Letting in the light: Overcoming unproductive negative self-talk about writing

by Meredith Resnick

by Carol Grannick

Chiaroscuro (kiːˈɑːrə.ˈskʊroʊ, –ˈskjʊroʊ, Italian for light-dark) in art is characterized by strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for using contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modeling three-dimensional objects such as the human body. (from Wikipedia)

A Caravaggio painting can take my breath away. A lunar eclipse, when the shadow cuts the light, entrances me.

Consider, though, the dark without the light, the shadow crossing the moon and staying. Many who think and write about the inner creative experience believe that the “shadow” part of the artist’s life is normal. That, specifically, in our writing lives, our anxieties, fears, doubts, need to be welcomed in order to deepen and enrich our characters, stories and plots.

I would agree. In part. Because all feelings, including the negative, “shadow” feelings, pass.

Unless they don’t. What about writers who struggle with the shadow that threatens to control them? What are the options for those writers who feel depleted and distracted by negativity, and for whom all-too-frequent negative thinking diminishes energy, productivity and creativity? What happens, then, to the resilience that is so essential for a writer’s perseverance?

At these times all the statements in the world about how important it is to “stay resilient” can feel like just another failure.

Because “just do it” doesn’t work if you don’t know how.

I believe without question that acceptance and welcoming of negative emotion is integral to the creative life, indeed to life itself. Negative emotions flow naturally from experiences like loss, hurt, disappointment. But unnecessary and prolonged negativity – self-doubt, fear, disappointment, jealousy based on irrational thought – diminishes the brain’s capacity to be open, creative, curious and productive.

The heart-heaviness that spews unproductive negative self-talk and even depression is not beneficial to our writing or the quality and meaning of our lives.

Learning how to reduce that negativity and seed more heartfelt positive emotions (not smiley-faced affirmations) into our writing lives increases energy and creativity, and builds and maintains the resilience essential to perseverence. Serious learned and practiced positivity gives greater meaning to our lives in general – and that’s not bad.

The writing life is not only for the naturally resilient, or for those who live the myth of the tortured but persistent artist. Substantial research in the field of Positive Psychology (POSITIVITY, Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., Crown Books 2009) provides a growing number of tools to diminish the excess negativity that, rather than enhancing our work, keeps us from it.

We should, by all means, welcome the darkness as natural and normal. But we should also remember how breathtaking, in contrast, is the light.

Carol Grannick is a writer and clinical social worker in private practice. She blogs at The Irrepressible Writer about learning and maintaining resilience for the writing life.

Photo credit: chris.bryant

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Thanks for this – I really needed to hear that!


“Learning how to reduce that negativity and seed more heartfelt positive emotions … into our writing lives increases energy and creativity ..” Such an interesting approach to the writing life, but also to life in general!

Vera Marie Badertscher

What an interesting approach. Welcome the dark because it enhances the light. I love it. Thanks.


Your thoughts remind me of some of the current research into happiness that I’ve read. We have this idea that happiness is the absence of sadness, whereas having times of sadness help us appreciate and relish the happy moments more. I guess it’s all the ying-yang type of view of life. Maybe, as you say, the same could be true of the writing life–times of emptiness can help drive you to make the most of times of high creativity.


Why do we all experience such negativity! Aarrgh, frustrating when it comes and hangs around for awhile. I agree (hesitantly) that you need the darkness, though, to appreciate the freedom that the light brings.

Susan Johnston

I think all writers struggle with this on some level. I was especially interested in how you introduced the topic by mentioning chiaroscuro. Classical singers also learn about chiaroscuro as it relates to the voice. Too dark and the voice can sound heavy. Too light and it lacks depth/substance. The right balance is warm, rich, full, and expressive, similar to the right balance of color and light in a painting.

Donna Hull

Appreciating the good by embracing the bad – I like this approach. It’s so easy for the negative self-talk to take over a writer’s mind.

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

Excellent post, and I agree that all writers – and probably all creatives – struggle with this.

Ruth Pennebaker

Excellent post. I also believe that exploring the dark — and not avoiding it — leads to better work.

sarah henry

Here’s to overcoming unproductive negative self-talk when writing — and in most other aspects of life as well.

Love the notion of embracing the dark to bring on the light. Love it.


Beautifully put. I struggle against the darkness in my writing and my art as I’m sure every creative person does.

Jennifer Margulis

I have a lot of negative self-talk to overcome this week. And not just as it pertains to writing. I wish my brain didn’t so often go to a dark place. Thanks for this.

John Levine

Thanks, Carol. You put it beautifully. No matter how well I do in my writing or other aspects of my life, the shadow has a way of returning over and over. I agree with your idea about accepting that. It’s evidently part of who I am and so be it. I find that when the shadow evokes negative thoughts and feelings about my writing, it helps to look back at what I’ve been able to do well and the positive feedback I’ve received – concrete evidence of both my potential and the fact that the shadow is, in fact, an imposter.

Jesaka Long

Such a perfect stop-and-think-post. You really made me think about new ways to reduce the negativity when I sit down to work on creative non-fiction projects. I’m also going to refer back to your article for my copywriting work, too. It’s helpful in finding new ways to deal with client feedback that can be creatively stunting. Thank you!

Alex Myers

So true! There is no more accurate saying — for any occasion — than “this too shall pass.” Let the darkness go! There has been a cultivation of the “struggling artist” (as you mention) for too long. The shadow shouldn’t be denied, but it shouldn’t be wallowed in.


As I have become older I recognise my strolls through the shadows and dark are often a diorama of re-cogitated old patterns. Some rooted in actual experience and others simply my perspective. I have however noticed that many of these old stories are ready for writing and they offer some deep and insightful explorations.

I am generally light and pleasant in nature, yet some of my creative writing leaps into the shadows and gallops on the tales of dark winds. Often this happens before I’ve had time to consider the prose or direction of the narrative or story. I love it.

C.S. Kinnaird

I like your post, and the feeling of compassion that it has in it really moves me, because I struggle with depression and negative thinking. But, I feel like your post is missing something and does not really offer a solution. I feel that it points to the light, but does not give me a hand to hold on the way. I guess that is alright. Life is like that, after all. I should not be looking for a quick, easy solution.

Thank you for tackling the topic of negativity in writers.


Thanks,I found this post very useful.I can actully use some help on my writing check out my blog ace5blog.wordpress.com and leave a comment about my writing.Cheers

Randy Hall

HI, Was wondering if some of your reader/writers may want to do some “trade”. Could you possibly post this on your site? I would send you free books for doing so. If your reader/writers would like to pledge $20 or more to my kickstarter project, I would be happy to buy $20 worth of books from them.
We launched a kickstarter project, the publishing of our books. If there is any way you can spare $20 (if money is tight don’t do it) then I will return the favor and put $20 in any project or cause you wish—just ask, or I will purchase $20 worth of book(s) from you. You will get 2 different books for $20, and I will give you hugs, and all things chocolate.
Link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1308473916/a-book-on-entrepreneurship-and-a-mentoring-website
There is a video that explains everything. I look and act lame in the video, but the cause is great, and will help a lot of people.
For $20 you can chose 2 of 3 books.
1. Divine Intervention (already published and in stores)
2. You can start and grow a business (will publish with your generous help)
3. An adventure in self discovery – In the Himalaya Mountains of all places (will publish with your generous help)
If you want book #3 you need to tell me via facebook message or email.
Blessings, Randy Hall

Bonnie Neubauer

Hi. I’m the author of The Write-Brain Workbook. The Revised & Expanded edition is due out on Oct 6th. Today I received an advance copy and it looks great. I am itching to share it but my website is being overhauled. Might you might like a couple pdf’s of pages for your subscribers/readers to download?
Thanks for considering this.

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