Damsel in Distress: I’ve started something and I’m worried I can’t finish it
In the first instalment of our new creative writing advice column, Write Like a Grrrl founder Kerry Ryan gives tips on ignoring the inner critic and feeling the fear and finishing your writing.
I’ve started something and I’m worried I can’t finish it.
The last time I tried writing a novel, I got to around 30,000 words before losing faith in the project and deciding to postpone it as “it wasn’t going to be the first book I write”. I’ve started a second one, got to about 45,000 words – and am faltering.
I swing wildly between planning how I’m going to quit my job when I’ve made it as a writer, and thinking that what I’m writing is terribly boring and derivative. I try setting myself little targets, but then push them aside.
I don’t want to be hard on myself, but I don’t want to be so lax that I never finish the thing. While I know writing is a process and an end in itself, I’d quite like to also reach the end of this story – or at least this first draft – by the end of the year. I think that sort of achievement would give me a great deal of satisfaction/confidence to forge ahead.
How do I find a way to reach that self-imposed 70,000 word target?
Dear Novel Half-empty,
You’re vacillating between the ego and the inner critic. It’s amazing. It’s shit. It’s amazing. It’s shit. Etcetera, etcetera. The push-pull between these two states is leading to procrastination. Success or failure? Failure or success? Each is as terrifying as the other. Best to pull out now, decide again that this is not the novel. Best to write another novel or a short story or a play or an Instagram post then anxiety and doubt will surely subside. But at what cost to your self-esteem? Your inner critic—that monster—will have fresh ammunition to use against you. You are now Someone Who Can’t Finish a First Draft. Or: Not a Proper Writer. Or: Just Generally Crap.
Where does the inner critic come from? Family; school; so-called friends. This racist, classist, ageist, sexist shit-show that is late-capitalist society. We’ve all been rejected, shamed and blamed to varying degrees. And lo, our psyche conjures up an inner critic to keep our wounded self safe by haranguing us into smallness. Perversely, we use the same tactics against ourselves that were used against us. We criticise, we sneer, we hate but the inner critic can also appear reasonable and rational. Don’t bother with this, it whispers. There are better things ahead. But then it turns on you: Loser, you never finish anything. You’ll never be good enough. Because what it wants is for you to stop or preferably never start. Elizabeth Gilbert always writes brilliantly about fear which is, of course, at the root of the inner critic: “Fear wants me to live a smaller life. The smallest imaginable life, ideally. My fear would prefer that I never got out of bed.”
My son is 7 and if he wants to write a story, he writes that story. If he wants to paint he picks up a brush. Lately, he’s been writing poems just cos. He doesn’t have an inner critic yet. I would love to believe he never will. But if that’s a pipe dream, I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure his critic has all the sway of a mouse not a monster.
When Buddha was sitting under the Bodhi tree attempting to reach enlightenment, the demon Mara sent all kinds of distractions to defeat him. He sent his daughters to seduce him. He sent anxiety. He sent doubt. He might even have sent Netflix. So how did Buddha defeat Mara? Well, even Buddha needed help. He touched the ground and took strength from the earth. To finish this draft, to combat your Mara, your inner monster, you need to take strength from the external to boost your internal resources. You need to weaponise with meditation, running, therapy, mentors, nature, friends, books, biscuits, anything and everything that nurtures and sustains you.
You’ve hit the Big Wall. All novelists hit the Big Wall. Because to move forward is to invite failure or success. Or is it? Perhaps we need to redefine what failure and success are outwith the strictures of ego-driven capitalism.
You’ve written 45 thousand words. That’s bloody amazing! Celebrate! Every sentence is an up-yours to your inner critic. Now utilise that strength for the final push. Write the ending right now and then paddle towards that lighthouse pulse. Don’t overthink it. Just knock out a couple of paragraphs and head towards that beam of light sentence by sentence. Make sure you celebrate at the end of each chapter. You deserve it. This is radical self-care in a time of plague and mad bastards in power.
All you’re aiming for right now is to finish a draft. As you recognise, this will give you confidence and satisfaction. There will be other battles to fight but this is yours right now. So keep on writing. Enjoy it. Play. Trust your subconscious. If you get stuck, write SOMETHING HAPPENS HERE then move on. Do not edit. You will write B movie dialogue and your characters will have all the depth of a puddle. First drafts are always yikes. Don’t judge your first draft and don’t judge the second either. Even when you finish your fifth, your opinion still doesn’t matter all that much. Do your beta-readers think it’s not working? That this isn’t going to be the novel? Then write another.
So you’ve failed? You should have written something else after all? No, of course not. No novel is a failure. Even a failed novel. You’ll be much further along in your creative practice. You just have to continue to skill up. This is lifelong learning. And already you will have learned so much and not just in terms of narrative craft. You will have faced down doubt and anxiety and learned to trust yourself. Trust is the greatest gift writing has given me. Yet it was hard won because when I began, battling my inner critic was like going fist-to-fist with Godzilla after he’d been stung by a giant wasp. We sit in front of the blank page and our monsters manifest. If we want to continue writing, and we should, we have to find ways to defeat them, or at least accommodate them.
When Buddha defeated Mara, the demon didn’t stay away. When Mara came back, Buddha’s followers ran around terrified. What did Buddha do? He didn’t panic. He didn’t try to escape. He invited Mara to sit down with him and have some tea. He said I see you, Mara and he sipped from his cup, giving zero fucks, and eventually that big ugly demon faded away. When Mara came back, Buddha did the same again. And again. And again.
So this is what you do when fear and doubt visit— and they will, in all different forms and contortions, wearing all kinds of masks. You sit with them. You invite them for tea. You say I see you Mara or I see you, Mrs Dean your year-five teacher, or whatever disguise your inner critic is wearing that day. You touch the earth—you gather your external and internal resources—and you do what Susan Jeffers suggested in her classic book: you feel the fear and do it anyway.
You keep writing. You keep nurturing and sustaining. No matter what Mara or Mrs Dean hiss and spit. No matter what cyclops and laestrygonians are set in your path. All of those weapons you’ve utilised—the running, the therapy, the morning pages—will give you pleasure and peace and a lot more self-love. You’ll live a life less fettered by fear, by doubt and anxiety, by old programming from the past. You’ll begin to trust your innate creativity and your true nature. And here is joy. So much joy.
Keep writing and keep being kind to yourself. You can do it!
Sending love and power,
Have a question you’d like Kerry to answer? Submit your question to us using the contact form below.
Kerry is the founder of Write like a Grrrl, which offers creative writing courses for women & NB in partnership with For Books’ Sake in the UK. Kerry’s Write like a Grrrl courses are now taught all over the world and Kerry has facilitated workshops across the UK, in Ireland and Russia. She has taught mindfulness and self-compassion as well as creative writing to actors, women leaving sex work, domestic abuse survivors and facilitated many LGBTQ+ creative writing courses. Her work has been featured in various publications including Steer, The Manchester Review, the Kenyon Review and Spilling Ink. Her play Trust was recently performed at the Gulbenkian Theatre.
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