My Embarrassing Writing Mantra


I write fiction. I want it to be revelatory and not a waste of everyone’s time. Sometimes I believe I have something to say, and sometimes I don’t. 

When I’m on the fence — maybe I’ve got some momentum in a scene but I’m not sure it’s going anywhere worthwhile — I’ve caught myself doing something embarrassing yet bizarrely effective: reciting a mantra. It gets worse. The mantra is: “I do have something to say.” I repeat it with increasing urgency, though not out loud, which would be much worse, right? I say it to ward off treacherous thoughts, which are generally along the lines of: a) No one will care what I’m writing, which is another way of worrying that I have nothing to say, b) This story/novel/essay is based on a fundamentally flawed idea and I should probably just delete all the work I’ve done before someone sees it and laughs at me. So what if I’ve been working on it for five years? or c) I don’t know what I’m talking about. Who am I to write from the point of view of a Jesuit priest, a paper mill worker, a touring musician, a girl with a terrible mother? I have only peripheral experience with any of these things, and anyway, looping back to a) as I always do, what is the point? What am I trying to say? So what?

Not quite two years ago I signed up for a half marathon and joined a coached training group. I was riddled with self-doubt and thought it would just be another one of my well-intentioned fitness failures, but this time it took, and now I feel about as comfortable calling myself a runner as I do calling myself a writer, which means that sometimes I can say it without laughing uncomfortably immediately afterwards. At some point before the race, our coach, Catherine, sent the group this post about how mantras can help runners focus and get through races when their bodies and minds are screaming at them to quit. She offered us her own mantra, a simple and unembarrassing one she’d used in a lot of races, including a marathon: “You’re fine. Keep pushing.” Employing a mantra seemed like a fine strategy for other people — people who believed in the power of positive thinking, the faintest whiff of which caused me to roll my eyes and think of Stuart Smalley, Al Franken’s self-affirming character on Saturday Night Live.

But as I tackled a gnarly hill on a solo run one day, my legs feeling leaden, no one around to think less of me if I slowed to a walk, I decided to try thinking something positive-ish, and I came up with a half-hearted “You got this.” It didn’t make me feel like a total idiot, so I thought it rhythmically, in sync with my footfalls, and it helped in a mild way. I didn’t expect the explosion of profanity that rang in my head when I was about to crest the hill. “Fuck yeah, motherfuckers!” Though silent to the external world, it was so loud and clear and at least moderately out of character that I laughed. Then I kept running, because I’d reached the top. 

My writing mantra presented itself to me shortly afterwards. Unlike my first attempt at a running mantra, it was completely unselfconscious. It showed up in my mind because I needed it. I’m fortunate to have people who believe in me and are, from time to time, willing to tell me that my work is good and meaningful. Heck, every once in a very long while, a bunch of strangers even decide to publish something I wrote. That feels great. But I’m in trouble if I rely solely on that or ask for too much of it. Most of the belief has to come from me, so doggonit, I do have something to say. Or at least I’m going to keep telling myself that. And sometimes when I’m about to submit a story to a journal so another bunch of strangers can judge its worth, I have a moment of terror. But I push through. I click the very last thing I need to click to send it out into the world and I think, “Fuck yeah, motherfuckers!” If I’m really scared I even move my lips.