On Auditioning New Beliefs

Beliefs are funny things to me. When I was younger, beliefs were like flags on the moon, poles in the sand, ways to stake out your self in the world: I believe this, therefore I am. You can believe in God; you can believe in karma; you can believe in divine retribution, feminism, positive thinking, social justice, attachment parenting, crystal healing, astrology, creationism. Sometimes you inherit beliefs; sometimes you come to adopt them. But they form part of your identity.

As I get older, though, I find part of the process of growing up and (hopefully) wiser is unearthing the beliefs you didn’t even realize you have, those unconscious yet deeply rooted mental assumptions that help you interpret the world. A lot of these hidden beliefs — at least in my experience — satellite themselves around areas like sex, love and money — you know, those chthonic, shadowy areas where compulsions and contradictions lodge themselves. Which, of course, makes them even more fascinating to me, these areas being so taboo and shrouded in a kind of dark silence in our culture. The areas hold beliefs like: Men will hurt me. I can’t trust women. If they really get to know me, they’ll think I’m a fraud. Being rich makes me a terrible person. I don’t deserve this money, this happiness, this stability. I can’t trust anyone. People let me down. People suck. Happiness is an illusion, or for chumps.

Often these are beliefs we would never voice or agree with consciously, but when you look at the pattern of behavior — especially behavior or decisions you can’t understand with yourself, and you have to craft the most convoluted explanations to justify them to yourself and your friends — you realize these unconscious beliefs are what’s guiding your behavior.

It takes a lot of work to even see these beliefs, much less root them out and then change them. You could say it’s the work of a lifetime, really, and I’m sure people spend hours of reflection and therapy to do it, especially when you’re working with really intense areas of life and psyche. I think part of the process of getting wiser is realizing these kind of beliefs are more elastic and pliable than you think — though softening them can be brutally hard work.

But beliefs and assumptions underlie less loaded areas of life, and it’s a little more fun to play with them here. Like beliefs about something like fashion: I can’t wear pink; I’m not a prints person; black is for goths; older women can’t wear skirts above the knee; only neutrals can be chic. It’s sort of fun to challenge these periodically, and a pleasure to experiment with expanding your own boundaries — and it’s why half of my underwear drawer is crazy pink-based patterns, which is not something people would often guess about me. But there you go!

Lately I have been thinking over certain assumptions I’ve made about writing in particular, like what a “successful” writing session should look like, or how to write a novel. Some of these are borne by personal experience or given to me by instruction or education, like the idea that “real writers” write everyday, or write in the morning, or write for 2-3 hour blocks of uninterrupted yet caffeinated time. But of course people change and grow all the time, and shouldn’t we test these beliefs every now and then? And even if these beliefs are “true,” wouldn’t your conviction in them be stronger by testing them out again?

So I’ve been experimenting with new things in terms of writing that go against my ingrained beliefs on the craft. The first step: look at my behavior and try to root out what beliefs were motivating them. Like, some days I would scrap writing for myself altogether because I didn’t have a “quality block” of time for it…which only made me feel guilty deep down for skipping the day. Sure, a block would be ideal, w=but who often leads an ideal life, day in and day out? So I decided to challenge that recently, and audition the belief that “20 minutes is enough.” The result is, well, more writing and less guilt.

Another writing belief of mine to challenge a novel had to be drafted in a certain way. People assume novels are written chronically, and for the most part, I’ve been taught to write that way, even in draft form. But lately I’ve been working on just major scenes and turning points first, and it feels more fun and energetic. Words are flowing, characters are developing, worlds are building, and the result is just a lot more pleasure, not to mention a lot less time sitting there staring at the screen, wondering how I was going to get myself to the next interesting part.

And finally, I’m challenging my own internal notion that my creativity/writing energy is limited. I labored under the idea that there was only so much I could write a day, and if I wrote too much and too widely, I’d burn out. This belief affected me in that it created weird resentments and guilts: I’d feel angsty because I had to write so much for my job and couldn’t focus on my fiction. Or I’d feel weird about blogging when I felt like I should work on my novel, or vice versa.

Of course, there are only so many hours. But time, though related, is different from energy. But what if I played around with the idea that there’s more than enough energy for the novelizing, blogging and work-related writing. So I decided to fuck it all and write everything when I felt like it, and just pretend like I would never burn out as a writer.

I do find that writing begats more writing — especially if I don’t limit it to just a block of 2-3 hours of supposed quality time and feel good about writing in snatches here and there. Quality creative time isn’t related to duration, but the ability to focus and imagine vividly and clearly, so 20 minutes of clear focus is better than an hour of unfocused time. And part of creating that unimpeded focused yet keen mindset is, ironically, removing the weirdly outdated, subconscious emotional and mental noise that unchallenged beliefs and assumptions give you.

Deep down, I think that’s when you know a belief — no matter where in life — is no longer serving you — when it’s blocking you with guilt, unhappiness, resentment and fear. That’s when you know it’s time to play around with something else better. I can do that with writing or fashion fairly easily — and of course, it’s the work of a lifetime in other areas of life. But worth it, I think, because who doesn’t want to be free of guilt, resentment and other emotional headless horsemen?

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