Please welcome author and book coach Mary McDonough to Writer Unboxed today!
If the name Mary McDonough sounds familiar, it may be because she portrayed Erin on The Waltons for a decade. Mary chronicles her Walton family and life beyond the mountain in Lessons from the Mountain, What I Learned from Erin Walton. Her debut novel, One Year, was published in 2014, followed by a second novel, Christmas on Honeysuckle Lane, which was made into a Hallmark movie.
“A warm, heartfelt novel about what it means to belong to a family. You won’t want to put it down.” –Mary Alice Monroe, New York Times bestselling author of A Lowcountry Wedding
Perhaps the result of the many years she spent working in and successfully navigating her place in a difficult and highly visible industry, it seemed only natural for Mary to connect and guide others. Thus, her work as a Life Coach began. We’re thrilled to have her with us today wearing that Life Coach hat, ready to advise and guide and do that thing she does so well.
Ever have those days where ANYTHING sounds better that writing? I’ve had many. Sometimes the days stretch out to weeks. One day, as I was avoiding life in general and my novel in particular, I found myself gazing out into the backyard. My dog was lying in a sunny spot, enjoying himself. For a second, I wished I had a dog’s life, but then I remembered, I have to finish my book. I should be writing. Then a thought wafted into my head.
Mary, you need to poop-scoop the back yard. You haven’t done it since yesterday.
And off I went. Dutifully picking up doody. I went into the garage to toss my prize and saw the trash had piled up. What better time to take out the rubbish and organize it for trash day, which was only five days away? Of course, after that task, I had to wash my hands. As the warm water slid over my palms and the scent of soap filled my nose, I realized it was late—too late to get motivated or in the mood to write. That would take forever, I told myself. So I started making dinner instead.
Just like that, another day had passed, and I had not written a single word.
As a writing coach, I’ve seen procrastination with clients as well. I had to be accountable to myself, and take a coach-approach to my own writing. When I realized I’d rather clean my garage, scrape the BBQ, exercise, or even scoop poop than sit my butt in the chair and write, I had to ask myself why.
Did I really not want to finish my novel?
I knew that wasn’t true. My desire to share my story was all-consuming.
So, why do we do it? Avoid the page, the computer, and sometimes stay away from our designated writing nooks. Why do we avoid writing at all costs when we know it is our passion? We crave adding the words “The End” to anything. We love being a creative (most of the time). We enjoy spawning plots, adding character traits, and dishing out drama. We adore typing up witty dialogue. Finding the perfect metaphor sends us to heights of joy. Writing is who we are. Right? It’s something we must do, something we should want to do, something we have to do.
And then it hit me. Those words are red flags in my coaching: have to, should, and must. The minute those words enter the psyche, we are removed from our passionate and creative selves. Because these words aren’t creative. They’re scolding. And we listen to punishing words, they diminish productivity and damage our self-esteem. When have to, must, and should are in play, we have opened the door and invited in our inner critic. We have created a space for that negative voice to sit down and tell us what a piece of crap we are.
Try it for a second. Listen to the critical voice that tells you how lame you are for poop-scooping instead of getting your work done. Maybe it says things like: You can’t do this, what are you thinking? How are you ever going to finish a novel? You have to finish. You’re a perfectionist-you’ll never get it right and you’ll never stop being a perfectionist. It not a good idea anyway. You should be further along by now. It’s going to take you forever! You don’t have time. You’re out of ideas. You don’t really know how to do this. You’re not motivated enough. You’re too old. You’re too young. You must have an agent. You’ll never get it published. You’re lazy. You’re not that good.
Now, while your version of that critic is having a field day, try something positive and creative instead. For example, visualize flowers in your mind’s eye or start dancing.
Did the voice go away, or did you blow it away with your awesome dance?
When the critic hammers away at us, it’s almost impossible to create anything. If you can, then great. You have a tool to use. If not, you may need other tools. So how else can we calm the inner demons that take us off our path?
Here are a few coaching ideas for you to play with. Each person is unique and when I coach one-on-one, I work with the person’s specific issues, but I’ll throw a few out for you to try.
- First, take should, must and have to out of your vocabulary. Begin to notice how often you use those words, especially when talking to yourself. One of my ground rules for coaching is “nobody gets to be wrong.” Imagine a world in which you are not wrong. Your writing style, creative habits, characters, instincts, and writing aren’t wrong. Nothing is wrong. It’s your story.
- Second, interrupt the negative flow of the critical voice. Sometimes I’ll advise a client to actually put their hand out, like a traffic cop, and say out loud: “STOP.” Then cut yourself some slack. Take yourself off the meat hook for not writing.
- Get quiet and ask yourself the question, “Why would I rather _______ (poop scoop, you fill in the blank) than write?” Then listen for the answer from the other inner voice that lives in your highest awareness. You know, THAT voice. What does it have to say? How different is this voice from the critic? Notice if there’s resistance to listening to this kinder voice. Maybe write down what comes into your head. And I don’t mean sit at your computer and open a Word document. Write it on a scrap of paper, a supermarket list, or a notepad. You could even dictate it into your smartphone. Remember to record the first answer you hear, not the critic. You can always come back around to it later.
- Give yourself permission NOT to write. What would that be like for you? Less pressure, less expectation, less beating yourself up? Because we all know what happens when we force ourselves to do something we don’t want to do. Trust that there must be a good reason or at least a reason why you’re in avoidance. Let that awareness sink in. Honor the reason instead of beating yourself up with it is a place to start.
- Realign to your purpose. Why are you writing this particular story, essay, or book? Why did it bubble up into your creative self in the first place? Why was it important? Is it still as important, or have you outgrown the premise? Does it resonate with you?
- Notice the amount of energy you still have for your project. Reconnect to your creative desire around your writing if you can.
The next time your inner critic pops in with their ideas, I challenge you to try and shift your perspective. Using these tools may create a space for you to return to your creative desires. Use them in order, or pick one that resonates with you, or not at all. Remember, nobody gets to be wrong. Most especially, YOU!
How do you motivate yourself back to the keyboard when everything — anything! — seems easier than writing? How do you combat the negative voice in your head?