demon. My fear of finding out that I really couldn’t write a crisp outline, and by extension, a good novel. My fear of failure.
I once heard the spiritual teacher Ram Dass say that you have to invite the demons in for tea. When you run or hide from them, they are faceless and terrible. But if you invite them in, they become like slightly annoying relatives. “Ah, my fear of failure, it’s you again. Well, come in, sit down. Would you care for a cup of oolong and a lemon biscuit?”
Side by side, my fear of failure (FAF) and I wrote the outline. It was terrible writing, and I knew it was terrible because a number of third-rate critics in my brain (minions of FAF) reviewed it as I wrote it. I wrote it anyway. I took more breaks than necessary, I muttered to myself, I annoyed everyone around me. Toward the end, I got excited about the whole thing, and FAF faded into the background, grumbling occasionally about not being offered a second biscuit.
Alas, I have no demon-banishing magic words to offer you. Invite your Original Demons in, give them a cookie, and tell them to shut up while you write.
Intimate Demons are the midwives to our writing, the guides across our dark waters, the Charons ferrying us across our River Styx. Intimate Demons are those related to a project. Not every project has them, and that’s OK. If you’ve done your research and discovered that cats, Zen, golf and sex are among the top 10 words in bestselling book titles, and you’re writing a book called Zen Cats on the Golf Course of Desire, maybe it’s smooth sailing.
But if you’re writing something you’ve got a stake in—nonfiction or fiction, doesn’t matter—there’s a chance that an Intimate Demon will come along for the ride. Are you writing about sex, nature, stillness, violence, joy, money, religion, race, gender? Anything that touches upon specific (especially unconscious) fears might carve out a comfy demon nesting place.
Cultivate that unpleasant itch of dissatisfaction you get when your writing isn’t good (it’s the demon that feels so scratchy). Once you’ve recognized there is a demon, name it. “Aha, sex-scene discomfort, I name you Frank! No, Priscilla! No, Frankscilla!”
Intimate Demons we don’t so much invite in for tea as for a wrestling match. Like Proteus, the demon can foretell the future of your project but will change shape to avoid having to reveal such precious information. So drag that discomfort into the light and have it out. “Why am I uncomfortable writing this particular scene? Did it come from my upbringing, or a particular experience, or is it just my personality? Could I include my own discomfort in the scene? Or can I set my discomfort aside and live through my character?” Take that, Frankscilla!
It is axiomatic that a writer is powerfully interested in people, places and events. This passionate curiosity, when turned inward, is the primary weapon in demon hunting. If you are as passionately curious about your own interests as you are about the world, you will have a unique story to tell. It won’t be a clever plot that does it.
Shakespeare stole all his plots from the ancients, there are only four stories in the universe, and nothing is new under the sun. Except you. There are billions of people in the world, and not one of them has your particular set of sensibilities, synaptic connections, chemical imbalances, upbringing, perversities, pleasures, triumphs, scars, desires, secrets and memories. Not one single person combines your interest in pug breeding, string theory, and collecting autographed barbarian loincloths—pre-Genghis, obviously. Our demons are part and parcel of our uniqueness, and familiarity with them is crucial to our growth as writers.
More than that, passionate curiosity is the flaming sword that cuts through illusions to reveal our demons. It is the same principle as meditation, which is well-known for revealing hidden thought processes. A common meditation practice involves sitting quietly and observing thoughts as they arise. Now, add a keyboard to that technique and tell me if it doesn’t sound like writing. Once we have exposed the demons, we name them so that we won’t forget them. Finally, if they are Original Demons, we invite them in for tea. If they are Intimate Demons, we wrestle with them (or tickle them) until they reveal their secrets.
Sometimes, change is instantaneous (in the same way an earthquake seems instantaneous, ignoring the million or so years of plate-tectonic flirtation). But there are times in which our passionate curiosity has uncovered some particularly hairy demon—fear that may have been ingested through the umbilicus or with our mother’s milk. This kind of demon hides in our marrow or wraps around our spine.
In one of my workshops, a student said she simply could not convey certain strong emotions on the page. She knew the demon’s name and where it was hiding, but the little sucker just hung on— no doubt trembling with the fear of facing the light of day.
If she keeps writing, I am certain that this writer will coax the demon forth. But it will take time, and there will likely be no “aha!” moment. Someday she will be having tea with a friend with whom she shares her writing. Handing over a page (perhaps a part of a scene between two teenage girls, in a park at midnight, discussing boys) she’ll go to the counter and order (perhaps a pot of Assam and a biscotti), and return to find her friend in tears. I hope when that happens she will pull up a third chair for the demon.
Here’s a certainty: None of that will happen to her, to you, to any of us, unless we keep writing. We can’t wait for change or our muse or Lefty or Guffman or Godot. The only constant and certain advice I have received about writing is to do it. Write badly. Write technically. Write to sell. Write to assuage your guilt. Write from your heart, from your gut, from your third eye.
I’m suggesting you hold a metaphorical tea party every time you write: Lay out the saucers and creamer and sugar bowl, bake some biscuits, and brew some tea. Writing is pretty much a kid’s game and you get to play all the roles, so why not play the hero? Heroes are courageous, resourceful and vigilant. So watch for avoidance techniques and the demons hiding behind them. The more demons you identify, the more writing you’ll get done. The clarity with which you see your demons will reflect in the clarity of your writing. The heat of your passionate curiosity will engender a burning authenticity. This is the kind of courageous writing that can lift you, demons and all, high above the crowd.
Craig English’s most recent novel, The Anvil of Navarre, is available for Kindle and other e-book readers. English is the co-author of Anxious to Please: 7 Revolutionary Practices for the Chronically Nice, now available as an audiobook from Audible.com.
Here is a necessarily incomplete list of what Original Demons say:
• You have no talent.
• You’re not qualified.
• Your mother might read this.
• You can’t face rejection.
• You can’t face success.
• You can’t bear sitting alone with yourself.
• You are a fraud.
• You’re not worthy of an audience.
• _______________________ (fill in your own)
Here are tips for uncovering an Intimate Demon infestation:
• Notice which scenes/sections you are avoiding writing.
• Look for characters who lack fire.
• Look for clichés.
• When you read your own writing, notice which bits you have to read through twice.
• Notice which parts of a project invoke your avoidance techniques.