• Sarah Mullaney

A writer's rocky road to enough

How I'm learning to embrace fear, let go of perfection and love writing for myself again.

As a child I was always creating. It didn’t matter who or what it was for. Nine times out of ten there was no purpose. Creating was just what I did. I specifically remember writing a lengthy story about the adventures of a dog and a frog one summer. They had the best time and so did I.

Then there was the time in Year Six when I was given the most joyous, glee-inducing homework ever – rewrite a fairytale in my own style. Now that’s what I’m talking about. Forget helpless Cinderella, my Cinders was ‘funny, kind and cool. Don’t mess with her - she ain’t no fool!’ Yes, I really said that. And did I mention I loved (and still love) poetry?

Of course I was the one who brought friends home from school to play and ended up making them co-write a book with me (does five sheets of A4 stapled in half count?). My subjects of choice were SpongeBob SquarePants, anything related to talking animals and garlic bread.

Fast forward to 2019 and things have changed (apart from my obsession with garlic bread – that’ll be lifelong). I work in advertising as a copywriter which I love. It was always my dream to be paid to write and without sounding like too much of a cliche, I know it’s what I’m meant to be doing.

My barrier to creativity

But what about my personal writing? The madcap stories and ridiculous rhyming? To be honest, there are a lot less of those. I blogged a fair amount in my mid to late teens about dating, mental health and all my favourite books. I wrote a lot of poetry too and still do every now and again. The pure, unadulterated love for writing is still there. But so is something else. Fear.

Here’s the thing. I write for a living. I know I can do it. I know I’m good at it - I wouldn’t be paid if I wasn’t. However, this all means nothing when fear comes into play. Truth is - I’m bloody terrified of failing in my personal writing and often see this as producing anything that’s less than perfect. I know. I’m one of those people.

My desire for perfection goes hand in hand with what I see as perfection’s equally evil twin sister – imposter syndrome. This is where you believe your success isn’t deserved or down to your own efforts, and that it’s only a matter of time before you’re exposed as a fraud. Unless you’ve experienced it or know someone who has, it’ll sound completely ridiculous. But once you’re in that vicious cycle of thinking, it gets harder and harder to claw your way out.

For me, it all comes down to feeling ‘enough’ and I know that fear, combined with imposter syndrome and perfectionism, results in me feeling like I’m not enough.

So, how can I learn to work with these feelings constructively and feel like I am enough? I’ve been reading a lot about this subject over the past few months and have been listening to podcasts like Happy Place by Fearne Cotton, Ctrl Alt Delete by Emma Gannon and How to Fail by Elizabeth Day. It’s so refreshing when the people you admire, particularly those with such a prominent voice, admit they too have had similar struggles. So, here’s the things I’ve learned about finding my sense of ‘enough’.

Done is better than good

Time has taught me that perfectionism and imposter syndrome don’t stop me from writing. They stop me from getting started. And if they’re what fuel my fear, they’re what I need to tackle head on.

Bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert is no stranger to fear and wrote about how it can co-exist alongside creativity in Big Magic. I read Big Magic for the first time just a few weeks ago and wow, I was hooked. Her tips about embracing curiosity and enjoying the creative process had such an impact on me that as soon as I finished reading, I picked up my journal and wrote down 35 pieces of advice from the book that I could apply to my life.

One of the easiest ones, and one of my favourites, was this:

Done is better than good.

Something clicked with me. Done is better than good. It’s true! How much more productive would we be if we focused solely on getting stuff done, rather than worrying about it being ‘good’? It would certainly make me more likely to attend a gym class more than once or eat healthily for longer than ten minutes.

I suppose you could say that striving for ‘good’ is my comfort zone. It’s where I’ve traditionally found a sense of ‘enough’, particularly in writing. However, I’m now trying to pat myself on the back for simply getting a messy first draft written. Because good is never immediate but always possible with redefining, redrafting and a fresh pair of eyes.

In my notes for this blog, I’d written down a quote from bestselling novelist Dawn O’Porter. I didn’t write down where exactly it was from, who she was talking to or even what about. I think Dawn was on Emma Gannon’s podcast Ctrl Alt Delete discussing The Cows or the writing process in general (poor research from me I know). Dawn said, “I don’t know if it’s good, but I know it’s mine.” Like ‘done is better than good’, this really stood out to me and is something I want to constantly remind myself of while writing.

First drafts will always be shit

In Mary Portas’ book ‘Work Like A Woman: A Manifesto For Change’ she gives a golden nugget of wisdom when she compares excellence and perfection, saying ‘the first is a goal, the second is a strait jacket.’ TOO TRUE.

Another quote that I love about writing is from Earnest Hemmingway who rightly declared that ‘the first draft of anything is shit.’ I first heard this years ago and ironically, it’s my number one piece of advice to anyone struggling with their writing. Just get the damn thing down on paper and worry about the outcome later. Authors, whether it’s their first book or last, will never, ever write a perfect first draft. If they did then they wouldn’t need an editor.

Boundaries are your friend

Of course, you can’t be creative all the time – that’s just not how it works. For me, feeling like I’m ‘enough’ has started to involve giving my creativity boundaries. By that I mean, if I’m writing all day at work, I physically can’t come home and write late into the evening. I’d love it if I could – and believe me, I’ve tried – but I have a duty to my employer to show up and be the best copywriter I can be. I know that putting unnecessary pressure on myself to write wacky, Roald Dahl-esque poetry of an evening won’t do me good in the long run.

It’s both wonderful and difficult when your job and creative outlet are the same. Sometimes you’ve got to ‘tap out’ of an evening and admit that right now isn’t the best time to be creative, and that’s ok because other times will be. Slowly but surely, I’m learning to say that today I’ve done enough and tomorrow I can carry on.

Making space for fear

Sadly, fear isn’t something that just goes away if you ignore it. Fear manifests itself into something much bigger that, if unmanaged, can become out of control.

I recently attended a writer’s workshop called ‘Meditation and Creative Writing’ and one of the teachers (the wonderful Roz Goddard) said something that I haven’t been able to forget.

If you resist, it persists.

Similarly, Elizabeth Gilbert makes it clear very early on in Big Magic that trying to eradicate fear is a no-go, saying ‘if I want creativity in my life, then I will have to make space for fear too.”

That got me thinking - how could I force myself to get past fear? I wanted to do it outside of writing and quite literally plunged out of my comfort zone.

What’s on the other side

I ended up going rock climbing with my friend Selina and did a ‘leap of faith’, which involved climbing 18-feet above the ground, launching myself off a platform into the air and grabbing onto a bar for dear life.

Now, I don’t particularly have a fear of heights and honestly felt fine… until I got up there. The phrase ‘don’t look down’ was useless. I had to look down to see the instructor, who was shouting words of encouragement (again useless) as I dithered and whined like a petulant child.

One attempt to jump followed the next, each time resulting in me stopping myself at the edge. I’m not one to normally use the phrase ‘I can’t do it’ but that day, I did. Right before throwing myself off that platform.

The feeling of elation when I realised what had happened was unbeatable. I did it! I jumped off the platform, quickly grabbed the bar before swinging forward and bending my fake nails back in the process. Ouch. Not ideal but who cares? I didn’t do the jump perfectly, but I did get the bloody thing done!

Afterwards, Selina and I headed out for a much needed Nandos. I couldn’t escape the adrenaline rush from the jump, feeling shaky, a tad sick and ever so hungry. This had me wondering, did I feel this way because I’d just thrown my body around like a child of the 90s would throw a slinky down the stairs? Or was it that pent up fear manifesting physically and slowly being released?

On the other side of fear wasn’t quite peace. Instead, it was the power of retrospect and knowing that actually, things were ok in the end. Like with my writing, I got it done. And that was enough.

Enjoy the grind

I spend so much of my writing time stuck in my head like some sort of mime artist. Struggling to enjoy the process because I’m too worried about the end goal, rather than taking joy in the creation. It doesn’t help that I’m also an incredibly impatient person. I want to solve things now and move onto the next thing that I can solve.

I recently listened to the episode of Emma Gannon’s Ctrl Alt Delete podcast with editor-in-chief of Elle UK and author of The Discomfort Zone, Farrah Storr. Farrah’s achievements span far and wide – from launching Women's Health UK to increasing Cosmopolitan UK’s readership by 59% as editor (despite 80% of her staff resigning when she made major changes to the magazine) and being named one of the 36 BAME people on the Guardian’s list of the 1,000 most influential people in Britain.

There’s no doubt about it. Farrah is a highly successful woman and better yet, she’s grounded about what success is, saying “Most of success is the climb; the grind to actually get to success. The grind should be the enjoyable bit.”

That got me thinking about the “I’ll be happy when…” mentality. The whole, I’ll be happy when I’ve reached this career goal, bought that house, been to XYZ amount of countries etc. For me it was always, ‘I’ll be happy when I’m a published author.’ There’s nothing wrong with ambition – I’m a firm believer of dreaming big – but you can’t pin the happiness of your current and future self on it.

Instead, we need to learn how to be happy while striving towards our goals, as well as once we’ve achieved them. Or perhaps we need to unlearn certain behaviours that come out of our ambitions. I’ve found that counting up the little victories helps. For me, those are things like emails from clients or colleagues saying thanks and well done for some work I’ve sent across, or even just the days where I feel like I have my shit together and know exactly what I’m doing.

Getting out of my head

It’s all about helping me to help myself. So, instead of succumbing to self-sabotage and letting imposter syndrome stop me from writing in my free time, I’ve started journaling. Eye roll inducing, I know, but it’s actually really helping me. Whether it’s writing down the musings of my inner critic and seeing just how irrational those thoughts are, or thinking of three things I’m grateful for in that moment, journaling is a great way of giving myself a quick mental boost.

I’ve also bought a book of writer’s prompts called 642 Things to Write About. My intention is to tackle these one at a time and free write – so put down on paper pretty much whatever comes into my head first. Another way I’m trying to let go of perfection and failure.

I’m slowly realising that enough is whatever the hell I make it. In my teens, being ‘enough’ meant writing in every spare minute I could, so other people could see my work and validate me. Enough at college meant freaking out over an essay that I was more than capable of doing. Enough in my career has been about proving myself as someone who chose to work her way up instead of going to university. Enough in my personal writing has meant only continuing with anything if it has a purpose / I think I could sell it / I think it'll be successful.

Over time I've realised that none of that matters. The only person I need to prove anything to or even just make happy is myself. Because in being happy and relatively sane, I can say that I am enough.