A day in the negative thoughts of one writer

Photo: author

Alice Driver can’t seem to find the balance.

LAST YEAR, as a personal project to chase away my writing demons, I kept a journal of all my negative thoughts. I was working as a freelance writer and spending all of my time basking in the glow of the computer screen. Without coworkers and the daily social interactions and distractions they provide, I felt locked inside a cycle of negative thoughts.

The thoughts poured out like dark, wet animals; their mental suffocation threatened to shut me down. Once they were on paper, those lines and lines of deformed thoughts (like fat, headless rats), I had to laugh at them. They seemed completely ridiculous, and then the question was, “Why did I let them run around in my head, those unreal black beasts?”

* * *

I do not have control over my character development.
I don’t know what I am doing.
Everything seems impossible.
Why am I so tired?
When I spend so much time in front of the computer, my housemates think I am doing nothing. They feel sorry for me.
So much of myself comes out in my writing that it makes me afraid. There are things I am afraid to share. At the same time, those are the things at the heart of my writing. I write around them.
My writing is boring.
I have nothing to say.
I cannot capture what I want to say.
What I write will not be meaningful. It will not do justice to the subject.
I am no good at writing dialogue or creating characters.
I don’t know what I am doing.
It takes me so long to write only a few poor pages.
I don’t understand how to structure or punctuate dialogue and it drives me crazy. I constantly want to go back and revise the dialogue in my entire document to make the spacing and punctuation universal.
I cannot capture the essence, the feeling of it all, the importance. How can I do it justice?
Fucking dialogue. I don’t know how to structure it.
Everything I write seems stupid, too simplistic, not what I want it to be.
It is all personal, and that makes me feel vulnerable? Is everything about me?
It is horrid.
Who am I fooling? I am not really a writer.
My characters are disorganized and have no personality or relationships.
I am doing it wrong. All the real writers write by hand or on a typewriter, don’t have internet and promote austere writing and living. I hate them, but I wonder if they are right.
I never feel like I am doing things RIGHT. I feel like I need to start over, to rethink my characters.
I feel ridiculous. I get very motivated, and then I get overwhelmed. This is the cycle. I cannot seem to maintain my motivation or stave off those terrible feelings that paralyze me.
I devalue my own work. Why?

* * *

Weeks later, I read them over and, in an effort to provide some balance, I decided to write down my positive thoughts. They did not pour out. In fact, days went by without me writing anything down. I doodled, drew tiny dinosaurs (lots of Tyrannosaurus Rex with sharp, uneven teeth) around the edges of my notebook, and wrote down some seemingly nice thoughts that I then disliked on paper and erased.

I had to force them out, to chase down those fleeting positive thoughts, grab a hold of them, and yell at them, “yes, you are positive, and you will not escape me.” In the end, I put my two lists of thoughts side by side, and I could see how clearly my thoughts were imbalanced, and how much time I wasted criticizing myself with thoughts that prevented me from writing. Writing down my negative thoughts allowed me to identify them, capture the rats, and clean out my mental headspace.

It also forced me to recognize the importance of creating my own community, of taking time for a long hard run, and for seeing writing as a part of myself, but not as my life. When writing seemed to be all that I had, it took on such a weighty feeling that every decision felt momentous. When I wasn’t writing, I was criticizing myself for not writing. However, the lifeblood of writing comes from full immersion in humanity, and not from sitting in front of a computer screen. It was good to remind myself that.

I would share my positive thoughts as well, but I cannot find the list.

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  • Scott Hartman

    Nicely done Alice. For me, anything I write is writing, is confirming that Yes!, I am a writer. Whether it be pages, single lines, positive, negative; the point for me is putting pen to paper; whether it be making actual progress is what I’m working on, or simply comments of what I’m working on, or what is working on me.
    Writing, for me, is the totality of the experience, including not-writing. I remember many days writing my last book, days where the legal pad had no more words on it at the end of the day than it had at the beginning – eight hours earlier. That bothered me at first, then, as more word-days followed the infrequent no-word days, I embraced it as a part of my own process.

    And as to your final comments, about writing and humanity, after my writing day, I would walk out onto the street, join the flow.

  • Rachel Driver Speckan

    The overwhelmed part is how I feel. The inspiration and adrenaline, and then the exhaustion and lapse. Thank you for writing this down, wrestling and wrangling the demons. And, for the record, your characters have always been vivid and alive, imperfect, and amazing. Your story on lemons in the sixth (?) grade changed the way I thought about writing…adding dimension and levity, cleverness to a character, all while keeping it simple and clear. Best of luck with the balance and a plethora of words!

    • Alice Driver

      oh, you have to tell me my own lemon story because i don’t remember it! can’t wait to see you parents for T-day!!

  • Krystalle Teh Xin Lei

    This hit home really hard for me, Alice. Let me just start off by saying that whatever you’re writing about and doing in Mexico City is a real inspiration to me. I secretly want to grow up to be like you, and also, the newly minted Katherine Boo. Everything in this article perfectly encapsulates my frustration with myself for the past couple of months (as an example, my desktop wallpaper is a Paint scribble of “don’t you ****ing give up, you hear?”). Guess I’ll have to keep going and keep living then! By the way, your writing is not boring, and your characters jump off the page! :)

  • Louise Halsey

    Our demons seem to have such power until we realize we are empowering them.

    • Marge Humphreys

      Oh, this is good.

  • Susan Drouilhet

    No matter about losing the positive thought list. You can always start another one! :)
    Love the honesty and clarity. Thanks, Alice