Stylized sketched emoticons (happy, mad, crying, love) against random doodle background

Yusif is a talented writer. He’s completed one novel. He’s several drafts into another novel and has two more in the works.

I know Yusif personally. I’ve read his work. We’ve brainstormed together often. He’s creative and his ideas are truly unique, never derivative. What’s more, I’m certain that Yusif’s stories have mass-market appeal.

I was hanging out with Yusif at a museum one day two summers ago. He was looking at a blurry, black-and-white photo from the early 1920s, depicting a nondescript teacher and her students standing outside a one-room schoolhouse in the Florida Everglades when, out of the blue, he spun around and announced, “I want to write a story about this!” Before the day was out, he had completed a full chapter outline for what would be a middle-grade novel. And over the next two weeks, if memory serves me correctly, he was writing a chapter a day.

Upon completing each chapter, Yusif would read it aloud to me, sometimes in person and sometimes over the phone. His descriptions were masterful without being overwrought. I cared about his characters. His dialog was fresh and authentic.

He was passionate about researching details. He read every book he could get his hands on about the early settlement of the Everglades: the people, their background, customs, housing, transportation, religion, food, relationships with the Native Americans of the area. We made several more trips to area museums, churches, schools and Everglade City itself. We walked together through the actual setting of his story, studying the buildings, the photos on the walls. Eating alligator.

Within a year, the novel was completely written, thoroughly edited and ready to be submitted.

It was an exciting time.

Except when it wasn’t.

You see, there were many, many days during that year when Yusif read his work… and hated it.

The enthusiasm and positive attitude with which he went into querying the manuscript fizzled. As sure as he’d ever been that this book could fly—maybe even become a favorite book for many readers—he was now equally convinced that no agent would want the book. That readers wouldn’t get through chapter one without putting it down, never to pick it up again.

“Be honest with me. It’s awful isn’t it? No one’s going to want to read this,” he moped.

How is it that the very same story and ideas that had thrilled him now felt lackluster? That the characters he’d grown to love—that he’d brought into being, and rooted for and cried over—now seemed like cardboard cutouts? And that the same configurations of words that he’d painstakingly crafted and tweaked, and which he’d read aloud to me with pride only weeks earlier, now sounded bland and trite, even embarrassingly bad?

To quote the Bee Gees:

It’s just emotion that’s taken me over
Tied up in sorrow, lost in my soul

Interestingly enough, while Yusif was working on his second novel (with all of the wide-eyed wonder and hope with which he’d begun the first), we watched a video series where prolific author Judy Blume talks about her process. Her unassuming nature, candor and vulnerability struck me. Here was one of the all-time bestselling children’s writers, whose books have sold over 82 million copies and earned her more than 90 literary awards (including three lifetime achievement awards) saying, “So often, I’ve doubted myself. I’ve cried when my work has been rejected. My feelings still get hurt when people don’t understand who I am and what I’m about. Honestly, there are many days when I just hate writing, hate my stories.”

And yet, like Yusif, there are many other days about which Judy exclaims, “Writing is in me. It is me. These characters and stories in my head just have to come out. It’s my love. It’s my life.” She pauses to read a short excerpt from a book she published decades ago, and she genuinely chokes up, her eyes filling with tears. “I just feel so deeply for this character here,” she explains.

Keep in mind… she herself had created that character.

Whether it’s writing, a relationship, a career, a project or a dream—we all have times, for whatever reasons, when those things which once had us feeling so energized that we were bouncing on our tiptoes just feel… dead. Dumb. Worthless. Hopeless.

Emotions are a wonderful thing. They help us to connect with others. To empathize. To a large degree, they are what sets us apart as human.

They can also be unreliable reflections of reality.

They shift often, sometimes quickly.

They’re influenced by a thousand factors, many of which are outside our awareness.

They can deceive us. Overpower our reason, overturn conviction and smudge the lines of what we once knew without a doubt to be true.

Think of emotions like a steak knife: a useful thing when handled properly… yet potentially deadly if we aren’t careful. And to extend the analogy, the problem is not the knife itself, but what we choose to do with it.

One of the best ways I’ve found for outsmarting the “emoti-con” is pinning down moments of clarity in some concrete way that you can return to later as needed.

Outsmart the emoti-CON: Pin down moments of clarity

For instance, write down what you know to be true about that project (or that resolve, or that person, or yourself) during times when you are sure of its value. What is going right? Why is it important? What impact is it having on you currently, or what fresh insights are you having about it? What are your hopes for it? Why do you believe those hopes are achievable and valuable?

Some people journal, and this is a great tool for pinning down such moments of clarity. Still, to some, “journaling” sounds like something ongoing, permanent—something you just don’t do or wouldn’t be good at. If that’s you, change the word. Don’t call it “journaling.” Just think of it as “writing something down.” It doesn’t have to be in a special diary or notebook. Often, when I have these moments of clarity, I just jot them down in the Notes app on my phone. In fact, much of my writing, both in my books and on this blog, is my “journaling”—my captured moments of clarity, of those things that result in positivity. My cork board of what works. Believe me, I reread my own stuff regularly—not as critic or editor, but just as a reader like you who needs the reminders as much as anyone else.

Another powerful “pin” is recording. Most phones have a voice recording app. Use it. Then, when moments of high emotion or doubt come—when you forget the good—play it back. Hearing your own enthusiasm and conviction speaking to you can work wonders, given that extra sensory element.

You could also capture those moments of clarity visually. Take a picture or video of yourself holding that work-in-progress when you’re feeling genuinely inspired and proud and purposeful. It’ll show on your face. Words optional.

Or why not combine several of these?

Then revisit these moments of clarity. And do it regularly, not just when emotions have you down for the count. Try it and see what happens. Building a “clarity scrapbook” in this way can help you stay more positive and focused, leaving less chance that you’ll be duped (at least not for long) by the “emoti-con.”

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