Not too long ago, I joined different popular writing groups and forums. I wanted to know what specific common issues that writers have been facing. Scholarship can dictate and address specific elements of style and how they feel writers can adjust their practices, but that kind of information isn't always accessible to all writing communities, especially to those who prefer self-publishing.
Along the way, I noticed a trend of what I'll be calling "self-talk" posts. I will refrain from giving them either a positive or a negative connotation. These posts are beliefs that the writer has internalized about themselves (sometimes others, but usually reflecting back on the self). Here are some very basic examples of what I mean. I won't be quoting anyone, but I can still give the premise of their posts. "I'm feeling very blocked and unmotivated. I don't think I can call myself a writer." "If you have foundational basic skills, no formal education is necessary! You can write no matter what."
"I want to publish my book, but I don't think it's good enough." "My beta reader said that my side characters don't add anything to my story, and they're not supposed to, right?"
Some of these posts may not sound like self-talk, but they all reflect certain beliefs that these writers have internalized. Through posting, they might be seeking validation, motivation, or conversation, anything outside of their self-talk. While there are a lot of factors that can aid or hinder writers in their project ideas, self-talk is a major factor.
Many of my previous posts have discussed reflection and guided reflection. The importance of reflection and productive self-talk is part of the reason why mindfulness has been at the center of current discourse on writing habits.
According to psychotherapist Robert Boice, people are often very unaware of how much they talk to themselves or convince themselves of a particular reality. This happens often for people with test anxiety. Those with test anxiety can practice exercises for stress relief, and those exercises can help immensely. However, this isn't a guarantee that the anxiety is gone. Anxiety isn't the same as negative self-talk, but the point is that people will often personify their anxiety as a way of distancing themselves from it.
For example, "My anxiety is telling me not to perform Action A."
In that way, they attempt to communicate with and manage their anxiety. This is important because, to say the least, anxiety can spur negative self-talk. Together, that can interfere with performance on a test, a project, or any number of endeavors.
When Boice worked with a group of writers who specifically struggled with negative self-talk, he worked through a few different steps.
First, after working with the writer for a time, he helped them to understand the impediments that self-talk can bring. He also helped them realize the degree to which they'd habitualized it. While nobody knows the self better than the self, we don't always fully understand or closely observe our own cognition.
The next step sounds much more dystopian than it is. It's called "thought substitution." I will only be describing the way that Boice handled his particular sessions. This might not be the best possible option for everyone, but I see how this can be useful. This is where a therapist would demonstrate how they would apply strategies related to positive self-talk through modeling. Then, a person would rehearse a situation in which that self-talk would influence the outcome. The therapist would encourage the person to reward themselves for undergoing that scenario.
The third step implements Donald Meichenbaum's (a cognitive-behavior therapist) strategies of adaptive self-statements. Here are some examples:
"If I push myself, I can do this properly." "I will begin by sizing up the problem and deciding exactly what needs to be done."
"I will relax and go slowly. There is no need to hurry; I'll just let it happen" (Meichenbaum, 1974).
These statements are, noticeably, very objective. It doesn't blame an obstacle, in writing or otherwise, on the self or any outside force. It encourages a solution-focused mindset. While these statements are good to keep around, they are not immediate solutions. The problem is something that can be communicated with and managed, but it must be worked on and worked through.
Boice personalized his approach with those who came to him for writer's block and were engaging in negative self-talk, but used this general model. They brought specific "thought sheets" to their sessions in which they wrote down the unproductive, distracting, and otherwise negative thoughts that they noticed in themselves. Over time, this exercise helped all of them to adopt more productive and motivating writing habits.
The effects of self-talk are still being heavily discussed today. A recent study explores how "distanced self-talk" or using non-first person pronouns to refer to oneself can prompt people to conceptualize and describe themselves outside of their social identities.
There are several available tools that can help writers who struggle using productive self-talk, and there's a lot out there that's worth trying, but none of these strategies can honestly guarantee instant solutions for everyone. If you're interested, take some time to research a few strategies that people, especially mental health professionals, use. Establishing the best possible habits for growth is absolutely worth the time.
Thank you so much to everyone who has given me feedback thus far on Purposeful Prose posts and ideas, especially those who have helped me out with this one!
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Boice, R. (1985). Psychotherapies for writing blocks. When a writer can’t write, 182-218.
Gainsburg, I., & Kross, E. (2020). Distanced self-talk changes how people conceptualize the self. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 88, 103969.
Meichenbaum, D., & Cameron, R. (1974). The clinical potential of modifying what clients say to themselves. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 11(2), 103.