When I was eight, I read about a boy who used a divining rod to find water. At the time, my six-year-old brothers and I were trying to build an underground house in the remains of an abandoned brickyard. We’d spent lots of time digging out our foundation and building the fires that would keep us warm. But when I read about the divining rod, I realized we had a major problem. There was no way for us to find or transfer water to our off-the-grid, pipe-free home.
We tried to address the first part of our problem by building a divining rod, but no matter how many times we shook our Y-shaped sticks through the air, they never worked.
Sometimes writing well requires a little divining.
We structure our plots hoping to engage our readers, but until we tap into our feelings, we can’t truly flesh them out.
Our emotions play an important part in our writing lives. They help us understand and connect with our characters’ feelings, build better scenes, and develop more compelling narrative arcs.
During the revision process, we can use our intuition (which is an amalgamation of our emotions, senses, and experiences) to let hunches and gut feelings lead us to the places in our manuscript that are working and the ones that need our attention.
But not all emotions are helpful.
Sometimes, we get overwhelmed by our stories or doubts from our internal critic creep in. We fear our stories aren’t good enough or that we are not good enough. These fears amplify our doubts, which can lead us to trash perfectly good manuscripts.
As writers, our job is to tease out which emotions come from the ego, and which ones come from the true self.
Ego is the part of our personality that’s invested in our self-image and the way we’re perceived by the external world. It loves labels and frequently makes comparisons between us and others. Ego creates thoughts like “I am good at writing,” “I’m terrible at math,” “Nobody likes me,” and “I’m better than you.” It’s mostly concerned with appearances and approval. Ego hates to be caught off guard and armors up against vulnerability—often by telling us that our best and most vulnerable writing is actually terrible.
On the other hand, your true self is the part of you that’s always wise and always whole. No matter how much we doubt ourselves or how broken we feel, we all have a true self. Your true self is concerned with truth, understanding, and helping you grow.
Your true self encourages you to follow your dreams and gives you the courage to keep going even when the destination is unclear or seems impossibly far away. Your true self is the part of you that knows when something is working. It also nudges you to keep learning and try harder without affecting your self-worth.
But how do you differentiate between emotions rising from the ego and emotions rising from the true self?
Here are a few clues.
If you’re experiencing doubt or fear, it’s probably your ego talking. To confirm this, write down your fearful, doubting self-talk. Then ask yourself the following question: Are these thoughts related to appearances or approval?
If they are, say hello to your ego.
If ego is causing problems in your writing life, it’s likely that something about the process is making you feel vulnerable. Your job is to explore what that might be. Here are some questions to help you get started.
- Is something outside your writing life making you feel more vulnerable? This could be anything from work or family stress to lack of sleep, physical illness, or even seasonal affective disorder.
- Is something about the writing making you feel too vulnerable? Many people are afraid to start something because they might fail. Others are afraid to finish because they’d have to see themselves as powerful and successful. Sometimes, we reach a vulnerable or even traumatic portion of our story and the wounded part of us doesn’t want to continue. This is common in memoir, but it can happen to fiction writers too if the emotions your characters are feeling are ones you also struggle with. When this happens, ask yourself what you need to feel safe. Do you need to check in with a writing buddy, take a break, practice more self-care, or work with a therapist?
- Have I gone too long without feedback from a trusted reader? Here’s the truth. Nonwriters don’t understand the writing life, and most don’t care about it. That’s why a writing community is so essential. Writers can normalize the ups and downs you’re facing. When you lose perspective on your writing projects, they can remind you of your strengths and help you make sense of pieces that have gotten muddled.
But not every doubt comes from the ego.
Sometimes, your true self is asking you to dig a little deeper.
You’ll know your true self is talking when you have a nagging feeling that something in the writing isn’t quite right, but—and here’s the important part—you also feel calm. You aren’t worried about how someone else is perceiving you, you’re worried about creating great art that expresses some universal truth.
For many of us, connecting with our true selves requires a bit of practice and some guidance. That’s one reason I’m currently teaching Building Creative Intuition.
If you’re looking for a few practices to get you started, consider the following options:
- Find time in your day to be alone with your thoughts. This can be done through a journaling practice like Julia Cameron’s morning pages, a walk by yourself (preferably in a quiet, natural setting), or just sitting for fifteen minutes with your eyes closed.
- Develop a mindful meditation practice. Structured mindful meditation practices can help you develop a sense of calm while you quiet your busy mind. The busy static is often your ego chatting away. When your mind quiets down, you’ll hear your true self speaking to you.
- Notice your gut feelings and begin to trust them. Some of us grew up in environments where we were told that our reality wasn’t real, so we stopped trusting that very wise part of ourselves. When this happens, trusting your gut takes practice. The first step to trusting your gut is to notice that you’re having a gut feeling. When one arises, pay attention to what it says and then give yourself permission to act on the information. Consider this an experiment where the results are just data that inform your future choices. The worst that will happen is that you’ll realize you’ve made a mistake and then you can course correct. Think about how many times you’ve done that when you didn’t trust your gut.
Over time, you’ll find that your emotions can serve as a very effective divining rod that will lead to your very best stories.
Have a strategy for tapping into your intuition?
Or do you struggle with differentiating between ego and your true self?
Send me an email. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
And, as always, keep writing on.