Beware of Pestimists

Beth Mende Conny of Write Directions and writes about how writers need to avoid negative voices and criticism.Pestimists are those pesty, pessimistic voices that make us question our actions and dreams. They play in the background of our lives, like Muzak—barely noticeable yet incredibly potent. The messages they deliver vary from person to person; however, the words they use often go something like this:

  • You can’t write.
  • No one cares about what you have to say.
  • You have to be an expert to write a book.
  • You’re wasting your time on a pipe dream.

Now that we know what Pestimists are, how do we handle them? Here are seven suggestions:

1. Identify the one to three pestimists that are the most persistent for you. What are the specific messages they deliver?

2. Turn those messages into questions. If, for example, your pestimist keeps repeating “You can’t write,” phrase it instead as “What makes you think you can write?” Why? Because just as nature abhors a vacuum, questions abhor not being answered. The trick then is to come up with your own answers, ones you feel comfortable with.

Here’s how the progression works:

Message: “You can’t write.”
Question: “What makes you think you can write?”
Response: “Maybe I can, maybe I can’t. But if you really want me to answer, I’ve got to at least try. That’s the only way I’ll find out.”

3. Because it’s easier to deal with an adversary you can see, give your pestimist a face. Find a photo of the close family member, friend or co-worker who undermines your confidence (unknowingly or not). Or skim newspapers, magazines and circulars for a face that matches your pestimist’s personality. Tape the photo onto an index card and keep it in a handy place—your desk, car, or wherever else your pestimists tends to visit. When they come calling, armed with their awful questions, look them in the eye and give them your rehearsed response (as noted above).

4. If your responses don’t fully quiet them, turn their respective index cards over. The act is a subtle but conscious one; you’re putting your pestimist on notice that you are not to be disturbed while writing.

5. Treat your pestimist like the kid who threatens to throw a tantrum if he/she doesn’t get your immediate attention. Say to it: “I will listen to you as soon as I finish what I am doing—and only when I am finished. I’ll be done in X amount of time. You’ll have to either sit quietly or get lost until then.” (By the way, when dealing with pestimists, any amount of time you can negotiate for yourself—be it only minutes—is a tremendous feat.)

6. Accept your pestimist’s good intentions. Often, pestimists are not trying to be negative as much as protective, kind’ve like parents. For example, think back to the days when you first got your license and wanted to borrow the family car. Chances are you went through a grilling: “Where are you off to? With whom? What time will you be back?” The greater your ability to assuage your parents’ fears, the more likely you’d be to get the car keys.

The same holds true for pestimists. To write is to go off in a whole new direction and it’s their job to keep you safe. And so you have to let them know what you’re up to and how you will proceed. Be realistic about your goals and you’ll give your pestimists a whole lot less to worry about. Telling them you plan on writing a chapter only, not a whole book, is like telling your parents you’ll be driving to the movies rather than cross country. They’ll sigh with relief, and so will you. After all, writing a chapter is a heck of a lot easier than writing a book.

7. Although it’s easier to blame others for your lack of confidence or progress, you’ve got to take responsibility for your own pestimists. All writers must battle—and make peace—with them. It’s as big a challenge as any project you may take on.

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