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

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