I Have a Story

I had the great fortune of attending Editor’s Day on October 7, an event put on by the SoCal chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

At one point, Michael Mahin gave a talk about cognitive resistance and affirmations, and I wanted to share his insights here.

Mahin opened his talk by defining cognitive resistance as the internal forces that stand in the way of our creative goals: writer’s block, doubt, negative self-talk, the belief that we don’t have enough time to write, etc.

These are the things we tell ourselves, that drag us down and keep us from working: “I’m not good enough,” “I’m too busy to write,” “No one wants to read my book,” and on and on. We let ourselves spiral down into dark thoughts—most of which are self-inflicted, and often not based on any fact—and put off our writing because we just can’t deal with it right now.

But if cognitive resistance is made up of internal thoughts conjured from our own doubts and fears, then we have the power to fight and even overturn it.

Mahin had two recommendations for fighting resistance: turning pro and using affirmations. (Mahin took these two suggestions from Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art.)

Turning pro

By “turning pro,” Pressfield does not mean getting published; it’s an attitude change. It’s the decision to treat our creative aspirations like a day job. No one says they have “accountant’s block”—so why do we writers let ourselves off the hook? Turning pro is about showing up to work every day, working when you don’t feel like it, and putting the same dedication and commitment into your writing as any day job.

That level of dedication can overcome any kind of cognitive resistance.

Affirmations

There are two things our brains love: routines and fear.

Our brains love patterns. They like regular routines—in fact, our brains memorize our routines so that we can save our brainpower for more important tasks. That’s why, occasionally, you’ll end up in the parking lot at work with no memory of driving there—your brain had stored that routine away for repeat use.

Our brains operate out of fear. Over millions of years, evolution often favored those who were cautious and scared of the dark—that fear protected them from predators. Fast-forward to today, and we’re stuck with lizard brains that react to relatively safe social situations (like public speaking) as if we’re facing down a lion in the tall grass—fight or flight kicks in, and we want to hide in a bathroom stall.

For artists, these two truths about brains are incredibly counterproductive. Creativity is about newness, risk, and exploration—completely out of the comfort zone of routine and fear. One way to help our brains overcome this aversion to the creative process is to use affirmations.

Affirmations are statements that directly contradict a fear we harbor in the deepest parts of ourselves. By refuting our fears and stating the opposite, we can begin to reform our thoughts and make changes in the way we think. It may sound silly, and affirmations certainly aren’t for everyone, but negating our own self-talk can help us ignore irrational fears and push through to creative freedom.

On Saturday morning, as I sat listening to Mahin, he asked us about our fears. What do we tell ourselves? What are we afraid of? What is the cognitive resistance we face every time we sit down to write?

I jotted a list in my notebook, ignoring the nest of snakes squirming in my stomach:

  • Don’t know which direction to go
  • Overwhelmed by amount of work to do
    • Knowing characters
    • How to write scenes
  • Do I have a story?
    • Fear that I don’t have a story; I have nothing to say

I put my pen down. It wasn’t easy to write it out—that last one had me swallowing past a lump in my throat.

Mahin then instructed us to write out the opposite of our fear as an affirmation.

In capital letters, I wrote:

I HAVE A STORY AND I HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY

That short sentence—declarative and a little pugnacious—made the snakes in my stomach slither away. Yes, I thought, I have something to say.

I walked away from Editor’s Day with a better confidence in my process and a renewed commitment to work on my book every day. I want to challenge you to use Pressfield’s two approaches—turning pro and affirmations—to combat resistance and move forward with your creative goals. Let me know how it goes! 🙂

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