Liberating the Tortured Writer

Writing can involve lots of hope — and, disappointment. But, says Ben Craib, mindfulness offers relief and perspective.

These days, more people than ever want to write for a living. Blogs and self-publishing mean unprecedented numbers of people are trying to get their voices heard. The internet is wild with screams: "Read me! Follow me! Buy me!"

There is also more rejection than ever before—that is, if you are lucky enough for someone to actually reject you. Most of the time you will be ignored. 

I have been writing seriously since the age of seventeen and I am about to turn thirty. Most of my twenties were spent trying to launch a career as a scriptwriter. "Tortured" is certainly a word I would use to describe my writing life, until recently. Here’s why:

  • The rejection. Most writers receive more rejection in twelve months than most people receive in a lifetime.

  • The burden of having to earn a living. All I want to do is write, but now I have to teach drama to a class of moody fifteen-year-olds!

  • The poverty. While my friends bought everyone rounds of expensive drinks without thinking about it, I went to the shop and bought a cheap can of beer and drank it in the street.

  • The uncertainty. A year's work on a script! No guarantee of success!

  • The never-ending cycle of hope and disappointment. I got a place on one of the Britain's most prestigious writing MAs. I was full of hope—I had the belief that the expert tutelage would bring out best in me, and connect me to the right people. My final script was a complete failure. Every new writing project, to some extent, was characterized by this cycle of emotion.

  • Emotional burnout. It's tiring being so up and down all the time.

  • Chasing compliments. Praise is nice—when people in the industry say that they like you and that you have talent, you feel great. Then you feel awful when your script gets rejected—again.

  • The competition. I remember walking into a literary manager's office in a theatre and seeing piles and piles of scripts on his desk: the perfect visual demonstration of the small chance of success.

  • A sense of entitlement. I'm a good writer! I work hard! I deserve success!

I saw my pain in other writer friends: in the way they drank their drinks too quickly, in the way they all felt their lives were going badly, in the way they moaned about the terrible, unfair, industry and its warped, anti-creative values.

But what was underneath all this torture? Quite a few unskillful habits, most of which were related to ego:

  • A desperate need for some kind of approval: basing one's self esteem on the opinions of others.

  • Over identification with my work—mistaking my work for my actual life.

  • A constant striving for a future moment that would be better than this one.

  • An image of what I should or shouldn't be achieving at any one time of my life.

  • A clinging to suffering, an addiction to the highs and lows of it, including endless speculation on whether I was "good enough."

In the end I got sick of it. I was clinging to a dream that was causing suffering to myself and others.

Slowly but surely mindfulness came into my life.

I started meditating. I found it hard, but deep down I felt it was doing me good.  I persevered. I became aware of just how chattering my brain was. I began to dis-attach from my thoughts.

I started to practice gratitude—and to notice all the incredible things I have in my life. My day job, which I used to bitterly resent, transformed into something enjoyable.

My father, a therapist, used to talk about the “healthiness of having your feelings.” It was something to which I aspired but that I could never really live—until I experienced that deeper awareness, the non-judgmental observance that mindfulness teaches.

No longer do I explain away my anxiety with rational thought, seeking to write the script that will set my life free and bring me peace and success. 

Mindful awareness has shown me that stillness, the deeper space inside oneself that is away from all of the emotions, the peaceful space that watches. I try to bring mindfulness to all I do, and the present moment is always my priority.

Mindfulness has helped me enjoy the creative impulse rather than try to block it with tension and a compulsion to be brilliant. It has helped show me that simply waking up in the morning, and being alive, is a wonderful gift.

My life is not perfect. I still have many challenges. My angst, a deep conditioned habit, did not disappear. But by identifying with it less it loses its tyrannical, destructive power.

I still go through ups and downs, pleasure and pain. Yet I am far better at accepting them as they come and go.

And I still love writing—but now I let the present moment be my motivator, and as much as I possibly can, do not attach myself to the hope of success or fear of failure.


Photo © Coffman