Welcoming Martha Alderson (The Plot Whisperer) today, who is brilliant at digging down to the deepest layers of a story. Martha’s new book, Boundless Creativity: A Spiritual Workbook for Overcoming Self-Doubt, Emotional Traps, and Other Creative Blocks (affiliate link) tackles the inner journey of writers and what might hold them back from producing their best creative work. Today she’s looking at something oh-so-familiar: the emotional ups and downs of writing a story. Read on!
How you feel as you write a story from beginning to end usually depends on where you are in the story. In other words, your feelings when you begin are usually vastly different than how you feel plotting and writing the middle, or when you craft the ending. The more aware you are of where the sharp turns and unnerving pitfalls are likely to occur, the more apt you are to move through the writing process with grace.
Writers usually feel a sense of relief in knowing that whatever they are experiencing—no matter how challenging or frustrating—is normal and part of the Universal Story at the heart of every great creative journey. To understand that you are not the only one who is hit with setbacks and hardships and it is in fact a stage we all pass through brings comfort. Let’s look at these stages.
At the start of any creative endeavor, you’re a willing participant. You have a seed of inspiration you’re eager to follow, find worth in your pursuit, are energized and uplifted by the possibilities, and see a shining future for yourself.
Beginnings are not the time to think rationally about all the reasons why you shouldn’t or couldn’t dream and desire what you want. Simply let your imagination roam free, and as you do, begin to settle into a routine of showing up for your writing. Decide where and when you’ll devote time and attention to your story. Schedule your writing time on your calendar you so you’re sure to stay true to your commitment to yourself.
Though some writers prefer to wait for inspiration to hit before writing, the muse seems to show up more consistently when it knows where and when you’re likely to be waiting to receive.
As you start writing the beginning, try imagining where your protagonist will be at the end of the story doing something she’s unable to do anywhere else in the story because first she needs to learn new skills and abilities.
The middle of a story is the territory of the antagonists. This is where, in a story, the protagonist meets obstacles and antagonists. The same thing happens to you. At some point, after you cross over from the excitement of beginning a new story and have settled into a writing routine, you stumble. You come face-to-face with your limitations. The early middle phase of undertaking anything new—such as living in these current times—signals the need to learn lessons and new skills, gain experience and knowledge about what’s expected of you and those around you, increase your self-awareness, and manage your emotions.
You may find yourself stumped about plot, or your dialogue feels stilted, or your characters are wooden, or you struggle to show your characters’ emotions rather than simply tell the reader how they feel (The Emotion Thesaurus by Ackerman and Puglisi is a terrific resource how to demonstrate how a character is feeling). Snags such as these are not uncommon. All writers confront weaknesses in their understanding of the craft.
Rest assured that setbacks are a natural part of the creative process and to be expected. Their main objective is to pause your progress (not to send you into a tailspin) and alert you of something you’re missing to succeed.
As difficult as the challenges you face may seem at the time, so long as you take the time to learn the skills you’re missing through reading craft books, studying how success writers in your genre deal with the issue you’re stymied by, attending classes, and turning to others for help, setbacks always come with gifts of knowledge, experience, skills, and tools that will serve you throughout your entire writing life.
Beyond the weaknesses you may discover about specific elements around the craft of writing, you may also be confronted with internal weaknesses as well. You find yourself procrastinating rather than sticking to your writing schedule. You read over what you’ve written and judge yourself harshly. You believe you’re not good enough, smart enough, worthy enough to be a writer.
Complications and trials at this point in the process are emotional lessons created specifically for each individual person. So long as you persevere and learn about yourself from the conflicts and stumbling blocks, they become priceless opportunities to gain insight into your beliefs, acceptance of your emotions and wisdom about yourself—virtues that will prove helpful in all aspects of your life.
A Dark Night
Proud of yourself for overcoming those low points and traps, you continue writing. But, wait. You are not out of the woods, because eventually, as you keep writing, a crisis strikes. You suffer an excruciating critique. Your characters turn on you. You hit a wall and believe you’ve failed. This perceived failure happens either through no fault of your own or because of self-sabotaging habits and beliefs. Failure happens when you unconsciously expect to fail, when you’ve wandered too far afield from your destiny, or when you’ve stumbled and fallen short of your promise.
Failure, brokenness, fear, emptiness, alienation, and great loss—your ego destroyed—leave room for profound growth. In every endeavor, difficulties multiply to a breaking point that signifies the death of your creative vision and dream, and even your nerve. Not every writer falls into such a profound tailspin, however, the more emotionally attached you are to your piece, the harder the fall. If you find you’ve stopped writing and even the thought of continuing with your story brings up dark feelings of failure, chances are you have slid into the abyss.
How you react now prepares the ground for the next time you struggle, hit a wall, or feel a failure. You either give up or you understand that to succeed, something has to change. And, that something is you. Why me, you might ask. Because your relationship with your writing and all you create is reflective of your relationship with yourself.
Self-Doubt and Emotional Traps
We all experience moments of doubt and a lack of self-confidence. A problem develops when those moments turn into hours, days, months, and even years, and interfere with, block, or even stop the creative process altogether. Once the cycle of anxiety and insecurity sends you spinning like a top, getting you nowhere, it’s important to learn to stop. Learn to listen to what you’re saying to yourself to rise above the dilemma and more clearly see and understand the true problem.
If you’re willing to dive deep into your emotions, learn about yourself, and begin to trust your own inner knowing, you are gifted with insight, sparks of inspiration, and invitations to explore ideas that pop into your imagination. Every breakdown also offers the opportunity of a breakthrough. Releasing unproductive habits and belief patterns is a spiritual task that leads to the development and growth of faith in you yourself.
Don’t Deny Your Feelings
Don’t change how you feel or fix your feelings. Now that you’re aware of your emotions, accept that this moment is happening as a gift to experience more of the unknown. You’ve learned lessons that your flaws determined. Slowly, you become stronger having accepted and embraced your imperfections. Each learning-growth-change-transformation cycle plays out in ways that uniquely match your specific spiritual, writing, life-skills needs.
After you’ve dusted yourself off and are determined to reach the end no matter what comes, the struggles don’t just disappear. In fact, they rise in intensity. Except now on your way to triumph you have all you need to go the distance.
The more you learn about yourself through writing and creating, the more conscious you become of every aspect of yourself. Ultimately, the spiritual purpose of creating is to challenge you to express yourself fully with no doubt or fear. Our stories and what we write has its own energy and the potential to change the world.
MARTHA ALDERSON is the author of the best-selling The Plot Whisperer. She writes novels for readers, plot books for writers, and most recently Boundless Creativity: A Spiritual Workbook for Overcoming Self-Doubt, Emotional Traps, and Other Creative Blocks for anyone looking to enrich their lives with more creativity and inspiration.
Her other books are Writing Blockbuster Plots and Writing Deep Scenes, The Plot Whisperer Workbook, The Plot Whisperer Book of Writing Prompts, as well as several ebooks. Look for her latest novel Parallel Lives: A ’60s Love Story coming out summer 2020. She lives and writes in Santa Cruz. Learn more about Alderson on her website, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Youtube.