The Saboteur

Last week, we explored some of the more common fears that we face as writers in pursuit of our calling. And when it comes to our irrational fears, there is always the facile suggestion that fear can be overcome if we just deal with it logically.

Unfortunately, “dealing logically with one’s fears” is something of an oxymoron. The limits we set on ourselves are far more complicated, and far more tenacious. It’s not like being lost on the freeway, where all we need is a GPS update. Because the sad truth is, there’s a big part of us that wants to be lost. But there are some exercises we can do to start breaking through these barriers and keep on writing.

The Saboteur

First, identify the Voices of Doom that are whispering your fears to you.

For example, maybe when you attempt to write you often feel uncomfortable because you’re doing something that seems—well, frivolous. You keep saying to yourself that someone of your age, whether that be 14, 22, 37, 65, or 112, should be doing something serious with one’s life.

Where did that voice come from? Does it sound suspiciously like your father, who firmly believes in 9-to-5 jobs, pension plans, and non-assumable fixed-rate home loans? You haven’t spoken to him in five years, he lives a thousand miles away, and he has no idea that you’ve been playing along with the #13WeekNovel Writing Challenge, but you just know that he’d never approve of your plans to write. What will your boss think? Won’t this interfere with your chance for that 7.5 cent-an-hour raise?

While I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to hear from you, don’t call your dad and try to convince him that he’s wrong about writing novels. Maybe he’s mellowed, maybe he’ll tell you that he regrets the rigidity of his wasted youth, maybe he’ll tell you to follow your dreams and “write that novel, damn it.”

But as gratifying as that may be, the problem isn’t with Dad anymore. You’re all grown up, and you’ve only been stopping yourself with messages you internalized a long time ago. That voice within you, it might have been inspired by your father’s values and behavior, but now it’s part of you.

So listen again to the voice, which is part of you, and personify it still further.

What does the voice sound like? Well, yes, it sounds like your father, no surprise there. But maybe it’s also snappish, like the third-grade teacher that made fun of your penmanship. Or maybe it’s even sweet and soothing, like a beautiful woman assuring you, “Don’t bother with that writing now. It’s a waste of time anyway.”

Give “the voice” a name. It might be a given name you’ve always hated—Gertrude? Herman?—or it might be something more like a title: The Big Meanie, or even The One Who Stops Me. Be creative. Be silly.

What about your voice? If it had a face, what would it look like? Devilishly handsome? Disfigured? Tom Cruise? However silly or horrible it might be, describe this face in a paragraph.

What about the body? Is it a kind of monster—green reptilian skin, slitted eyes, tongue tasting the air? We know it’s strong. Does it bear an uncanny resemblance to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? Or does it look like the 98-pound weakling from those ads for body-building schools? Describe the space it carves out in your imagination.

The SaboteurKeep in mind that these are just some examples. Your voice might evolve into something male, female, human, animal, or machine. But let’s take everyone’s voice-become-creature and call him, her, or it, the Saboteur.

Now, go back to the original thoughts that led you to this Saboteur: the criticism that it offered to stop you from writing. Use that as the opening line of a dialogue with your new creation. Let it express the most virulent, damaging criticism, let it spew the blackest vitriol. But now, fight back. Fight back and win.

The Saboteur: A man your age should be doing something serious with his life!

“I am doing something serious with my life. I work from nine to five and I make good money. And now I’m going to do something even more serious—I’m going to write fiction.”

The Saboteur: Haven’t you learned anything? If you ever want to make partner, you’re going to have to work a lot longer than nine to five, you lazy slob!

“I’m doing fine at the agency, and I want to write a novel. What’s the point of being a partner if I don’t do the thing I really love?”

The Saboteur: You’re too old to start something new!

“And I’m not getting any younger, so I’m going to start now, and I’m not going to wait any longer.”

The Saboteur: Give it up!

“I won’t! I’ve been listening to you my whole life! I’m not going to let you stop me anymore!”

You can expand this dialogue into a scene, describing where you and the Saboteur are and what you’re doing. You can write it in present tense, or use the past tense. You can, in fact, do it any way you want. It can be two paragraphs or twenty pages.

Don’t worry about doing this exercise “correctly.” Just do it. Experiment and take your time. The only rule, whether you write a full-blown scene or use a dialogue, is that you win. Even winning can take a variety of forms: You can violently destroy the Saboteur, or you can reach more of a compromise, like the Saboteur sits on the naughty step in a corner of the room and lets you get some work done.

Use this exercise as an opportunity to be a little wild and crazy. You’re not writing this for publication, or for anyone else to read it, so let loose. Write the forbidden. Put the exercise away and look at it again tomorrow. You may be surprised to find that you’ve written a damn good dialogue or scene.

Order my book, A Merchant’s Tale, and sign up for the waiting list to get FREE bonuses, including a copy of The Wayfarers Guide to Droma, a companion guide to the most troublesome hedge kingdom on the High-King’s Road.



Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in Passion, Writing Life

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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