Recently, I shared how I’m going to be relaunching specifically as a feminist writing coach soon due to the proven gender bias within the publishing world and because of the way in which women not only face challenges in terms of their creativity due to doing more domestic work than their male partners, but because our cultural conditioning means we struggle with putting ourselves and our work out there – something all successful authors need to do. These all leads to less women’s books being written, published and out there changing the world and I’m on a mission now to support women authors and create a movement that will shatter the literary glass ceiling, one book at a time.
In terms of the difficulties and discomfort many women experience when sharing their views and ideas, Tara Mohr‘s excellent book, Playing Big, has been a real eye-opener for me as it considers in detail how women often shrink themselves or play small. Her research showed that, because of this, ‘Leaps of imagination, important ideas and questions, and visions for change were not making it to the bigger stages where they could be heard and where they were desperately needed.’
I totally believe that there’s never been a time in recent history when a diverse selection of women’s opinions, creativity, concepts and leadership have been so required and I strongly feel that some of the gender disparity that exists in the literary world is due to women being culturally trained to sit in the shadows, rather than put their ideas and opinions down on paper and then go after that agent and publishing deal and promote the heck out of their work. This is not to blame women for not stepping up as gender ideology is insidious and the ways we’re taught to behave as women are often deeply entrenched and hard to root out, but, with work like Mohr’s, we can begin to become more aware of how we’ve been taught to stay quiet and start to question whether this serves us and our writing life.
Hence today I wanted to go through some of the main points of Mohr’s book and look at how they apply to women authors. Like Mohr, my own writing coaching is there to, as she says, ‘bring forward women’s voices where they are absent, because I believe those voices will help create a better world.’
There’s a woman out there who really needs to hear what you have to say – whether you are novelist sharing your brilliant imagination, someone sharing your life story to show there is a way back from hell, or if you’re a coach, healer or entrepreneur with a groundbreaking idea.
Let’s start playing big as writers so that woman can read our wisdom and insights and, in turn, start playing big herself. That’s the way the world we are in now will evolve. That’s the way we leave a legacy we can be proud of.
Here are some of the ways Mohr’s work can help women writers do this.
1. DOWN WITH SELF-DOUBT: Pretty much all my women writer clients doubt themselves and their talent. The ‘who am I to write a book/win writing awards/become a successful author’ stuff is strong with my literary gals – indeed, I even often feel that there’s a strong correlation between self-doubt and talent, so the more gifted an author is, the more they’re not sure of their abilities.
This is, I believe, part of the reason why there are still less female authors than men published by major houses. My male clients generally don’t have half the qualms about their work as their woman writer counterparts – in fact, they often seem to respond to criticism of their work by blaming the editor and becoming defensive. (Yes, really!) This confidence, whether well-founded or not, is a great asset when writing a book as it allows the author to feel optimistic about their work’s future as the create the book (no procrastination for them!) and then to bounce back from rejections easily during the submission process (because the agent or publisher is wrong for not seeing their genius). It also means these guys have no worries about promoting their work either as who wouldn’t want to buy such a great masterpiece?
Sadly though, my female authors are all too quick to see their work’s issues and, whilst this can mean they’re more willing to correct problems in their work (and all books have them) and thus get better as writers, this self-doubt can often lead to women shying away from writing or even getting completely blocked, so their fabulous stories never get completed. And then when it comes to going through the fairly brutal (let’s be honest) submission process, some of these gifted gals might not even have the courage to send their stuff out or they might stop doing so after receiving their first rejection because it seemingly confirms their own concerns about their writing. Indeed, if they do manage to get through this process and get a book deal, they may well find themselves balking at marketing their book because of their fears about its flaws or their expertise.
You can see then how self-doubt can really impact a woman writer’s career. Mohr says then that, ‘you simply need to learn how to live with the voice of self-doubt but not be held back by it, to hear the voice and not take direction from it.’
That is, women writers need to accept that their self-doubt is part of them (after all, whatever you resist persists), but you don’t need to let it be the boss of you!
Elizabeth Gilbert talks about fear being part of her and she uses the analogy of it being along on a car ride – but it’s never allowed to drive.
Use your self-doubt to get better as a writer, to be willing to see where you might need to grow creatively – but don’t let it stop you writing or sending your work out or selling the heck out of it.
Instead of thinking ‘Who am I to write this book?’, think ‘Who am I not to?’ and remember the woman who so needs to read your story and who won’t get that insight or hope or whatever your work offers if you don’t deal with your self-doubt and just let it creatively cripple you. Be strong and play big for her if you cannot play big for yourself.
You can also just start to notice when self-doubt shows up (it may well be when you contemplate ‘playing bigger’ or take a daring action) and maybe make your Inner Critic into a character so you can separate it from you. In the Martha Beck coaching world, we refer to this inner neurotic and carping voice as the Lizard as it’s linked to an ancient reptilian part of our brain, so you can see it as that and even give it a name (mine’s Liz ‘Ard, as she’s hard as nails!). You can thank your lizardy critic for sharing its insights with you as it’s only usually trying to keep you safe, but, the great thing is, you don’t have to let it hold you back!
Your inner critic won’t ever completely go away probably as it’s part of our biology to see lack and attack, as well as our cultural training, but you CAN still write your brilliant book and make it a success!
2. LISTEN TO THE INNER MENTOR, NOT THE INNER CRITIC: The Inner Critic is a BIG part of most women writers’ lives, as I’ve pointed out above. The esteemed creativity maven, Julia Cameron, calls her Nigel and says, ‘Nothing is ever good enough for Nigel.’
It’s interesting that she picked a male name for her inner critic as I do wonder sometimes if the reason why women writers are sometimes so crippled with doubt is because we’re operating in a male-biased publishing world and a general patriarchy which isn’t set up for us and thus we always feel ‘wrong’ some how or that we just can’t win. It’s very easy to feel discouraged when facing these conditions.
Mohr has a wonderful exercise for dealing with the Inner Critic though – she has women tap into their Inner Mentor, a you from the future who has all the wisdom of a long life and who’s survived much of what you fear. She’s on the other side of your playing big and has a lot of insights to share to support you as you progress on the creative path. You can download a visualisation about the Inner Mentor to get in touch with her on Tara’s website.
3.DEAL WITH FEAR: Mohr separates fear into two different Hebrew concepts of it – Pachad is the fear of the imagined worst-case scenario kind, whereas Yirah is the kind of fear that shows up when we get more energy, take up a bigger space than we are used to or are in the presence of the divine. You can immediately see how Yirah has a positive aspect, an excitement and awe, whereas Pachad is more the stuff your lizard peddles – the catastrophic thinking, the doom and gloom.
Just knowing the difference between these two sorts of fear instantly helped me because I readily understood the thrill of Yirah when I considered writing a new novel or giving a reading or talk to a big audience – that is, this sort of stuff brings up nerves for sure, but also wonder and possibility. It’s, therefore, the kind of fear to welcome and lean into.
But what about Pachad with all its stormy predictions? We’re hardwired to have this protective lizardy voice, so it’s not going anywhere soon, but Mohr says that tapping into the Inner Mentor’s wisdom can help, as well as looking at our fears with love and curiosity. I use Byron Katie’s The Work, with its simple four questions, to coach myself when Pachad raises its head, as well as with my clients as it’s great to looking at whether what this Pachad is saying is true.
Like Mohr, I also try to get my writer clients and my scared self into the present – most wisdom traditions respect that humans do best when we live in the now (read Eckhart Tolle, if you haven’t already!) and sometimes that might just be the next ten minutes. ‘One day at a time’ is the 12 step slogan, but that can be an awful big ask when Pachad is in town and telling us our future is terrifying.
Just focus on what you’re writing then, the words on the page in front of you, and the place you’re sitting and let your fears about the reception of your work go to one side. I used to see Welcome to Sharonville going into a shredder at an agent’s office when I was writing my first draft, so please don’t get too ahead of yourself – I was wrong about its future and you may well be wrong about your work’s fate as well! Stay in the joy of the writing and the present moment and Pachad will lose its hold on you and you’ll be able to play bigger creatively as a result.
And keep remembering the woman you’re writing for and how she needs to hear what you have to say – that could even be a younger you, but putting the accent on service always helps me feel braver when Pachad attacks, as Mohr attests too.
Remember too that will feel Yirah when you finish your book, get an agent or achieve your writing dreams as you’ll be occupying a bigger space than before, but just expect it and embrace it as the kind of fear that comes when you’re playing big.
4. HANDLE THE NEED FOR APPROVAL AND UNHOOK FROM PRAISE AND BLAME: Approval addiction is apparently now recognised as a thing and I can well believe it as so many of the women writers I coach and know are hooked on pleasing others and making everyone happy. I, like Mohr, feel women in particular are taught to put everyone else’s first and this can cause us to creatively become cramped as our schedules get crammed with other people’s needs, so our writing is pushed into a corner and may not even happen.
The need for approval and to be liked, always being ‘nice’ to others and never really stick up for ourselves and what we want, is also another reason our creativity may get sidelined because asserting our need for time alone to write may feel too much. We’re so acutely sensitive to others’ emotions that we may well not write because it may bother people or ruffles feathers if we are published. After all, we might be less popular if people heard what we really feel or believe via our writing.
We’re told we must look and be perfect (even though ‘perfection’ is a myth) and avoid personal attacks and, because for much of history we had no way to survive without men and the family structure because we couldn’t work to support ourselves, it’s become deeply ingrained in us. Being liked and accepted was a part of our survival so we wouldn’t be rejected and cast out to starve, so it’s not surprising that most women fear conflict and struggle with setting boundaries. We have to be ‘good girls’ – quiet and well-behaved and conforming to others’ ideals – to assert our needs is to be selfish or bitchy or naughty and is not acceptable.
In this way then, women writers are set up to fail in many ways as they face an inner battle to ask for time to write from their partners and families (even if they are well-supported) and they worry in a way that male authors don’t about upsetting people with their writing, whether that’s loved ones or the general public. Sharing their truths and their stories is so hard for women writers as they often fear being rejected and disapproved of to an extent which can stop them starting their books or even sending them off to agents and publishers.
Indeed, many women writers have trouble promoting their books once they are out as that too can feel unseemly as women shouldn’t draw attention to themselves and because it brings up the fear of criticism which is, sadly, often well-founded as women who speak out can often be subject to attacks which attempt to silence them and push them back into their ‘box.’
Playing big then comes with its risks, as well as its gains, and Mohr advises the way to get past this is to unhook ourselves from criticism and even praise. The Buddha wisely talked about the ‘winds of praise and blame’ and how they can toss us to and fro if we get too attached to them, so, like Mohr, I often suggest my writing clients don’t read reviews or, if they do, they don’t take much stock in them because if you believe the good ones, you have to also believe the bad ones and it’s impossible to please everyone, so you will always get some bad ones!
If you can just take in the good stuff and leave the rest, then that’s great, but beware of how seeking approval for your writing from critics, readers and even agents and publishers can send you on a rollercoaster ride and even put you off writing if you let it. I’ve seen a lot of mid-career authors who are bitter because they never got the big deal, the huge advance or the great reviews they felt they deserved and making yourself so subject to the whims of the publishing industry (which can be pretty cutthroat as it’s a business too) and it’s impeding their creative enjoyment, so I tell my clients to keep writing and publishing as emotionally separate as possible. If that stuff comes then it’s just gravy on top of the pleasure of writing. That way, you are free to play big creatively and won’t go insane trying to please everyone.
You can check out my suggestions on how to make the best of feedback on your writing here, but it’s good to always remember who is giving the feedback and that it’s often just a reflection of their personal bugbears (especially if you’ve not gone to a professional for an opinion) and to get curious about why certain criticism hurts (is it mirroring a belief you already hold deep down about yourself?) or even why you need praise as it could mean you need to work on your self-love.
5. DITCH BEING A GOOD STUDENT: Mohr makes the point that a lot of us are taught to excel in school and college by playing by certain academic rules and this makes us less likely to improvise and, indeed, be creative. We adapt to authority then in that system, instead of challenging it, and we’re given the sense that knowledge comes from the outside in, not the inside out. This system also makes us stress the importance of doing good work, but not the skills to make that work visible, this making self-promotion trickier for women in our culture.
Women writers then, who are often highly educated, might need to shake off the shackles of our academic training if we’re to really play big and use our imaginations freely. Innovation comes from shaking the system, not perpetuating the same patterns, so it’s crucial that we become willing to challenge the status quo to create original work, even if that brings up fears of disapproval, as we’ve seen above. We need to also believe in our own authority – that we are not just receivers of others’ knowledge, but have our own wisdom and insights to share and that they’re valid and much needed in our world.
Most importantly though, I feel we need to become comfortable with being visible – with self-promotion, marketing, shilling our work. There is no shame in putting ourselves out there and showing others what we’ve written, what we feel and believe and know, as that’s the way we can help others and change the world, but so many women writers struggle with it.
It’s probably due to the way public women are so often torn down which teaches us that we should stay small and silent if we want to avoid criticism and even bullying, but it is also, I believe, about the ‘hustle for worthiness’ which Brene Brown discusses – the way so many of us carry a deep shame, self-doubt or even self-hatred as part of our story as women, but which can have other origins too, such as the way our cultures may view our religion, race, age, physical body, sexuality or even income bracket. And then we all have our own personal experiences and losses and traumas that we carry.
Is it any wonder then, why it sometimes feels too scary to put ourselves, our writing, our books out there? I mean, who wants to hear what I have to say? After all, it’s breaking the rules for us as women to speak up, to write it out, to share it, to declare our work worth reading.
Yes, it is – but remember that one woman out there who needs to read what you have to say? She’s waiting for you to start playing bigger with your writing, so you can get that book done, published and in her hands. She needs you and your writing to get seen so your words can reach her. It’s not about you really – it’s about her.
And lionesses gotta roar.
Hold onto that the next time Pachad comes calling.
If you would like help with dealing with your self-doubt, need for approval or putting yourself and your work out into the world, please just drop a comment below or feel free to contact me. I’m going to be relaunching as a feminist book coach for women with big things to say shortly and I’ll be supporting novelists, memoirists and non-fiction women writers to play effing big!
You can join my email list by popping your address in the black box at the top of the page to keep up to date with my work and to receive discounts on my coaching and editorial services after I relaunch, but you can also get to know me and my supportive band of writers in my private Facebook group. Hope to meet you some soon!