Friday, June 3, 2011

Trust the Gut

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.


  1. Exactly what I needed to read today! Thanks for sharing.

    I'm sorry that you have had to deal with the cancer diagnosis but you sound very strong and positive. So glad you listened to your instinct! Hugs.

  2. I'm with Ink, I needed this post today. I'm constantly second guessing everything I write. And I never give anyone the chance to read it to tell me other wise because I don't want them reading garbage. That's the problem with being a reviewer, especially since I'm known to give "nasty" reviews. I feel that if I wrote something that wasn't golden to myself then no doubt I'll get those reviewers who say "well she's a reviewer! She had to know how crappy that was before submitting it to be published."

    . . . yeah my inner critic always wins this argument, *sighs* I'm gonna try harder to listen to my gut and not my head though. ;)

  3. Thank you for being the voice and the person who looks over my shoulder and says "you may want to rethink this, Bubba." It helps a lot. Great post. Maggie

  4. I love this line: "I'm glad I'm so unafraid of looking stupid."

    That's an important component of being your own advocate -- but also just of enjoying life and not worrying what someone else is thinking.

    Great blog,

  5. Aw, you guys just made my day already, and it's only eight o'clock here in St. Louis!

    Ink and Jessica, so glad I could help! Yeah, I think we're trained to trust our heads and ignore our heart/guts/intuition, so it's almost a learning process to start listening to that little voice. I'm doing it more and more as I get older (and go through more crap!).

    Maggie, thank you for being my Bubba sometimes! Never hurts to have someone we trust back up our gut. ;-)

    Marian, oh, gosh, as we've talked about SO much lately (and not so lately!), if we're not our own advocates, who will be? Both in life and in the writing world. It's really nice having friends that agree and support being noisy sometimes in order to get things done. :-)

  6. Good post Susan.

    My gut has saved me a bunch of times. I don't know why I don't trust it when it comes to my writing. I'm learning to listen instead of ignoring.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    I'm enjoying this St. Louis weather :)

  7. LaShaunda, yay for your gut! I'm sure since you listen to your instincts in your real life, it won't be so hard to do it more in your writing life. I don't think I could finish a book without my gut guiding me along the way.

    It's definitely going to be steamy in the Lou today! They said we might surpass the record high of 97 (or at least match it). Thank heavens for air conditioning and iced tea! :-)

  8. Beautiful post, Susan, and so, so true. Thank you for this wonderful reminder today ;).

  9. I am also a cancer survivor, and I'm glad you are watchful-and ok. I had this experience with my heart. I knew something was wrong, but the doctors weren't sure, and they finally got permission from the insurance company to do an angiogram. Lo and behold, I had a blocked artery which they rotorooted before I had a heart attack. Sometimes, our bodies are more communicative, and we need to pay attention. Skin cancers are so tricky because with age come all these dots and things. Not all bad. I love the quote from Einstein. Thank you.

  10. Great post, Susan, very honest and informative!

  11. I'm so glad that everything turned out okay, thanks to your "gut." Sometime trusting your gut will keep you safe too. Because I'm now of a "certain age" there are things I no longer do that I thought nothing of years ago like going shopping at night by myself.

  12. Yay to fellow survivor, Ms. Lil! I'm very glad you're okay! Good for you, being persistent and getting your arteries checked. It's always worth the trouble to get an answer! You can never be too sure when it comes to your health! Oh, boy, re. the skin spots. I am freckled so it makes it even tougher! I never would have thought the tiny pink spots were bad. They looked far more benign than actual benign spots!

    Laura, thanks, chickie! :-)

    Marilyn, I don't think I ever shopped by myself at night! Yep, it's very smart to pay attention to your instincts when they say, "Maybe this isn't such a good idea." They're usually right! Have fun on your upcoming vacation!

  13. Susan this was so straight from the heart, I can't even begin to tell you how touching it is. I didn't know about your breast cancer, but I've been following your recent surgery, and I must say, kuddos to you for trusting yourself.
    Your works stand out with this kind of confidence, and I'm so honored to be able to read your books and other writing.

  14. Anita! What a lovely thing to say! Thanks for your comment. It made my day. :-)