Monday, May 15, 2017

"Does Hope Have to Be so Painful?": Writerly Mind Games & How to Defeat Them, by Anne Nesbet

A week ago I spent a lovely afternoon with some friends who are also writers. We were marveling at the way writers use their own creative minds against themselves. All that magical thinking: if I write eat five vegetables every day, the editor will like my latest revision! All the staring at the blank page as if it were an enemy, when really writing is what we like most about being alive (when it's going well)! All the bargaining, the suffering, the envy, the wanting to die when the edit letter arrives, the focusing on the one really negative line in the one so-so review!

Really, writers' minds are infinitely flexible and creative--when the "job" is tormenting our poor, discouraged selves.

One of us said, "Hey, let's make a list!" So we did! We brainstormed and scribbled our ideas down and gave them numbers and titled the whole thing, optimistically, "MIND GAMES & HOW TO DEFEAT THEM." Here's a picture of our work:

It felt so much better to have listed our demons this way, even if we weren't entirely sure about HOW to defeat every one of them, that I will pause right here and recommend the exercise: cluster with some other writers, and list those mind games. Just knowing you're not alone out there is wonderfully healing. (You are not alone!!)

But today I would like to pay particular attention to three of our mind-game sub-categories: #7, #8, and especially #6A.

Mind-Game #6A is the Meta Mind-Game: "Self-Punishment for Falling Into Mind Games." All the other mind-games wander into #6A territory at some point, inflicting a second level of suffering: Not only am I feeling jealousy, which is super unpleasant all on its own, but oh my goodness I'm a terrible person for feeling jealousy! To which we now know to say, 6A! 6A 6A 6A! Mind-games are universal, like gnats and dust and mold on the raspberries. You do not deserve punishment for falling into a mind game. You deserve someone compassionately handing you a cup of tea and reminding you what you are doing, which is "6A." Notice the game's arrival, drink the tea to steady yourself, and say to that nearby friend, "My goodness, the mind-games are thick in the air today! It must be spring!"

There. Now we're ready to tackle one of the harder challenges, so let's move right on to #7: Why do we make HOPE so painful for ourselves? I mean, really, WHY? Why is it that having a work on submission--being looked at by an editor--up for an award--out in bookstores for the first time--can warp our minds and cause so much suffering? Our little group agreed: HOPE leads to some very intense bouts of Magical Thinking. I suspect that you, dear reader, know what we're talking about: we're talking Magical Thinking on the order of "If I win this Solitaire game, Penguin will buy my book!!" And THEN, of course, like clockwork, like entropy, like every nasty aspect of human mortality, along comes #6A to clobber us on the head: "I can't believe I just thought a SOLITAIRE game would get me a BOOK CONTRACT!!" Followed by a ratcheting up of #7's Magical Thinking, until you're actually saying to yourself something like this:

"If I avoid Magical Thinking all week, PENGUIN WILL BUY MY BOOK!"

Oh, dear! Oh, no! When you're that deep in the mind-game hole, what can be done?

We thought about this one. We thought compassionately. We thought that, of course, after so much effort and so much disappointment, any writer is prone to experience HOPE as a beast with soft soft fur and sharp claws--wait! A beast!

"Let's turn that beast into a guest," said someone. "A visitor to our burrow."
A beast--a guest--a pang--
"Oh!" said another of us. "A pangolin!!"
And so was born the Pangolin of Longing (illustrated here by Ruth McNally Barshaw).

A Pangolin does not have soft, soft fur--and yet manages to be quite adorable in appearance (we feel). But it is not a snuggly creature, nor is it deadly. Let the Pangolin of Longing visit--but remember that it is only a guest. It is not your inmost soul.

So that is our collective wisdom on the subject of painful, lacerating HOPE: compassionately convert it into the Pangolin of Longing. Which may visit, without, however, sucking you dry. And always remember: 6A! Do not punish yourself for finding Hope painful! It is such a very human thing.

And now #8: "Cheating Ourselves of Joy." Let's say one of those incredibly amazing wonderful rare radiant lightning-strike hoped-for things ACTUALLY HAPPENS! After 463 no-thank-yous, the answer is finally, unbelievably YES!!!!!!

What happens next?

Let's be honest.

For many of us, after 33 minutes of joy------------we return to our previously scheduled program of mind-games, self-punishment, and, oh yes, 6A.

Why? What is it about being human and/or being a writer that makes it SO hard to experience joy properly? When the amazingly good thing finally happens, why oh why can't we bask?

We thought about this and thought about this some more, and by gum, a lightbulb appeared over our heads. We realized: Basking is hard, too hard for a single poor writer-mind. For JOY, even the toughest, healthiest writer-mind probably needs some help. Ask for help!

--->Let others help you bask!
--->You do NOT have to bear the burden of good things alone! It's really too much for one single person to bear.

So, we suggest, find a like-minded group and be honest: "I'm in danger of not appreciating this Happy Thing properly because my 33 minutes are just about up. Please oh please help me, and I will so gladly help you when it's your turn!"

And then do really focus and bask. For a little while, bask! Take the paws of the Pangolin of Longing and dance a polka around the place!

We will all be dancing with you.

(Many thanks to my fellow brainstormers, Christina Uss, Ann Bedichek, Sophie Petersen, Darshana Khiani, Lori Snyder, and Ruth McNally Barshaw. See also Christina Uss's post today on "Emu's Debuts" on a very closely related topic: Another post that came out of our mind-games brainstorming session!)


  1. Wonderful post! And now I have a reference for 6A! :-)

    1. We will just have to try to graduate from 6A-ing ourselves all the time! It's not easy, but with a sense of humor, perhaps we can manage it (at least sometimes).....

  2. This is the most wonderful thing I have read today, and is likely to be the most wonderful thing I will read for quite a few days in the future! I will dance with the Pangolin of Longing! (And then lounge with the Pangolin of Lounging.)

    1. Oh! And then how about "jam with the Pangolin of Jamming"??I could go for that!

  3. This needs to be spread far and wide!

    1. A pangolin-based revolution in writerly coping (and joy)!

  4. 6A is my new best friend.

    Anne, love this post, almost as much as I loved how all of you broke everything down into an oh-so-brilliantly-true list WITH SOLUTIONS! (That part is key.) Although I do have to point out that I appeared in this group only after you had already figured everything out, so while my inclusion on the list of people who were there makes me so happy (because it means I know all you wonderful people!), my overly-developed sense of fairness must point out I was in no way responsible for any of the said brilliance above. :-)

    1. I think an "overly-developed sense of fairness" may need its own number, Lori! In this case, true fairness would point out that that you helped many of us realize that compassion has got to be the path we're looking for. Thank you!

  5. Oh my goodness, this is brilliant. I'd love to see the complete list.

    Bring on the Pangolin of Longing!

    1. The Pangolin of Longing visits regularly at my house. He has his own set of keys and lets himself in. :)

  6. Thank you so much for sharing. I find the longer I'm at this writing game, the more elaborate my mind games become--maybe because I now have a better idea of all of the things that "could" happen (as in, go wrong). And because I know this, my self confidence has actually diminished over time. This was not what I expected when I started on this road. Sometimes I wish I could return to those naive days.

    1. Oh, Vicky, so much solidarity! And hugs! Confidence is a truly odd beast, and I agree that greater knowledge is not always the path to greater calm. Sending all good thoughts your way.

  7. Anne, you did such a wonderful job summing up all the everythings here. THANK YOU for convening the meeting and now putting it all together to share with the world. And wait - just to be clear - winning the Solitaire game I'm playing right now will NOT make Penguin buy my book?

    1. Umm, Christina, I just checked--and if you win your current Solitaire game, YOU WILL BE THE NEXT RECIPIENT OF THE NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE AND ALSO PHYSICS! Good luck! :)


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!