Mindfulness and Writing #5: Dealing with emotions

Writers often struggle with fear, self-doubts, guilt, discouragement, and other emotions that may hinder their writing – accomplished novelists, published and not-yet-published scholars, and students alike. Perfectionist thoughts, for example, may lead to fear of failure and eventually to writer’s block. As Ralph Keyes shows for novelists and poets in The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear (1995, Holt), though, fear and other strong emotions can not only impede writers, they may also be a source for writing. Instead of fighting anxiety, writers use the power of these emotions for creative purposes.

Emotions often emerge in combination with thoughts and bodily sensations. This may make it difficult to differentiate between them. To deal with both the negative and positive emotions while writing, however, we can use our awareness to identify them. For example, when we notice resistance to writing when our schedule says so, we can be aware of what we feel like in this situation. There will be thoughts that tell us why it is okay not to write – and as suggested in the previous post, we don’t have to believe these excuses. At the same time, we may feel anxious about the scheduled task and would like to postpone it to a time when we “feel like it”. Or, we have self-doubts about our writing skills. Whatever our emotional state in this particular situation, mindfulness allows us to just observe it. We don’t need to fight it or try to change our emotions into positive, better ones. If we feel anxious or discouraged, then that’s how it is in that particular moment. If the emotions don’t lose their grip on us, at least they won’t get worse. Instead of fighting the present state, we accept it for the moment.

Not being in the grip of negative emotions, our writing isn’t dependent on them and we don’t wait until they’re gone. The same applies to strong positive emotions. We have to be able to write independently of positive moods such as joy, happiness, or “feeling like it”. If we wait until we are in the mood for writing, we may not write as much. Even if we feel motivated and write with joy, we should not let ourselves be swept away by this emotional state. It may lead to writing in binges and to a dependence on good moods. It’s certainly okay to enjoy the happy writing sessions, but we shouldn’t long for them.

Mindfulness, thus, allows us to notice strong emotions, whether positive or negative, and to deal with them non-reactively and nonjudgmentally. For the time being, we accept them for what they are – emotions or moods that arise and disappear. With awareness, we don’t fight, suppress, or indulge our emotions; we don’t give them more fuel. While different emotions will still arise, they may not occupy our attention for as long as they did in the past. And if we’re lucky, they may not visit us as frequently anymore or even stay away completely. But whatever the outcome may be, we practice mindfulness of our emotions while writing to be independent from them. Then, we will be able to write as scheduled, whether we are feeling sad, anxious, and doubtful, or elated, happy, and motivated. We don’t have to wait for emotional states to arise or disappear – we write as planned.

Although I’m repeating myself, to be aware of our emotions and moods, as well as our bodily sensations and thoughts, we need to cultivate mindfulness on a regular basis. Don’t judge yourself if you can’t be mindful more than once or twice during a writing session. Be patient and keep on coming back to the present moment. Practicing mindfulness will increase your ability to be aware of what is happening – until it constitutes another habit.

Next week, I will try to show what may happen when we receive feedback or criticism (on a dissertation or article) and how mindfulness can help us deal with it. For this purpose, I will draw from my own experiences.

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