"Write Mind: 299 Things Writers Should Never Say to Themselves (and What They Should Say Instead)," Eric Maisel

Pros: Surprisingly versatile book
Cons: If you don’t believe in cognitive therapy it won’t appeal to you
Rating: 5 out of 5

First posted 8/28/2002

“Write Mind: 299 Things Writers Should Never Say to Themselves (and what they should say instead)” is a book of affirmations – positive things you say to yourself in an effort to put yourself in a better frame of mind. No, wait, don’t run away! This is a surprisingly versatile little book with a lot to say.

This book was written by psychotherapist, writer, and creative consultant Eric Maisel, author of two of my other favorite writing books – Living the Writer’s Life and Deep Writing. So while I’m not much on affirmations, I decided to check it out anyway. I’ve come to trust Dr. Maisel as an author.

The Truth About Affirmations

Many people think that affirmations are just nice, happy things that you say about yourself in an effort to make yourself think that they’re true. It’s actually a little more complicated than that. Affirmations are based on the principles of cognitive therapy, which holds that “wrong thinking” causes much of our pain and grief. This does not, however, mean that we should just stop thinking, which is one common response to the problem – many people simply avoid those situations and thoughts which cause them pain. That isn’t healthy, however. Instead, we need to learn to deal with the thoughts that cause us pain.

Dr. Maisel uses as an example a writer whose book isn’t selling well any more. The event itself isn’t a tragedy – it’s the way the writer approaches it that can cause a problem. Here are a few of his examples of the ways in which various writers might view this event:

  • “I used to be a published author; now I am nothing.”
  • “I pinned so much hope on this book and now all hope is gone.”
  • “Now that I’ve completely failed with this book, no one will ever want to publish me.”
  • “This book was good and deserved better marketing, better promotion, a better cover, better everything. I have been treated unfairly.”

And so on. But these writers have a different option. They could instead say, “What is the next step in the life of this book?”

Maisel discusses how we can go about noticing our “bad thoughts.” This is the first step – we need to realize what we’re saying to ourselves and decide that we don’t want to think that way any more (in cognitive therapy terms, this is “thought confrontation”). Then we can go about substituting in a better thought. Maisel’s affirmations are surprisingly practical. They don’t always tell us that we’re right; they don’t encourage us to adopt a blind, everything-is-okay approach to life. But they do encourage us to move on despite our problems.

Cause and Effect

Not everyone agrees with the precepts of cognitive therapy; one of its implications is that we don’t need to understand or address where our “bad thoughts” come from – we just need to address those thoughts. There are plenty of people who believe that until we figure out and address the root cause of our traumas, we can’t be free of them. Maisel takes a fairly balanced approach to this. He admits that he doesn’t know for sure when or whether such a cause-based approach is better for you, but he does point out that trying a cognitive approach (either on its own or as an adjunct to other sorts of therapy) can’t hurt and certainly might help, so why not give it a try? The fact that he doesn’t try to assert (as many psychologists do) that his is the only right way to approach things gives me a fair amount of respect for him.

I’ve taken the liberty of letting in a little humor here and there. The book’s title is a pun, and the notion of ‘wrong’ things that we say to ourselves and ‘right’ things that we should substitute would be an overly authoritarian message if it weren’t offered a little tongue-in-cheek.

My view? I think that no one therapy is the be-all and end-all of psychology. Different people in different situations benefit from different therapies – some require more than one. Certainly the precepts of cognitive therapy make some sense, particularly if you don’t put blinders on and ignore other therapies that might help you as well. [Standard disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist; I just took a bunch of classes.]

The Affirmations

Obviously not every affirmation will be right for you straight out of the box. The idea is that you look through, learn how to recognize the thoughts that you don’t want to think, and most importantly, learn how affirmations work. That way you can create your own – ones that will work best for you.

Wrong Mind: “In some important sense, I am ruined.”
Right Mind: “Many wounded people have written. I can be a wounded writer. Maybe I can even become a healed writer.”

People who are new to or having problems with the writing profession could learn a lot from this book. It addresses many attitudes and beliefs that are relevant to writers and the profession of writing.

Wrong Mind: “I am a genius and agents and editors are idiots.”
Right Mind: “It does me no good to inflate myself or to deflate others. My job is to write well and to sell my wares.”

Sometimes Maisel presents several affirmations in a row with different “wrong mind” components but the same “right mind” aspect, just to make a point about a greater issue that manifests in different ways. He also occasionally breaks up his list of affirmations with small sections on related topics, such as “Right Silence,” “Snow Globe” (on quieting the chaos in your mind), “Ego,” “Distraction,” and more.

Wrong Mind: “I am a shallow person, as evidenced by the shallow things I write.”
Right Mind: “Sometimes I’m shallow and sometimes I’m deep. The only question that concerns me is: How can I go deep more often?”

Maisel writes with humor, wit, compassion, and practicality. I read the book straight through and found that many of the sections made me smile, laugh, or think harder about how I write. Sometimes he surprises with his interpretation of a problem.

Wrong Mind: “I can’t create a good plot.”
Right Mind: “Apparently spending five minutes trying to create a plot and then fleeing in confusion is not enough of an effort. I will stay put and learn to plot.”

Someone who is perfectly fulfilled, content, and happy in his writing career will have little need for this book, although it might make an interesting read in a bored moment. Anyone who is having problems of some sort, however (and let’s be honest – that’s almost every writer), could get a great deal of benefit from reading through these pages!

Afraid to sit down at the computer? Too scattered or chaotic to write? Feel that you have no good ideas? Envious of your friend who got published before you did? Having problems with an editor or agent? Not sure how to fill out your word count? Debating whether a writer’s conference would help or distract you? Believe it or not, all of these issues and many more get addressed within the pages of this book.

Reading some of the affirmations can help you to figure out where your real problems lie, and give you a place to start when addressing them. They might not solve all your problems, and they won’t make life easy and happy in five easy steps. But then, Maisel doesn’t promise those things. They will help you to reframe your problems as opportunities. They could teach you a new way to think that will help you to achieve your goals.

Isn’t that worth a few dollars?

Wrong Mind: “Dan just published another book. I’m going to Amazon right now and give it a terrible review.”
Right Mind: “Let me get back to my novel.”

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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