Thursday, October 31, 2019

You Should Quit Writing: Coexisting with the Naysayers in Your Head

By Sylvia Whitman, @SylviaWhitman

Part of The Writer's Life Series

JH: I think most writers struggle with self-doubt and fear at some point in their careers. It's a tough job in a tough industry. Sylvia Whitman takes the podium today to share some thoughts and exercises on calming those fears and getting back to our days.
Sylvia Whitman lives in Sarasota, Florida, and teaches writing as a visiting instructor at Ringling College of Art and Design. She has published hundreds of articles for adults and children, a dozen books for young readers, and a handful of short stories in magazines ranging from Redbook to The Florida Review. Her books include Under the Ramadan Moon (Albert Whitman) and aYA novel The Milk of Birds (Atheneum). A finalist for the 2014 Amelia Walden Award, The Milk of Birds also earned a spot on the Amelia Bloomer Project List, the International Reading Association’s Notable Books for a Global Society and Bank Street College’s Best Children’s Books of Year.

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Take it away Sylvia...

Sylvia Whitman
We all recognize the plot points of the triumphal writer movie. As our hero faces down forces aligned against genius, we boo the usual antagonists.

There’s the security-conscious parent who pushes a “real” job with a 401(k) plan and two weeks of vacation.

The belittling teacher who stifles wonder with worksheets.

The celebrity-seeking editor who sweeps aside Pulitzer Prize-worthy manuscripts if they don’t originate from a Big Name.

Wielding a pen mightier than a sword, the hero vows to show these naysayers who’s got talent. And does. With a blockbuster.

Roll credits and sequels.

But most writers’ lives don’t parallel Hollywood scripts.

Sure, who hasn’t experienced negativity? 

Perhaps, like our plucky on-screen counterpart, we’ve even stood up to downers, well-meaning or not, who have tossed obstacles onto our path to success. Perhaps we’ve been able to dismiss them, or win them over. That victory culminates a film, but in regular life it passes quickly, followed by the long slog.

Then we often find that our nemeses managed to slip a defeating message or two or 10 under the door.

These drift to the attic, joining all the other doubts and insecurities rattling their chains up there. Sometimes they mate and produce new demons.

The external naysayers have become the insidious internal naysayers, whispering in our ear 24/7.

We have met the enemy, and he is us. (Grammarians, blame Pogo.)

(Here's more on Battling the Doubt Monster: Ignoring Nellie the Naysayer)

Who You Gonna Call?

Tempting as it sounds to dial up Ghostbusters, no exterminator can blast our discouraging thoughts with a proton pack. We’ll probably never dislodge the internal naysayers. But we can subdue them.

How? Identify them.

I have learned this method from psychotherapist Nancy Long, associate director of counseling at the art college where I teach. I invite her into my freshman writing classes midsemester to help students handle mounting stress. As creatives in the making, they know all about demons.

Our minds whirl with regrets about the past and anxieties about the future. Into the distracting mix go grocery lists, family health scares, relationship woes, and the busyness and cattiness of social media.

As Long describes the mental vortex, students nod.

But we create work in the present moment, and our best work demands our full attention.

We can’t stop the constant motion of our thoughts, Long says, any more than we can stop a wave. Instead, we have to learn to surf.

Long dims the lights and invites us to close our eyes. She taps her Tibetan singing bowl, and the bell tone stills us with its purity. She directs us to focus on our breath, to find its place in our body. It’s our anchor to the here and now.

If an outside thought intrudes, don’t fight it, Long says.

Label it, and let it go...

If you were any good, you'd have a publication/agent/book deal/Nobel Prize/FILL IN THE BLANK.

Even though I know that jealousy poisons creativity, I can’t stop comparing. Forget Steven King, James Patterson, or their literary equivalents. Everywhere I turn I encounter more successful, more prolific writers—my friends even.

I’ve got to do more. I’ve got to do better.

Yet this churning resolution isn’t motivating me. If anything, it makes me want to check my email again.

I remember the thrill of my first “real” publication, an article in The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. A byline, a paycheck, a note from a reader!

I had something to say, and I said it. Someone heard me.

That makes me want to keep writing.

You have other, more important things to do than write.

So many other things to do. Children, dog, house, car, now a sister in assisted living nearby. I should clean the pavers out back before the algae leaves a permanent stain. Should I call a handyman or invest in a pressure washer? I’ll have to learn how to operate a pressure washer. Maybe I should mow the lawn first, before the neighbors call county code enforcement.

Once I start down this slope, the oughta-dos snowball.
  • Did I remember to set the alert on my Visa bill after I missed the deadline last month?
  • What’s the source of that stink in the fridge?
  • How long can I drive with the dashboard flashing “Oil Maintenance Required”?
  • I must seek out a happier thought. Groupon! Look how much I can save on bowling!
The singing bowl pings again. I breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth.

I have other things to do. Many are important. But very few are more important.

I have things to do, and writing is one of them.

Make some money. There’s still time for a career switch.

I have earned money writing. Not enough to support a family. Not enough to cruise down the Rhine. I can keep my shorkie in kibble and pay my gym fees. Should I contact head hunters/go to nursing school nights/start a vending machine empire and shelve the writing until I retire?

Nancy speaks softly into the silence. “I am enough. I do enough. I have enough.”

Did I take up writing to make a fortune? Nah.

You never finish anything.


The whirlpool ramps up as I contemplate the notebooks and a white board I’ve filled with titles and ideas: “Elevator with Jenny,” “segregated swimming pools,” “story of a kidney.” Sometimes I forget the nugget behind the nugget. “The Tyranny of Strawberries”—what was that about?


I will finish this blog post today.

I will give myself another deadline.

I will never have to face a blank page empty-handed.

The world is coming to an end.

I used to think just books were dying, but now I’m convinced it’s the whole planet. Climate change and all. Want to read something really scary this Halloween? Try “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells.

What’s the point of writing? If extreme storms don’t shred libraries, rising seas will swamp them.

The sound of the bowl, close to sine waves, reminds me to inhabit my body.

I am still here. Books are still here. Alongside technology, they have survived. More people are reading and writing, albeit on multiple platforms. Maybe words will lead to solutions.

It’s too soon to euthanize the kids.

Whatever happens, we need stories.

Who do you think you are?


Whatever I published in the past was a fluke. It will never happen again.

Nancy eases us back into the classroom. We open our eyes. We turn up the lights, but the mindfulness lingers. We breathe. Our breathing affirms our existence.

I think—I know—I am a writer. Writers write. When I don’t, I feel an itch, a lack, a longing.

I write every day—mostly nothing special, but something.

All writers write. Some publish.

Let the naysayers prattle on. I am enough.

How do you quiet the naysayer in your head?

About The Milk of Birds

This timely, heartrending novel tells the moving story of a friendship between two girls: one an American teen, one a victim of the crisis in Darfur.

Know that there are many words behind the few on this paper…

Fifteen-year-old Nawra lives in Darfur, Sudan, in a camp for refugees displaced by the Janjaweed’s trail of murder and destruction. Nawra cannot read or write, but when a nonprofit organization called Save the Girls pairs her with an American donor, Nawra dictates her thank-you letters. Putting her experiences into words begins to free her from her devastating past—and to brighten the path to her future.

K.C. is an American teenager from Richmond, Virginia, who hates reading and writing—or anything that smacks of school. But as Nawra pours grief and joy into her letters, she inspires K.C. to see beyond her own struggles. And as K.C. opens her heart in her responses to Nawra, she becomes both a dedicated friend and a passionate activist for Darfur.

In this poetic tale of unlikely sisterhood, debut author Sylvia Whitman captures the friendship between two girls who teach each other compassion and share a remarkable bond that bridges two continents.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound |


  1. This post is so encouraging! Sylia, thank you so much for sharing this. I have been fighting the unreasonable fear of sharing my work with others. It has stopped me from getting to the finish line. Knowing that I am not the only one facing such idiotic fears and having them placed before me has helped.

  2. Very encouraging -- thank you!

  3. You must have been listening to the voices in my head. Thanks, Sylvia. .

  4. What a great summation of mindfulness ideas and the dismissal of thought distortions. I appreciate the application of this to writing specifically. Writing is definitely an activity where one sits for a long period of time and can be tormented by one's own thoughts. It's definitely important to present these ideas in a more universal and accessible way. I enjoyed the specificity in this piece as well. Overall, a great and uplifting piece with tools to be used to really improve the lives of readers.