Confessions of a Self-Saboteur

I am a master of self-sabotage, so skilled in taking myself down I can do it with a single blow. I’m deadly—just only to myself.

My own personal internal refrain is that I’m just not working hard enough. I am fully aware of this, and yet it keeps coming up as if this is something far out of my control. It isn’t. I leave myself open to distractions—I seek them out. Then when I do have my own time to write I let the doubts take hold of me. I fold under rejection. I get talked out of things too easily—even when, especially when, I am the one doing the talking.

Exhibit A: The freelance writing projects I accepted, manuscripts for three children’s books. I am dreading them. The first deadline is May 21. The last deadline is September 1. I did not have to take them—I know, however they are handled, they’ll take some time—yet I took them. I needed the money. But I also needed the time. Which is more important?

Exhibit B: The freelance copyediting project I accepted on Friday. It is a manuscript that looks deceptively short (approximately 300 pages). Then, when you realize the whole thing is one-and-a-half-spaced instead of double-spaced (what ever happened to how reputable publishers supposedly refuse to accept manuscripts that are not double-spaced? the thing about double-spacing being an industry standard, is that a lie?) it turns out to be much longer. Due in about two weeks. Plus it needs to be fact-checked. Why did I say yes to that?

Exhibit C: The two unfinished short stories I have been carrying around in my bag for weeks, maybe months. How each time I sit down to tackle them—saying, always, that I know exactly what to do to revise them—I somehow find myself not doing it. If the stories are not finished I cannot send them out so I cannot possibly get one published so nothing will change. I know this. And still I do nothing.

Exhibit D: The folder of missed opportunities. One I remembered this morning involves that no-scholarship to the writers conference, but how they called me a finalist, how nice that was, no matter how many people were called finalists, how the letter encouraged me to still go‚ or to submit to their magazine, how I have not responded, how I have not submitted, how I have not done a thing.

Exhibit E: The novel I have been writing is not being written with publication in mind. I am not using an outline. I am not seeing how my new plot order works sensibly and dividing it into a three-act structure. I am not thinking about structure at all. I am just writing it. And in doing so, I find myself stuck at a spot between unnumbered chapters (that’s right; I’m not even numbering chapters!) that I couldn’t move past yesterday because I realized I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing. Is this really a smart, freeing idea, or just a way of stalling?

Exhibit F: Last night. I had the apartment to myself. My other half was coaching some guys at a jiu-jitsu tournament and would be out late. I had hours—HOURS. I could have written. I could have at least done work on Exhibits A or B above. I could have read aloud from one of the pieces in Exhibit C, trying to get a feel for one of the stories again. I could have moved ahead on some inkling of possibility found in Exhibit D. But what did I do instead? Absolutely nothing of consequence. What I did was (1) read a bit of Vanity Fair; (2) throw out the junk mail; (3) watch a TV special about twins separated at birth; (4) eat; (5) watch a movie about a writer whose character is actually a real person and wants her to stop narrating his life; (6) eat more; (7) stare at the ceiling, pondering my existence; (8) wonder about what to do with my novel; (9) watch the first part of Magnolia, for the 700th time; (10) stare at the ceiling, trying to “think.”

When my other half came home, I had to confess I’d done absolutely nothing with my time. Not unless you count keeping the couch warm.

I slay me.

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8 comments

  1. I rather liked “Stranger Than Fiction”, but you’d have to tie me down to get me to watch a minute of “Magnolia” again.

    Sometimes we need down time, if we keep the brain wound too tight, it doesn’t always work its best.

  2. I think if we were all to do an accounting of how we spend our time, we’d pretty much all being lying around slain, as it were.

    You need a break, that’s what I think! How about telling yourself you aren’t going to do one thing on your writing for six or eight weeks and just let yourself breathe and get the other work done and allow your many wonderful ideas to percolate? But you can only do that if you promise, on pain of something awful (no more Vanity Fair, for one), not to accept a single other freelance project this year.

    And now that I’ve solved that (ha!), could you please tell me why I haven’t printed out that novel I finished last year and gotten it into respectable shape and begun sending it out and instead seem to be spending a lot of time writing about sex and reading Jeeves and Wooster?

  3. I’ve done that before – I once had to beg for help when I realised I would have less than 24 hours to finish 8,000 words. It taught me to be a little better about estimating quantities and time scales. Sounds like you needed some down time – it may look better tomorrow 🙂

  4. Wow–I know this may not help, but having those projects available to you, and having people who want to assign them to YOU sounds so, so cool.

    I wish I had some helpful words to help you shut up the critic in your head. Anne Lamont says she pictures her negative voices like mice, which she picks up by the tail and drops into a glass jar so she can’t hear them. I think we have to just keep experimenting until we find something that works for us. Easier said than done, unfortunately.

  5. I am only responding to items E & F.
    I do not think that the way you’re progressing is a bad idea. Not at all! In fact, this might be the best possible approach to the subject matter- as it is already something that you’ve done and absorbed and felt your way through. Perhaps you can come back and deal with alla that technical stuff later.

    What you described about your blessed alone time? I do that ALL THE TIME. I get the easel prepped or the notes gathered in sweet anticipation only to end up playing video games or cruising wikipedia while munching on snacks all the time. Or watching the teevee in horror.

  6. Ah, yes, I do think the downtime was sorely needed. Even this morning I slept in. Bloglily, I love the “no more Vanity Fair” motivational technique! As for your own novel, it needs time to percolate. It needs to settle first. How come it is so clear when talking to someone else but not to myself? Thanks for the votes of confidence. Yojo, you know me well. Thank you.

  7. I like to think that self-sabotaging is part of the job. I try to clock the hours where I am not doing what I should be doing on purpose and telling myself it’s hand in hand with the territory. I should probably stop doing this!

    I hope you meet your deadlines. Oh and re: F–that sounds like something everyone should make a point to do like once every week!! That sounds less like sabotaging and more like chilling out to me. And considering how hard you work, there ain’t nothing wrong with that!

  8. I guess writers are all guilty of this sometimes. Time sure flies when you’re decompressing. All I have to say is, Self-Saboteurs, unite!

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