AcWriMO: How to Exorcise your Writing Gremlin

There are many things in the world that prevent a researcher from writing: the stress of looming deadlines, supervisory feedback, poor preparation, family responsibilities, language barriers – the list is endless.  However, sometimes our writing is obstructed not so much because of external factors but because of something internal; our own thought processes and expectations of ourselves. As academic researchers, we live in a world of critique, self-criticism, high standards, expectations, perfectionism and fear of peer judgement. For me, there is often an internal voice telling me why not to write. I call this my ‘writing Gremlin’.

The Gremlin lives in my head and will often speak to me, just as I’m sitting down to prepare to write. “Don’t do it yet!” it says in a dark voice. “You’re not ready! Just think how demotivated you will feel if you write something that isn’t up to their standard?”. The Gremlin then tells me to go and get another nice snack from the kitchen instead, or beckons me back to my bottomless-pit of reading…

In reality, ‘being ready’ is something of an illusion. When I have spoken to my amazing peers, who seem to effortlessly produce volumes of written work, I have noticed that the one thing that separates me from them is that they don’t have a Gremlin. There is no voice in their head telling them that they are not ready. In fact, none of them ever say they start writing when they feel completely ready. They simply lower their expectations of that first draft, and instead relish the act of rewriting and editing what they have written.

But my Gremlin tells me that I am not special like them. I have to get it right first time, or else I’ll feel like a failure. My Gremlin has long ears, that tune in more to negative experiences and feedback. My Gremlin feeds on doubt, fear and shame. It has long, accusing pointy fingers. It has strong arms that pull me away from the keyboard and push me towards distraction.

Once you are possessed by a Gremlin, and have that permanent voice in your head, it can take over your thoughts and writing productivity can become a real challenge.

Fortunately, the thing about Gremlins is that they are not real. They are a product of our imagination, and the sooner we get rid of them the better.

I have been exorcising my Gremlin recently by actively choosing not to listen to that voice. By not trying to be completely ready before I write. By surrounding myself with more motivational inspiring voices – peers, mentors, friends. If we start to openly acknowledge the Gremlin in our heads, it becomes easier to ask for the right kind of support from others to combat it.  

At the Doctoral college, we are lucky to have a range of opportunities for people to address these very issues: writing tutors, mentoring schemes, writing retreats, confidence-building workshops. Any one of these can help you to summon forth your Gremlin, exorcise it, and move towards a more positive writing experience.

What does your Gremlin look like? And what will you do to get rid of it?

Dr Neelam Wright, Researcher Development Training Officer, Doctoral College