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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Don’t Let the Saboteur Push You Into Writer’s Block


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When I refer to the Saboteur in these posts, I do so with the hope that you’re familiar with the term from one of my classes or reading Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance. But if you aren’t or if it’s been awhile since you were in class or read the chapter on the Saboteur, here is a second excerpt from AWB. (All Rights Reserved)

To avoid the Saboteur’s attempts to push you into writer’s block or eliminate joy from your writing life, you need to recognize its many guises. Your Saboteur will be unique, but there are five major forms to watch for: the Attacker, the Enticer, the Protector, the Innocent, and the Unlucky.

When people think of the Saboteur, the Attacker is what usually comes to mind. This is the hypercritical voice that nags, threatens, insults, judges, denigrates, and disparages you. But as painful as that is, the Saboteur can do worse: it can disguise itself with one of its softer, subtler faces so that you can’t tell when you’re being self-destructive and undermining your creativity.

smiley enticer saboteur canstockphoto8942583 (2)The Enticer is the smiling face of the Saboteur that reassures you that everything is okay and your goals will be magically fulfilled without needing to face challenges or exert real effort. The Enticer deals in fantasy and lulls you into inaction.

The Attacker sucker punches you; the Enticer soothes. The Attacker rages and screams; the Enticer whispers in your head. The Attacker predicts rejection, disappointment, and doom (based on your assumed failings as a writer); the Enticer promises a sweet tomorrow you don’t even have to work for today.

This form of the Saboteur will sweetly sympathize, “You’ve had a really hard day. It won’t matter if:

  • you skip Process today
  • take the day off from writing
  • have a cookie, just one, just one more . . . well, you may as well finish the bag now
  • wait until tomorrow; there’s always tomorrow.”

smiley innocent saboteur canstockphoto8942578 (2)The wide-eyed Innocent form of the Saboteur watches in stunned surprise when creative endeavors don’t go as planned. This voice will say with all apparent sincerity, “How could this happen to me?”

While the true innocence of recognizing what you don’t know and asking open-ended questions is essential to the creative process, the Innocent face of the Saboteur is a calculated pretense. True innocence is open to growing through experience; the faux innocence of the Saboteur has no intention of changing or letting you get unstuck.

The Innocent deals in denial and inaction. Terminal indecisiveness makes it impossible to take action and move forward, therefore guaranteeing that your creative dreams will remain unfulfilled. And all the while, the Innocent will shrug and say:

  • “I don’t know what to do.”
  • “I can’t figure this out.”
  • “Maybe I should wait until I’m not so confused.”
  • “I wish someone would help me.”

saboteur protector canstockphoto9462180 (3)The Protector form of the Saboteur promises to keep you safe from rejection, criticism and failure. Of course, it doesn’t admit that this safety means isolating yourself and your writing so that you also remove yourself from opportunities for acceptance and encouragement, discerning observations that help you improve the writing, and, ultimately, success.

While the Attacker disparages your ability to ever finish anything worthwhile and the Innocent pretends you don’t know what to do, the Protector encourages you to keep tweaking, editing and rewriting. As long as the writing is a work in process, it can’t be criticized or rejected.

The Protector sounds like it has your best interests at heart and croons like an overprotective mother:

  • “There’s no sense in rushing to rejection. Make sure you do everything you possibly can before submitting it.”
  • “Why set yourself up for failure? You know how awful it feels when someone doesn’t like your writing.”
  • “Be careful who you show your writing to. Hang back and see what happens first. Oops, now it’s too late. Well, maybe next time, dear.”

smiley unlucky saboteur canstockphoto8942538 (2)Sometimes sabotage comes in the form of accidents, injuries, illness, even relationships. Of course, sometimes an accident is just an accident; even Freud said sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But when the term “accident-prone” comes to mind, when there’s a repeating pattern behind the injuries, or when you end one unhealthy relationship just to get into another, consider the possibility that the Unlucky Saboteur is at work.

Misfortune is not a sign that you’re sabotaging yourself. But your Saboteur can and will make the most of any misfortune to interfere with your writing. And it will emphasize how bad your bad luck is and ignore the positive side of any situation.

The Unlucky deals in disappointment and dejection. It will heave a huge sigh and say:

  • “What’s the point? Someone else has probably done it before.”
  • “Publishing is all about who you know, and I just don’t have the connections.”
  • “Someone will steal my idea.”
  • “I just can’t catch a break.”

The Unlucky Saboteur is a real inner Eeyore, and listening to it will only make a sad gray ass out of you.

My next post will give you the most effective responses to keep the Saboteur at bay. If you just can’t wait or want the full story ab0ut the Saboteur, the Don’t Give In and Don’t Give Up section starts on page 192 of AWB.

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