Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What are your sure-fire methods for self-sabotage? (07/15/06)

Featured writer: Sheila Bender

Contributors this month:
Christine Falcone
Arlene L. Mandell
Betty Winslow
Gianna De Persis Vona
Ken Rodgers
Mark Sloan
Nancy Peacock
Randal Matheny
Susan Bono

My Sure Fire Methods of Self-Sabotage (and What I've Done to Turn Them Around)

by Sheila Bender

Cleaning Up Too Much I've read poets and writers on the subject of sweeping or desk cleaning or even going through all the closets before being able to write. I get like that. How can I leave the world of responsibilities to enter the world of the unknown—that world of what I will write about and what I will find out by writing about it? The only way I can write is to make sure I have battened down the hatches—cleaned up, stocked the refrigerator, paid the bills. I don't want my outer world to crumble while I build an inner world. I used to take care of life administration for days, and only when feeling solid, write for days. This rhythm was natural after being a student and a teacher for many years—work hard, vacation comes, several times throughout the year. My writing time has become vacation time—I am where I want to be and lost in it, not worrying about home. After many years, I am learning to portion cleaning, gardening and life maintenance so they don't take up days and days before I can write. The act of "putting things in order" before I enter the "chaos of creating" remains valuable.

Helping Others Too Much — It's hard to believe the world can go on without me while I take time to write, moving words around to show me what I am feeling and thinking, so I look for ways of helping others to make myself feel like a better person. On the other hand, helping those who have asked me for help or those I see requiring help, invariably affects me. What I've done and learned shows up in my writing. So, I try to see myself as living in a house with many windows that I enjoy sitting by. I have to make sure I sit by the writing window frequently enough but also take in the view from other windows, too.

Night-Time Decision Making - When I am tired after too much life administration, socializing, caring for a home and loved ones, I often decide I have to free myself from this self-imposed writing life. I want to go to bed without thinking of when I'll get back to the writing. So I think about different kinds of jobs and about people to network with to land one. Some of my ideas are quite elaborate and involve moving for periods of time to other cities where, I convince myself, I can somehow teach four courses and write more than I do now. Always, I realize, writing is part of the lives I design. What I have learned to do is write something, even if it is only a few sentences, during these job-planning bouts and recognize that the passion I have for writing is fueling the escape plans. This way, I have more to work with when I sit down to write again.

Not Clearing Time for Writing Retreats — When I was helping my husband run a company, I worked for the company three days a week and wrote at least two days by going away from our home, which housed his business. He preferred to work from home, so I used what would have been rent money for office space to build a retreat house. Today, we live in that house. It is not easy for me to replicate those retreat days, but I do take some time each week to pile all the paper that has accumulated on my desk and tuck it in a corner. On those days, I don't open my Entourage email program before getting to work on a poem or an essay. The same amount of correspondence and work awaits me as on any other day but I feel happier about doing it once I've gotten to the writing first.

The way out of my self-sabotaging behavior is to encourage myself not to judge what I do as an obstacle but as a quirky way of trying to succeed.

Sheila Bender is the author of over nine books on writing, the newest of which is Writing and Publishing Personal Essays from Silver Threads in San Diego ( She currently publishes Writing It Real, an online instructional magazine for those who write from personal experience ( and organizes the Writing It Real in Port Townsend annual writer's conference. She also works with Chronicles Software providing content for LifeJournal for Writers (

When Sheila isn't teaching writing or writing on writing, she writes poetry, personal essay and memoir in her study overlooking Discovery Bay.

What Are Your Sure-fire Ways for Self-Sabotage?

  by Christine Falcone

Lists. Lots of lists. Lists of lists: To do; To Make; To Buy; To Fix; Friends to Have Over; Thank Yous to Write; Movies to See; Places to Go. I am a Master List Writer.

These lists take on avalanche proportions, collecting around my ankles, growing up to my ears like piles of dead leaves in November. What I need is a mental leaf-blower to clear out all the clutter in my brain. I let all my real and all my imagined responsibilities bog me down, get me in a chokehold I cannot wriggle out of. It's this kind of paralysis I allow to sabotage my writing time.

I get myself so worked up, my head spins like a merry-go-round atop my neck. There is no calm center, no eye of the storm. Or at least I haven't been able to find my way there. But what if I could? What if I donned my sturdiest foul weather gear, loaded up my writer's backpack and headed straight into the hurricane of imagined duties? Maybe I'd find my way like the kids through the wardrobe to my own private Narnia, my own private writer's paradise.

Searchlights columnist Christine Falcone's fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in various print and online publications. Her work has also aired locally on public radio and nationally on public television. She recently completed her first novel entitled, This Is What I Know.

Arlene L. Mandell

Listening to the nudnik (Yiddish word for nuisance) is the best way to undercut my confidence and convince me I'd do better to spend my time ironing my husband's shirts than writing poignant poetry and scintillating prose. My nudnik was born in 1903 and still thinks ironing shirts and cooking pot roast are the best ways to keep a man.

She has bad breath, stringy hair and a whiny voice that makes my eyebrows bristle. She's a know-nothing critic, yammering away: No one is interested. Why don't you do something useful, like crocheting potholders? If they only publish 1.3 percent of all poetry submissions from past and present poets laureate, she continues, why on earth would they publish your "Ode to a Trash Can"?

There's only one way to deal with the nudnik—flick her off my shoulder with my "Great Women Rulers" ruler, drag her by her stringy hair to the aforementioned trash can, and slam down the lid.

If Keats had listened to his own nudnik (no doubt a Shakespearian character like King Lear), we would have no "Ode to a Grecian Urn". If Michelangelo had been ordered to get down from that scaffold before you fall and break every bone in your body....If Bob Dylan had obeyed his third grader teacher's command to sing silently, there would be no "Lay Lady Lay" to remind us of those passionate nights in Greenwich Village.

Your version of the nudnik can be stuffed in the freezer, weighted down with cinder blocks to "sleep with the fishes" or, if you're squeamish, sent aloft in a hot air balloon to drift gently with the air currents over the Pacific.

Arlene L. Mandell, hard at work on a book: My Life on Hemlock Street: A Brooklyn Memoir, has been known to prepare a magnificent pot roast.

Betty Winslow

One sure-fire method is to compare my work (my publishing rate, my income) with other writers. I start saying to myself, "Why aren't you doing that well? What's wrong with you?" and then suddenly, dusting looks good. Or ironing (two household chores I usually avoid unless my mom is coming to visit).

Another is to insist that my first draft is perfect. Working and reworking my writing as I go, instead of writing it down in one fell swoop, will take the life right out of it, and make me think I should take up another career. Waiting tables, maybe.

And finally, the worst thing I can do to my writing is to approach it without remembering that it is not just a job, it's a calling, and that God gives ability to those He calls. If I'm not writing out of something larger than myself, for reasons that reach beyond a paycheck and a byline, I might as well quit before I sit down.

Betty Winslow, avoiding dusting, ironing, and waiting tables in Bowling Green, Ohio.

What are your sure-fire methods for self-sabotage?

  by Gianna De Persis Vona

There are many ways to avoid writing, the majority of which resides in the more mundane tasks of daily living: laundry, house cleaning, dishes, dinner, work, kids, relationship, exhaustion. But there is a vast and not to be overlooked chasm between writing avoidance techniques, the majority of which are easily identified, and genuine self-sabotage. By self-sabotage I mean not simply not finding the time to write, but actually undermining yourself so deeply that writing becomes something unconquerable, undoable even. When engrossed in a deep session of self-sabotage, one becomes unable to write.

I don't just avoid writing, put off writing, or ignore writing; I actually become incapable of doing it. I can't write. It is not an easy task, getting to this place. Not just anyone can. You have to have real dedication, real drive, real commitment to self-deprecation. You have to be willing to engage in complete self-slander, without hesitation.

I find the most effective method for achieving this is a fairly consistent barrage of self-criticism. Here are some phrases that I find particularly useful:

"I am such a shitty writer, I can't even believe it."

"This is the most stupid story I have ever read, what's the point?"

"I used to think I was good, but clearly I had my head buried in my ass."

There is one other phrase, of which I am particularly fond, if only because where the others may fall a little bit short of complete writing-paralysis, this one rises to the challenge every time. The phrase is: "This is getting embarrassing." Repeat this, or some version of it over a period of time.

There are different guide-lines for quantity and length, depending on how powerful your self-confidence, best to play around with it to find the best fit. I find that for me it usually takes a couple of months for it to really kick in and start to fester, some might get similar results after only a week or two, or it could take a year or more. Just remember, it takes real commitment to self-sabotage, and it is not for the faint of heart. Best of luck!

Gianna De Persis Vona talks to herself in Sebastopol, CA.

Ken Rodgers

Maybe I should take up writing plays like Shakespeare or Eugene O'Neil because when I sit down to write I get a lot of scenes in my head similar to the following, and when I get them I'm like an underwater demolition dude sinking my own ship.

(A young woman sits slouched on a high stool over a table piled with papers. She is reading one of the papers and has her right hand on her forehead. A cup of tea or coffee sits on the table. Across from her, slouched in an armchair, a young man dozes.)

Young woman: God, Brian, you should read this one.

Brian: Wha? What?

Young woman: Damn it, Brian, wake up.

Brian: I can't stand any more of this crap.

Young woman: (She chuckles) You should read this one. The guy says he has an MFA. I wonder where he got it. University of the moon?

(Brian laughs and rises from his chair, then stretches his arms.)

Young woman: Remind me about this garbage next year when they ask for volunteers to work on this mag. I'm so sick of people who write short stories that seem like "true confession."

Brian: I'm graduating this year, remember?

Young woman: Lucky you.

Ken Rodgers writes, teaches, and lives in Boise, Idaho where he stays busy pounding the keyboard producing stuff he hopes ain't too boring. See more about him at

Mark Sloan

I don't have a view. My computer faces a wall. A drawing of a leopard stares back at me, as does a framed 1997 copy of one of my rare publishing triumphs. Nothing moves or changes—it's always just the leopard, the framed article, the computer, and me. How can I write in such a place?

True, I could roll my chair back a foot or so and look out the side door at the garden, where the mourning dove sits patiently on her nest of sticks, but that means my hands would have to leave the keyboard, and I know my own hands: once they're cut loose from the pretense of typing they'll soon be up to something else, like making a sandwich.

By the way… how is the mourning dove doing? She and her mate found the ledge above our bedroom window a few weeks ago, a perfect spot to raise little dove-children, close to a good school and shielded from hawks by a massive, thorny branch from a climbing Cecil Bruner rose. Her hubby thoughtfully chose the sticks, she built the nest, and voila—how can I write when she's sitting there, staring at me with those big, saucery, dovey eyes?

So I climb the green ladder that rests against the bedroom wall a few feet from the nest, and I check in on her. Any eggs in there? She shudders and pulls her head into her body—some kind of defensive display, I suppose—and so I back down. Even with all the staring, we are not close friends.

I'm into birdwatching now, so once off the ladder I lean back, shield my eyes, and gaze up at the blue jay nest high in the camphor tree in the alley. Smart little birdlings, there. They keep absolutely quiet until Mama comes back with some grubby insect meal, then they screech at her and each other until she drops the thing in somebody's mouth, and then they shut up till the next go-round. I don't like blue jays—mean birds, lousy singers—but I don't wish their babies any harm. I found one once, dead and stiff on the ground under a sugar maple. Did he jump or was he pushed? Either way, I understand. What a life.

I watch the birds a while longer, then head back to my desk, to my wall with the leopard, and I sit and stare until, at long last, an epiphany strikes: it's the wrong color, isn't it? I can't write with a wall that… creamy. I shut down the computer, exchange a last meaningful glance with my dove, and head to Sherwin-Williams for some paint chips.

Mark Sloan is a Santa Rosa, CA pediatrician who is writing a book about the first five minutes of life. His email,

Nancy Peacock

My number one self-sabotage technique is money—or to put it more accurately, poverty. I think (againandagainandagain) why am I doing this? Why don't I stop and put my energy into something that could actually pay me a living wage, or even minimum wage? Sometimes I look with envy at people who go to work and come home, as if their lives are somehow predestined simply because they don't struggle with prose.

Nancy Peacock is the author of Life Without Water and Home Across the Road.

Randal Matheny

I never see it until I'm flat on my back. Sabotage is like that, you know. Unexpected, like. If you saw it coming, you'd be obliged to do something about it. There you are, working away like the little slave you are, and boom! Suddenly you're five days into next week, you raise up your head with that dazed look and say, "What hit me?"

All you see is the dust settling from where the saboteur has made his escape. His nebulous form keeps you from admitting he looks a lot like yourself. So the stars got misaligned, or the muses ganged up on you after their last binge, or your (lack of) diet kept you from getting sleep that last week ... but you know the fleeing saboteur doesn't have those shapes.

But just between us, we won't let the others in on our secret.

The methods are many, close at hand, easy to bend to your will and wrap yourself inside of them like a warm coat as you stand over a winter's grave. The methods matter little, actually, they're so cheap, appearing like swamp gnats, want them or not. Be their stripes games or computer programs or Internet software or sports or crossword puzzles or chat over the back fence of the web, or rifling through the dictionary while checking the spelling of saboteur, or the more deadly wasps with uglier stingers like raves or shoplifting or pornography, in the end they're all alike, suckers to bleed you dry, steal you of time and motivation, leave you shriveled and brittle, make you inane and immune to rescue.

You get so used to the gnats or the wasps or whatever hideous form your method takes, you don't even swat at them anymore. You make your truce, let them suck their pint of blood, and leave you mendicant for the world's understanding because you didn't write Gone with the Wind or meet last week's deadline for that article.

And you close your eyes to it so you can say you never saw it coming.

A method is just that, a coward's way to achieve your dastardly end, to whack down your stalk before it can bear fruit.

As to why we do it—ah, there's the hitch.

But you didn't ask that question.

Randal Matheny shoots at fleeing forms in the dust while he sabotages Cloudburst Poetry (

Susan Bono

When it comes to the awareness of my mortality, I'm something of a late bloomer. Oh, I know we all die. I'm 50 years old and I've already owned my cemetery plot for six years. I'm not planning to use it any time soon, but I am not pretending it isn't going to come in handy someday. I've got all the usual insurance policies, get regular dental checkups, drive carefully and watch what I eat. So it would appear that the Grim Reaper and I have a respectful, if not cordial relationship. Except when it comes to writing.

My method of denial is simple, something a child would think up. "I don't have time to write," I say. "I'll do it tomorrow."

When it comes to avoiding writing, I'm like the dieter who tells herself this cream puff is not going to count because today she really deserves some comfort, and besides, tomorrow she's really going to make it to the gym. I keep falling into these little trances that blur my grip on reality to the point I can't remember that writing is like laundry—if you don't keep at it, pretty soon you're out of tee-shirts and underwear. I forget writers really do need things they can pull out of the dryer or off the clothesline, clean, warm, fresh, in need of folding or ironing, maybe, but more or less ready to wear.

This is the lesson I am late in learning: As life goes on and your time grow nigh, you can have someone do your laundry. You can even have someone tell your story. But you are the only one who can do your writing.

No one can tell you when to start and how to stop, either. And only you can put it off until there are no more tomorrows.

Susan Bono is trying to grow up in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

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