The 3 Writerly Compassions
No. 150.1 | By Christine Carron
How have you been kind to yourself and your writing this week?
The first time I stated that question aloud while teaching one of the reflection processes in Goodjelly’s Jam method, there was a collective laugh from the three writers in the class. It was a somewhat uncomfortable laugh as it was laced with the realization that inner kindness had not been an integral feature of their writing adventures thus far.
Based on my continued work with novelists, nonfiction writers, poets, and memoirists, the reactions of those first three writers were not outliers. Perhaps you can relate?
If so, here is some straight talk. That dearth of inner kindness is likely having a negative impact on not only your felt experience of your writing adventure, but also on your writing productivity. Practicing Inner Kindness* is a research-backed strategy that will unleash your forward momentum and strengthen your inner belief that you can and will move your writing projects forward.
One way you can integrate more Inner Kindness is to practice what I call the Writerly Compassions. There are three, but before we get to them, let’s detour into a quick survey of self-compassion, which is what the writerly compassions are all about.
Self-Compassion and Inner Kindness
In a Goodjelly context, self-compassion is a core element of Inner Kindness. However, in self-compassion expert Dr. Kristin Neff’s framework, self-kindness (i.e., Inner Kindness) is an element of self-compassion. For purposes of today’s post, no need to quibble the difference.
Fair to say, they’re connected. Here is a quick rundown of Neff’s three elements of self-compassion in context of the writing adventure.
Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment
Self-compassion means we are being warm, generous, and understanding toward ourselves when we fail, feel off-kilter, or not up to snuff as a writer. We meet ourselves where we are with gentleness and without bypassing the feelings or descending into inner critic/inner perfectionist rants. When we do so, we experience greater equilibrium and can face challenges with more agency and calm.
Common humanity vs. Isolation
Things are not always going to go our way on the writing adventure. That is going to frustrate us, irk us, possibly even enrage us. These feelings can lead to, according to Neff, “an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if 'I' were the only person suffering or making mistakes.” But the reality is that every writer is facing there own set of challenges.
Every writer has to deal with rejections, with aspects of the writing adventure that frustrate them or that they actively “hate,” with feeling like their writing dreams will never come true, etc. Self-compassion in this context is about recognizing that we are all imperfect humans who experience the slings and arrows of the writing adventure, instead of acting from the place of “this is all happening to me, and me alone.”
The truth is there are likely writers who face greater headwinds than you and some who will experience less. But all of us are facing headwinds to one degree or the other.
Mindfulness vs. Over-identification
This element of self-compassion is about observing our negative thoughts and emotions about our writing in a curious, nonjudgmental way instead of functioning as if our negative thoughts (and only our negative thoughts) about the writing adventure are the TRUTH.
For me, this aspect of self-compassion is about being able to direct, more often than not, our interior environment toward grounded responsiveness instead of over-reactivity.
With these concepts in mind, we are now ready for the three writerly compassions, which are simply the focal points where I find writers have the most potent judgments.
The Three Writerly Compassions
The First Writerly Compassion | Your Writing Progress
Oof, are writers hard on themselves around how much progress they are (or are not) making. I am using “progress” here very loosely to encompass the ways we measure our growth. So this could be as specific as how fast you produce a first draft to your perception of your growth as a writer from a craft perspective.
How do you know if focusing on the first writerly compassion around your writing progress would be useful to you? Consider these questions:
Do you allow yourself to learn with curiosity and joy? Or when you learn something new about craft or managing your writing work or whatever, do you feel a sense of inner shame and criticism because some part of you believes you should have known that thing already?
Are you able to (and do you) celebrate all progress no matter how small? Or does your progress always fall short?
When you hit hurdles or full-on blocks, are you able to see the challenges within the larger perspective of your progress as a writer, possibly even seeing such situations as opportunities for growth? Or do you sink into the productivity-halting despair of all or nothing thinking: I will never get this book done; I don’t have what it takes; I will never get an agent, etc.?
Are you able to take a break from your writing for a day or a week or longer, if needed, without feeling guilty or experiencing an inner critic attack? Or do you experience dread and despair and feel like you have failed somehow if you step away from your writing for any length of time?
The more “no” responses you have to the first question in each set, and the more you recognize yourself in the second, the higher the indication that some compassion around your progress could be useful.
The Second Writerly Compassion | Your Writing Projects(s)
I used to make holiday cards. They were kind of awesome–think a mix of collage, origami, and wrapping. Yes, I wrapped the cards. Some folks didn’t even want to open them, because they knew they wouldn’t be able to get them back exactly so. I even had a “Made by Christine” label.
I loved making them. But I was also a bit tortured. My inner critic and inner perfectionist were at full historical force during that time. No matter how well the cards were received, I was hounded internally by my failure to create them exactly as I'd envisioned them to be. For me they were never good enough.
I finally abandoned the whole endeavor as that inner negativity had turned the process into a dreaded slog.
I often see that same level of self-judgment, isolating, and over-identifying with negative emotions like doubt and inner criticism in writers around their various projects. While the first compassion is about one’s creative progress, the second compassion is more about the creative product.
Following are some questions that might help you recognize if it might serve you to expand your practice of the second writerly compassion: toward your writing project(s).
As above, the more you identify with the first questions in the question pairs, the more you have already integrated self-compassion around your writing projects. The more you identify with the second questions in the pairs, however, the higher the likelihood that boosting your self-compassion around your writing projects would be beneficial.
Do you nurture and support your writing project(s) through each phase of development? Or are you always finding them wanting, e.g., this is a shi*tty first draft?
Are you able to accept that there is some luck involved? Or do you constantly expect yourself to bootstrap-manifest the universe to your will no matter what?
If you find yourself “sick and tired” of a writing project, are you able to let it rest for a bit to give both it and you a break? Or do you always insist on “pushing through”?
Do you allow a project space and time to develop organically even if a particular project takes longer than you want it to, or develops in a different way than you originally planned? Or do you expect all your writing projects to hup to it like Marine cadets in perfect compliance with an initial idea and timeline?
The Third Writerly Compassion | You, The Writer
We have officially reached the ultimate core of self-compassion on the writing adventure: for you, the writer.
This is where, beneath what ever pushiness we have around our progress or perfectionism we have around our projects, the true tenderness of our vulnerability as writers resides. What if I am just not good enough? What if the world doesn’t want what I am called to write? What if luck never breaks in my favor?
Will we keep writing anyway?
We will if we are able to extend generosity and kindness toward ourselves instead of judgement. If we can hold steady in our shared humanity with all writers who are on this journey with us, instead of feeling like the whole (publishing) world is against us and only us. And if we are able to move forward with courageous mindfulness, gently acknowledging, but then releasing the negative thoughts that would otherwise shift us into despair and away from our creative delight—and away from healthy and sustainable writing productivity.
What say you? Are you in?
Three to Productivity Freed
When we practice the Three Writerly Compassions, extending kindness and generosity to our progress, our projects, and ourselves as writers, we unburden ourselves from the productivity drags of our inner critics, our inner perfectionists, and our inner pushers/maxers.
All the efforting those parts require us to do to force productivity falls away, and our our forward momentum is unleashed, buoyed up by trust, confidence, and commitment.
The result? A writing adventure transformed from the inside out.