by James Scott Bell
For some strange reason I decided to take up golf at the age of forty-one.
I informed my old college roommate, who was a superb high school golfer. The first words out of his mouth were, “Do you have a good psychiatrist?”
He knew whereof he spoke. My initial attempts at the game left many a chunky divot on the fine grasses of local courses. Scores of balls were lost in both natural and unnatural waters. So frustrated was I that one day, after yet another shank, I hurled my five-iron like a German hammer thrower. It whirligigged through the air before settling into the leafy arms of a eucalyptus tree. It is there to this day.
I took lessons, but it seemed like every time I tried to put something into practice my playing partners would run for cover.
I was about to give up the game when I came across an intriguing sounding book. It was called The Inner Game of Golf by a fellow named W. Timothy Gallwey. The book made an astonishing claim. You could actually lower your golf score simply by mastering what goes on inside your noggin. You could learn to relax, perform under pressure, and make a repeatable swing. You could learn to get out of your own way, so you were not overthinking everything. The game would even become fun.
I was ready for anything! So I spent several months working on my mental approach to golf. And you know what? I qualified for the U.S. Open and finished second!
Oops. Sorry. That was a dream I had one night.
What actually happened was that I got better. I really did. I reached a point where I knew I could go onto any course in the world and not embarrass myself (except in the way I normally do at large social gatherings).
I bring this up because, like brother Brooks, I find a lot of analogies between sports (especially golf) and writing. And I believe the mental game of writing is every bit as important as typing and a good cup of java.
There are so many ways a writer can feel beaten down. Rejection, envy, discouragement over sales, self-doubt. These mental land mines threaten your productivity and growth, which are the engines of your writing career.
As someone who pursued the writing dream after being told you have to be “born” a writer; and as someone who has been making a living at it for twenty years; and as someone who has been through all of the slings and arrows of outrageous writing fortune — I finally decided to write a book about the mental game of writing. That’s why the title is, amazingly: The Mental Game of Writing: How to Overcome Obstacles, Stay Creative and Productive, and Free Your Mind for Success.
The book covers everything from decisions, goals, courage, creativity, and growth to dealing with envy, stress, comparison, and burnout. It has chapters on increasing your joy, discipline, and production. There’s even a chapter filled with my favorite inspirational quotes from other writers. These can be a tremendous boost to you in time of need.
For example, before I was published, upon hearing again the “you can’t learn it” mantra, I came across this quote from Brenda Ueland:
“Work with all your intelligence and love. Work freely and rollickingly as though you were talking to a friend who loves you. Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters.”
That was enough to keep me going. I never looked back at those doubters again.
The legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, defined success as “peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”
That’s what I want you to have. Peace of mind because you took the steps you could to be the best writer you can be.
It starts by going mental.
The book is available here:
So what are the major mental obstacles you’ve faced in your writing life? How did you overcome them?
Like most writers, I’m frequently convinced that what I’ve just put on the page is utter crap. I stare at it, rework it, throw it out and start over, take a walk, and it still seems to be crap. The one thing that gets me over this is going to a few great authors and reading some of their stuff at random. Guess what? Turns out they write normal declarative sentences, the start at the beginning and finish at the end, etc., etc. And every word they write is not platinum, nor is their prose invariably gold.
If they can do, I can do it. So can you.
Stephen, that is so common among writers who CARE about the craft. So that’s the good part. The bad part is when judgmentalism (our own) keeps us from writing forward. One suggestion I make in the book is to write with a timer. Don’t stop until the timer goes off. Try it for five or ten minutes. Then don’t look at those words. Move on. Do it again. It’s a way to learn to silence the inner editor.
“Turns out they write normal declarative sentences, the start at the beginning and finish at the end, etc., etc. And every word they write is not platinum, nor is their prose invariably gold.”
Good way to look at it.
This post brought back memories. I took up volleyball in my 30s and golf in my 40s. I learned a huge amount about myself and life with those sports.
Dedicated discipline, learning techniques, and lots of regular practice hours in the gym or driving range helped me improve. I played competitive vball on several teams and I coached for the Junior Olympics program with the USVBA in Alaska & traveled with my 14 & younger girls team. After 3 knee surgeries, I took up golf and eventually broke 100.
The lessons sports taught me and my respect for discipline and dedication, I applied to learning how to write. There are huge parallels between sports and life. Very inspirational post, Jim. Thank you.
Right, Jordan. How does anybody get good at anything but through learning, and disciplined practice? Except maybe Mozart.
Wow, I only had one knee surgery. Basketball related. But countless sprained ankles. At least on the golf course no one is throwing elbows at my face.
Jim, I have no advice about your approach to writing–your success speaks for itself–but I will tell you that some of your advice early in the book resembles a nugget that my golfing partner and I discovered long ago: don’t keep score, and if you don’t like the shot you just hit, feel free to grant yourself a mulligan. Thanks for producing a great book on the most important six inches in either golf or writing–the space between your ears.
I love this, Richard.
Early on, when trying to figure out bunker shots, I had a hole where after three unsuccessful attempts to get out of the sand my friend said, “Switch to your hand wedge!” That was an act of mercy.
I have also found the foot mashie to be helpful in getting out of tall rough and from behind trees.
Richard, not keeping score may work for some, but for some of us, not keeping score is not an option.
Because not keeping score is what the dead do. Some cannot keep score: my schoolmate from many years ago who has ALS; some of those the Book of Luke calls the lame, the halt, and the blind; I know you understand what I am saying.
I keep score, not because I am going to be the champion. The only undefeated team I ever played on was our high school junior varsity. We went 8-0 in the years when high schools only played 8 games. I played right tackle on an unbalanced T-formation and kicked extra points. I kept track of each extra point because I understood that circumstances might change–that I may never get to kicked another one. The examples were all around me: in those days, in Arizona, you could get a scooter license at age 14. To us, Crip was not a Los Angeles gang; his real name was Danny, and he lost half his foot crashing into a Nash Rambler. Then there was Two, so called after he lost virtually all of his index and middle fingers when he and his Vespa were forced to turn into a bicycle rack in a bowling alley parking lot; there were two jokes about Two: one was that the defense for an Larry, Moe, and Curly-type eye-gouge was putting your open hand against the bridge of your nose, your index finger on the bridge itself so the attacked couldn’t reach your eyes, but the defense for an eye gouge from Two was to put one finger across your nose bridge; the other Two joke was life for Two was always bunt. On our baseball team, of which Two was team equipment manager, the sign for take-the-pitch was Coach rubbing his eye with his index finger, rubbing with two fingers was hit-away, and three fingers, Boy Scout pledge-style, was bunt. What was not funny was when our classmate Chip was killed on his scooter, running into the back of a car on a busy north-south street, near the hospital. They took Chip to the hospital where his Dad, one of the on-duty emergency room doctors, pronounced him dead.
So I learned there were things that you may never get to do again. So I keep track of things I can do now, because one day, I’ll never get to do them again.
I know your example of not keeping score was meant for us to have more fun with the game of golf. But as for me, I can’t do that.
Gallwey’s name sounds familiar. I’m pretty sure he wrote a “The Mental Game of” for tennis as well because I recall reading it some years ago. Because tennis analogy is what I kept thinking of as I was reading The Mental Game of Writing.
Tennis was the only sport I ever liked. I don’t watch it any more since sadly my favorites, Edberg & Agassi, have been retired for some years. In singles tennis, you pretty much live and die on your own. There’s no one you’re throwing a pass to–it’s up to you to prepare and win your matches. Sure, you may get a coach along the way, but the work is all for you. And the physical prep is just one part–you can easily psych yourself out before you take the court or crumble during a big match. Sometimes off-court stuff hands you the loss.
Right now my battle is off the page. I’m trying to find another job that doesn’t crush every molecule of writing desire in me.
My favorite parts of The Mental Game of Writing were the approach to studying weakness areas systematically, and the questions to help you narrow your focus on the tasks at hand. My goal for today is to prioritize my list of story ideas–volume of ideas is never a problem. Then select the green light, the ones to put in development, and the optioned. The current problem gumming up the works is I don’t have a particular story brainstormed enough to put into the WIP phase (and that’s a whole mental game in itself).
Oh, and THANKS for the Zane Grey quote. That came on the heels of me finding out they finally released my all time favorite Grey novel “Forlorn River” in ebook (to go with my paper and hardback versions). WOOHOO!!!!!! A girl can just never have too many copies of that novel. 😎
Glad you liked it, BK, and I wish you luck on finding the right job. Remember, Anthony Trollope was a civil servant who gave himself a quota that he met in the early morning or sometimes finished up at lunch or at night. I have a lawyer friend who writes his legal thrillers on the BART system to and from work in SF. You can do it!
Nice to know that Zane is fully available. I believe there is a “boxed set” of a bunch of his books in the Kindle store for a very reasonable price.
Before I started writing novels, I wrote and submitted short fiction and poems. At first, I found the number of rejections disheartening. Eventually, I discovered that if I submitted more often, the number of acceptances increased. A side benefit was that I built up a tolerance for rejection—if a piece was rejected by one journal, it no longer bothered me. I just submitted it elsewhere.
The Mental Game of Writing sounds like a book I ought to read, so I just bought it.
Thanks for picking it up, Truant. Your story is so valuable. It’s one the pulp writers knew. Volume increases the chances of a sale, even as rejections were the more common response. Their practice was, when the received back a manuscript, to put it right back in the mail to another publisher. Like you, they never let rejection stop their forward momentum.
It doesn’t surprise me too much that golf inspired you to write this book. As far as sports go, golf ranks number one on my ‘mental’ meter (It drove me nuts). I started competing in table tennis tournaments last year partly to help strengthen my mental muscles in all aspects of life. So I was glad to buy your book this morning. However, I’m counting on you getting your PGA tour card in 2017–and will be checking out those leader boards.
Thanks for the vote of confidence, John.
PGA? Ha! Those golf pros are amazing. I’m not even talking about the Jason Days or Dustin Johnsons…I’m talking about the guys ranked #120 and such. THEY ARE ALL GREAT GOLFERS! They would scorch any muni course you played with them on. No one knows their names, but they make a handsome living playing a game.
I might make a few beautiful shots in a round. These guys do it shot after shot…and then they have the ability to recover after their stinkers.
I think I’ll just watch them on TV, thank you very much!
Great book, Jim. I bought it a couple days ago and am finding it inspirational. Lots of great ideas to put those principles into action. Thanks!
Major mental obstacles? I write faith-based thrillers. I once had a correspondence course instructor tell me that he didn’t think a faith-based novel could truly be a thriller. He ranted on in his letter, apparently working out some of his own religious issues. This was at the beginning of my journey into writing. At first I was crushed, then I got smart and asked the course for a new instructor. The experience taught me to take rejection and amp up my determination.
What a maroon. You and I can reel off a dozen faith-based thriller writers right now who sell massively. You made exactly the right move. I wish I’d ignored the “you can’t be taught” folks when I was younger, but I just didn’t know enough.
I love “amp up my determination.” That may be the biggest key of all, Steve!
When I talk writing with my closest writer friends it usually breaks down to 10% craft, 10% publishing business, and 80% mind games–the kind that get in our heads and root themselves between us and our manuscripts. Talking about it helps us feel much less alone, and exposes the negative self-talk for the unhelpful bs it truly is.
Another way I get past the mental stuff is to commit to a public deadline–especially one someone else has set. I will often just blow through my own deadlines, but have a big respect for others’. Ugh. It’s painful to even type that. Apparently shame trumps self-respect in Laura World. But, hey, whatever gets the blood on the page.
The Brenda Ueland quote is a keeper. The golf analogy is spot-on, too. Thanks for the great post!
I think you got it right, Laura. 80% “mind games” may be the average. I hope my book helps writers flip that around, and gives them ways to identify and deal with what remains.
Brenda Ueland’s book, If You Want To Write, was a great inspiration to me early on.
I have just purchased the book! It sounds fantastic and I love all of your books on writing!! May I ask you something … how many rejections should a person get (for queries to agents re: a novel) before accepting that the book may not be good, and I may never get an agent? I hate to give up, when I’ve heard so many times that rejection is part of the process, but I also hate to continue an exercise in futility, if that is what it has become. Any advice?
Charlie, that’s a great question. There is no magic formula, but here are some thoughts.
1. Did you have anyone else look at the MS before submitting? An indie editor, critique group, beta readers? You want a few of them to say they LOVE the MS before you submit.
2. Did the rejections come with personal notations (rather than a form)? If so, it means you’re close. Take another look at the MS. If not, that’s a clue that it may be time to move on.
3. Always be working on a new project. If you’re studying the craft and getting feedback, you are going to get better.
Know that you are going through what countless published writers before you have. And be glad you did not receive what Snoopy did one day: “Dear Contributor: Thank you for submitting your story to our magazine. To save time, we are enclosing two rejection slips. One for this story and one for the next story you send us.”
Thank you so much for your reply! Yes, I had several people tell me they loved the book! I have had three agents ask for the book (one for full MS and two for partial), and all three gave positive responses, pointing out great things about the book (like “your dialogue is excellent”), but still ultimately rejected it (not really saying why other than “it’s not for us”). Even the queries (that usually include a few pages of the MS) often come back with positive feedback, and have never come back with negative feedback. It’s just that I now have sent over 100 queries to agents and still have no agent.
I do have a couple new projects on the go. One is a non-fiction advice book that I am going to self-publish very soon, and another is a book about working in a psych hospital (since that is where I currently work). The novel is about working in a prison, which is where I used to work.
I guess based on your feedback, I will not give up on the novel yet!! Thank you so much.
That sounds right, Charles. Perhaps do a market analysis. Does the book have a commercial enough hook? What can you compare it to? Agents (and publishers) are, after all, in business to sell things. Maybe there are some tweaks you can make in this regard. Keeping your unique voice and vision and passion, while finding a zone of commercial appeal, is the key. Try upping the former (what MORE can you bring through your author’s heart?) as you look at the latter.
Thank you so much! I sent the prison novel to the same agent who published “Orange is the new black”, but they rejected it. I feel like getting an inside look into prisons and psych hospitals is something most people don’t get to see, so it would be of interest, and while there are a few books I’ve seen on both topics, I don’t feel the market is saturated with them, ya know? But I very much appreciate your advice!
Charlie (not Charles, as I am a woman! 🙂 Although my brother does call me “Chuck” when he thinks he’s being funny; but he’s not. 🙂
So sorry! My best friend’s name is Charles, so I read it that way. I actually call him Chaz. Such flexibility there!
Don’t be sorry!! Yes, sooooo many names can come from Charlie! Again, I really appreciate all of your advice today, and will take all of it into account. I LOVE your books on writing and have read all of them. They are not only filled with practical help that I can apply, but I find them to be so inspirational. Such an honor to chat with you today. Wishing you a World of Good! ~ Charlie
Great post. Of course you know I love what you’ve done here, that’s me in the back standing up yellling, “Way to go, Jim Bell!” That’s right before you have your security people escort me from the building.
Back in my corporate days I was a partner in a corporate communications agency. The son of one of my partners went on to be one of those mid-list PGA pros… if you can call 5 tournament wins and $28 career earnings (thus far, he’s still out there), and a few top-50 FedEx year-end rankings. His name is Ben Crane, I’ve known him since he was three. When the tour stops in Phoenix every year, Ben gives us passes and we follow him, wire to wire. The degree of preparation, attention to the little things, and — this is metaphorically important for writers — the BIG things, the core principles, is visible and intense with these guys. That inner game has wheels you can hear churning.
Congrats on the new book, just picked it up.
Cool, Larry. Ben Crane is a perfect example. Nice way to make some major moolah, playing a game you love. And that’s part of the ticket, yes? You’ve got to love this craft of ours. I find the more I dig into it, the more I love it. You too. And we also love passing along what we learn.
There needs to be more “local golf pro” spots for writers. They used to call these “writers in residence.” I’d like that gig. In Honolulu.
Congratulations on your new book. I have the usual writers’ problems: the words won’t come, and when they do, they aren’t any good, and I’ll never sell them to a publisher, and if I do sell them to a publisher, no one will buy them. The only solution seems to keep on plugging. Some days are glorious and I love every minute of being a writer. Today is not one of them.
Elaine, it is also good for newer writers to know that pros like you (and all of us) are not immune to these things. Thanks for sharing that.
I chuckled when I read your new golfer experience. I suffered for over a year trying to get the ball up in the air, hitting worm-burners galore. I was lucky. I found a great golf teacher that helped me become the decent golfer I am today. He scolded me on “negativity” when I got upset about whiffing a shot. He told me to practice ( I hated to practice) but I did after he advised I needed to “discipline myself” to do it. I learned to clear my mind and just swing, not thinking about the proper procedures of practice. I try to avoid “negativity” in my writing. I received a negative critique from my writing circle on a short story that was published!!! Did I care??? No sir-ee. It was a done deal and someone liked it. Golf and writing are mind games. I’m looking forward to reading your newest book. Frances
Right on, Frances. A great golf teacher is a gem. Knows what YOU need and how to make it happen. Same with a great editor. Or crit partner.
We also have to learn how to say NO when we know something isn’t right.
When to listen, when not to (without being a diva).