Positive Thinking for Writers

Oliver Burkeman

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So you want to write? Don’t bother answering that: everyone wants to write, because writing is non-stop fun. But getting started can be intimidating — and that’s where positive thinking comes in. Celebrated philosophers from Dale Carnegie to Anthony Robbins agree: when it comes to unleashing your creative genius, it’s all a matter of mindset.

Once you’ve leapt from your bed bright and early, start with a few affirmations: according to no less a source than a page I found on the internet, Henry James began each day by standing in front of a mirror, fists clenched, shouting “I am the best writer!” several dozen times. Then grab a coffee, power up the laptop, and wait for inspiration. Waiting for inspiration is crucial, because you don’t want to write just anything — it’s got to be really good. If inspiration is slow in arriving, though, don’t worry: simply invite the Universe to fulfill your desire to write, and the Universe will obey, due to the Law of Attraction. (Some people are skeptical about this, but that’s because they haven’t read The Secret. It’s a law, for goodness’ sake! Also: Jesus, the Buddha and Leonardo da Vinci all endorsed it. It says so in The Secret.)

Oliver Burkeman

OK! By now you should have written about eight or nine thousand well-crafted words. Congratulations. But a whole book’s much longer than that, so this is where negative thoughts — anxiety, insecurity, blind terror — are bound to kick in. The solution is simple: just stamp them out, hard. Constantly monitor your mind for any traces of negativity and banish those you find.  (It’s tricky to do this while also concentrating on writing, but you’ll get the hang of it eventually.) Once you decide that failure isn’t an option — once you eradicate the word “impossible” from your vocabulary — you’ll find success is guaranteed. Every time. It was working for Lehman Brothers last time I checked, and it can work for you, too.

But let’s face it: you’ll encounter naysayers who’ll cast doubt on all this. Pessimists. Energy vampires. British people. These negative types will point to research showing that affirmations can make people feel worse, or that visualizing your goals can make you less likely to achieve them. Perhaps they’ll try to convince you that focusing too much on “motivating yourself” is counterproductive — that it’s far more powerful to realize that you don’t have to feel like doing something in order to act, and that negative emotions can be accepted, even embraced. That you should allow yourself to write terrible first drafts. That uncertainty can be a source of creativity. That failure is always, inevitably, an option. And so on.

But listen: positive thinking just works. Sure, it goes wrong occasionally, like that time 21 people at one of Anthony Robbins’s seminars had to be treated for burns after trying to walk barefoot over hot coals using only the power of mindset to keep them unscathed. But the problem in that case was obvious: they weren’t thinking positively enough! So next time you’re staring at a blank page, worrying that you lack what it takes, remember: all it takes is an even greater quantity of relentlessly upbeat thoughts. Set your sights on perfection — then gallop confidently on.

And when you run into your writer friends, don’t forget to tell them how well it’s going for you. They’re sure to enjoy such anecdotes, and to think fondly of you as a result. Positivity is contagious!

Oliver Burkeman is a feature writer for The Guardian. He is a winner of the Foreign Press Association’s Young Journalist of the Year award, and has been short-listed for the Orwell Prize. He writes a popular weekly column on psychology, “This Column Will Change Your Life,” and has reported from New York, London, and Washington. He lives in New York City. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is now available in paperback.

  • Sid Johnson

    Very inspiring. I thought I was the only one with such fears.