I’ve been thinking a lot lately about instinct. The kind of gut feeling that helps us with self-preservation. The older I get, the more I’ve learned to trust my gut, even if someone else is telling me I’m wrong. Because that little voice inside my head has proved right too many times to doubt it.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer back in late 2006, a mammogram had shown that a cyst my doctor felt was nothing. I got a letter stating that I was fine. “See you next year,” it said. If I hadn’t listened to my gut—and my body—in the weeks after and insisted on an ultrasound three months later, I hate to think where I’d be now.
More recently, I went to my dermatologist for a pink spot on my upper chest. I didn’t think much about it until it got dry-looking and bled a bit when I nicked it with my fingernail. That spot ended up being early stage skin cancer. There was a second pink spot, even tinier, but I had a bad feeling about it. I asked my dermo to check that one out, too, before I went to the surgeon to have a procedure called Mohs to clear out all the cancerous cells. She smiled and remarked that the second spot looked benign then she sent it off for biopsy. I found out the morning of my outpatient surgery for Spot #1 that Spot #2 was also early stage skin cancer.
"I'm glad I'm so paranoid," I told people. But, truly, I'm glad I'm so unafraid of looking stupid that I dare to speak up when my gut tells me something.
Not only did these experiences teach me to be pro-active when it comes to my health (as with so many things in life), but they reminded me to pay attention to my instincts. Trusting those gut feelings can sometimes mean the difference between life or death. I know it sounds dramatic, but it’s true. And I think so many of us have been trained to depend on others to tell us what’s what—doctors, lawyers, financial advisers, whomever—that we stop listening to ourselves. Or maybe we never start.
That’s bad news if you’re a writer, particularly one who writes from her gut, as I do. It’s pretty impossible to know for sure when I’m writing a first draft if what I’m putting down on paper is good or bad, if my agents and editors will love it or loathe it. “Does this sound right?” I wonder. “Does it move too slowly? Is this character interesting? Likable?”
Unless we constantly have someone else looking over our shoulder, telling us what to do (which would be paralyzing, I think!), we need to trust our instincts to know if what we’re writing is worthy or not. When I read a book that’s well-done, I feel it inside. Something “clicks” within me, and soon I’m absorbed in the story, along for the ride. When I find a book lacking, I end up dissecting it rather than enjoying it (or I just stop reading it altogether).
I find it’s like that when I’m working on a first draft. If I don’t feel a “click” when I write a scene or chapter—or if I feel stuck—I know my gut is saying, “You might want to rethink this, Bubba.”
All writers work so differently. Some outline. Some fly by the seat of their pants. Some do a bit of both. But in order to become better and stronger at what we do, we have to trust ourselves—trust our gut—and listen to that little voice that guides us.
I'm trying very hard to stop second-guessing myself. I’m not always right, that’s for sure. But when that little voice inside my head speaks up, you can bet that I listen.