Hey writers and other creative types, do you need an emotional and very supportive kick-in-the-pants?
I highly recommend Breakthrough: How to Overcome Doubt, Fear, and Resistance to Be Your Ultimate Creative Self by Todd Mitchell.
Mitchell, who lives in Fort Collins and directs the Beginning Creative Writing Teaching Program at Colorado State University, knows the writing mind.
Why should you read this book?
Mitchell makes it clear on Page 342, in the “About the Author” entry at the back:
“The reason why you should read this book is because Todd struggled with chasing success for decades, failed spectacularly, and experienced a breakdown that led to discovering far more fulfilling and effective ways to practice creativity.”
Yes, Mitchell has been there in the doldrums. He’s also ridden the highs. And he’s self-aware enough and analytical enough to break the journey down into memorable morsels of insight: Breakthrough is one of those books you can keep handy, open at random, and glean some goodies. Breakthrough offers 79 chapters in 338 pages; the chapters zip along.
“The Comparison Game is Bigger Than You Think.” “Your Ego Is Holding You Back.” “But Perseverance Isn’t Fun.” “A Simple Practice for Unlocking Observer Consciousness.”
And so on.
Mitchell focuses on the ego. See those words in the subtitle? Doubt. Fear. Resistance. Six of the chapter titles directly reference ego, but Mitchell comes back to the subject often—challenging writers and creatives to examine the power of the mind’s destructive self-messaging, its ridiculous conclusions, and the terrors it can create that prevent or inhibit creativity.
Mitchell pulls from a host of real-life examples from J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, John Grisham, S.E. Hinton, Stephen King, Monet, Van Gogh, David Foster Wallace, Joseph Campbell and Robert Louis Stevenson, to name a few. And he draws on a host of studies and research about the brain. Mitchell promotes what he calls “observer consciousness,” encouraging writers to step outside their rutted thoughts and observe their journeys in the third-person.
Breakthrough leans Zen Buddhism (that cover graphic serves as spoiler alert). There will be breathing exercises! But Breakthrough is heavily stirred with tales from Mitchell’s own journey and observing the experiences of his fellow writers and other creatives. He’s particularly good at tracking down the evils of “the comparison game,” which has probably pulled more writing careers into the ditch than any other evil trick of the mind.
“The comparison game thrives on seeing ourselves as separate from others,” he writes. “Therefore, the ultimate way to beat the comparison game is to transcend the ego-driven illusion of separateness and recognize how we’re all interconnected aspects of a greater whole.”
Mitchell knows the crap your cranium will conjure to block your progress. “Often, the voice that says what you’re working on is terrible and should be abandoned is coming from your ego. Oddly enough, so is the voice that tells you everything is brilliant, don’t change a word … Although these voices might seem contradictory, they both have the same goal—to get you to quit the creative process. The ego fears risk, change, and bringing new things into existence. It clings to what it already knows, so it uses both shame and pride to convince you to give up and leave things as they are.”
What Mitchell wants out of you writers is what many writing and writer teachers espouse—to write, write more, and go back to writing more. That’s probably because, in part, the more you write the more you are likely to let go of each paragraph’s (alleged) preciousness, the more you are willing to let the words on the page (the words you put there) work or not work of their own accord.
Mitchell also wants the creative act disconnected from the business of finding a publisher—and/or of finding success. He makes a great case that your writing career will fare better once you know that process of creating and refining your novel (or story) should be utterly disconnected from the process of finding an agent, landing a publisher, and crawling your way up The New York Times best-seller list. The more they are disconnected in your head, the better off you’ll be. (See above: keep writing.)
These paragraphs jumped out at me:
“We’ll never know all those creations and creators who remain overlooked. We live in only one reality. We only know the works that are lucky enough to be held up and praised in our reality. Undoubtedly, there are numerous amazing artists who work in obscurity, and numerous brilliant works that end up gathering dust in an attic somewhere until they’re thrown away. Other works might get published but don’t receive the attention they deserve (some of my favorite books, as well as my favorite bands, have come and gone with barely anyone noticing.
“The way to increase your chances of having something take off is to persevere and keep creating. Keep growing as a writer or artist, stay open to new possibilities, keep sending things out, and embrace the opportunities you encounter. That’s what you can do.”
Yes, reaching that state is “your ultimate creative self.”
Todd Mitchell is the award-winning author of several books for young readers and adults including The Last Panther (Penguin Random House), The Traitor King (Scholastic Press), The Secret to Lying (Candlewick Press), Backwards (Candlewick Press) and A Flight of Angels (DC). His two most recent books came out with Owl Hollow Press in fall 2021—one for writers, artists, and other creators currently titled Breakthrough: How to Overcome Doubt, Fear, and Resistance So That You Can Be Your Ultimate Creative Self, and a middle grade novel that’s been optioned for film/TV development titled The Namer of Spirits. Todd’s books have twice won the Colorado Book Award, and his middle grade novel The Last Panther won several national awards including the Green Prize for Sustainable Literature and the Green Earth Honor Book Award. In addition to his books, he’s published short stories, essays, and poems in national and international journals. Currently, he serves as an Associate Teaching Professor at Colorado State University where he directs the Beginning Creative Writing Teaching Program. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with his wife, dog, and two wise daughters. You can visit him (and learn about his squirrel obsession) at www.ToddMitchellBooks.com.