The writing process
This quote from George Orwell’s 1984 is probably one of the most famous first lines in modern literature. As first lines go, it’s one hell of an opener; it’s an opener that sets a scene, conveys a tone/mood (bright and cold) and raises questions (“Thirteen? What do you mean, thirteen? That’s unusual. Is this our world or somewhere different?”), all achieved with fourteen simple but well-chosen words. No word is wasted or over-complicated. Not only that, but the line, when translated into spoken words (either verbally or internally), has a particular ‘punch’ as a result of its meter; seventeen syllables that are combined and organised to produce a cadence that is particularly pleasing to the (inner) ear and adds to the sense of gravitas. As well as being a pleasing read in itself, the impact of the sentence is one of making the reader immediately want to read the next one. Not bad, George - enjoy your place in history! (Obviously the other sentences in the book were quite good too, it must be acknowledged).
However, it didn’t start out that way.
On March 2nd, on Twitter, John Tomsett (@johntomsett) shared an image of Orwell’s draft which revealed how the sentence originated and developed:
It was a cold, blowy day in early April, and a million radios were striking thirteen.
Such a different read! In his Tweet, John Tomsett summarized: “Too. Many. Syllables”, and he’s absolutely right. There is a noticeable difference in rhythm that slows down the pace of the sentence and changes its cadence – to its detriment. The sentence is more cluttered and clunky, more bloated, less punchy (forgive the accidental poetry, please), and less pleasing to read than its future progeny. I wonder if we’d be talking about one of the great opening lines in modern literature had Orwell stuck with the original version…? I seriously doubt it.
Anyway, what I love about this image/example is the important message it tells us about the writing process, and that is:
NOTHING STARTS OUT AS AN END PRODUCT
If, in your lifetime, you’ve tried to write anything - be it an essay, report, blog post, journal article, book, whatever – you will, I’m sure, have experienced that writing is an iterative process in which the end product is best developed through the shaping of successive drafts over time. We all have to start somewhere, and that initial ‘somewhere’ is not usually of comparable quality to the version that will be arrived at after repeated cycles of drafting and review.
Of course, we know that.
However, there is something about our psychology that can interfere with this process.
Introducing the gremlin
Writing with gremlins
The trouble with doing that is that it can be a barrier to how the writing process needs to work. If we listen to the gremlin and prematurely evaluate our work, it can prevent us from doing what is necessary to get to a point we are happy with: that is, simply getting something down on the page so we can then come back to it and improve it later. (This isn't a phenomenon peculiar to me, either. Nick Cave, for example, has talked and sung about dealing with his own internal 'baboons'). If we don't get the clay out, we have nothing to shape!
So how can we prevent ourselves from being sabotaged by the Writing Gremlin?
Dealing with writing gremlins
Cognitive-Behavioural Psychology: Challenge and Change Your Thinking
A Cognitive-Behavioural approach would suggest that, rather than taking the gremlin’s utterances at face value, we attempt to try to challenge and change our thoughts, for example:
- Look for evidence that supports and contradicts the thought (e.g. “Some of this may be bad, yes, but it’s not all bad. Some parts are better”).
- Look for and dispute irrationalities / extremities in our thinking (e.g. “Just because this particular bit is bad, does that really mean I’m a terrible writer?”)
- Find alternative ways of thinking about it (e.g. “This version isn’t that great now, true, but I just need to get something down so I can improve it later”).
Non-Violent Communication: Hear the Underlying Feelings and Needs
In NVC, an inner statement such as “This is shit” would be regarded as the utterance of an inner ‘jackal’ that criticises us judgementally (for our purposes, though, I will stick to the idea of a gremlin for clarity and continuity). In the NVC approach, rather than taking the language at face value, we would instead consider it to be the gremlin’s clumsy attempt at expressing its feelings and trying to get its needs met; for example, the gremlin might have a need for safety (I want to protect myself from exposure), and might be feeling anxious and angry because its sense of safety is being threatened through the writer’s actions. (There is a whole lexicon of feelings and needs that might be relevant – see www.cnvc.org). Then, rather than try to argue with the gremlin, we can instead try to empathise with it and try to suggest other (more adaptive) ways in which its needs can be met, for example: “I hear you that you are feeling a bit anxious, perhaps because you need safety? I wonder if it would help for me to share my work with one or two trusted people to ask for feedback before doing anything further with it?”
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Act in Congruence with your Values
An ACT perspective (see e.g. Harris, 2009, 2010) would suggest a different approach to how we deal with negative thoughts. In ACT, the focus is not on trying to challenge or change the thoughts (which ACT practitioners might argue is counterproductive), but instead to keep pursuing our goals despite such thoughts. In ACT, such thoughts would be recognised as an inevitable part of life; the challenge is to not let them ‘take the wheel’ and instead remain focused on engaging in actions that are consistent with our values. For example, if I write because I value creativity and making a contribution, then the challenge for me is to remain focused on those values despite the occasional weather of negative thoughts that might occur. ACT would suggest that I can do this by: (i) setting and pursuing clear goals that are informed by my values, and; (ii) defusing from difficult or negative thoughts by trying to get some ‘distance’ from them and take away their power somewhat, for example:
- Thanking the mind for its contribution (e.g. “Thanks for that, mind!”)
- Recognising the thought is just the mind at work by telling yourself “My mind is telling me that…” (e.g. “My mind is telling me that this is shit”)
- Imagining the thought as e.g. a passing cloud and returning one’s focus to the goal.
- Giving the thoughts a label (e.g. “Here comes the ‘My Writing Is Shit’ story again”). A related technique would be using personification to give the gremlin-thoughts a separate identity (I have sometimes thought of my own ‘gremlin’ utterances as coming from a Gollum-like character, hence the picture at the beginning of this article).
It’s important to note that an ACT approach doesn’t guarantee that one will feel better, or indeed that negative thoughts will not occur; rather, it changes how we relate to our thoughts and feelings, and shifts our focus to how we act despite them.
- In what circumstances do you encounter inner gremlins?
- Which of the above approaches do you, or could you, use to manage them?
- What goals have your gremlins stopped you from pursuing that you might like to revisit?
Greenberger, D. & Padesky, C. A. (1995). Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think. New York: The Guilford Press.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT Made Simple: A Quick-Start Guide to Basics and Beyond. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Harris, R. (2010). The Confidence Gap: From Fear to Freedom. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.
Rosenberg, M. (2003). Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.