Writers Beware of “Hostage-Taking Harpies”

While at the Beachside Writers Conference mentioned in a previous post, one of my favorite sessions was presented by Jane KirkpatrickNew York Times Best-selling author.

Jane talked with us about something that bedevils even the best writer from time to time:  “hostage-taking harpies.”

In Greek mythology, a harpy was a winged spirit best known for stealing food from Phineus.  The literal meaning of the word “harpy” is “that which snatches.”

Most often a harpy is depicted as a bird-women, and the term is used metaphorically to refer to nasty or annoying women.

As a writer, I have many times sat down to write and suddenly I’m consumed with self-doubt:

“I’m not a good writer.”
“I don’t have time to write.”
“I’ll never get this book done.”
“Other writers are much better at this than I am.”

Even though I know none of these statements are true, the harpies have gotten into my head and snatched all my positive processes for that writing session.  So, how to combat these harpies?

Jane Kirkpatrick offered the following advice:

  1. Choose the right goal.  What is your goal specifically?  To write a book?  To find a traditional publisher, or experiment with self-publishing?  Or just print the book for family and friends?  Whatever your goal, make certain it’s the right goal.
  2. Convert the general to a specific.  “I want to write a chapter a week.”  “I want to write three hours each day.”  “I want to contact Createspace.com and develop my plan for publication by a date certain, i.e. October 2013.”
  3. Acknowledge your part in the problem.  Jane called this detecting and admitting the barriers you set for yourself:
    1. “I’m too old to start something this big.”
    2. “I don’t deserve to succeed.”
    3. “It has to be perfect before I send it out.”
    4. “If I spoke to an agent at a conference, I’d fall apart; they wouldn’t like me.”
    5. “I make commitments for other projects so no time for writing.”
    6. And there were several more.
    7. Consider how your behavior affects how you act to keep what you fear most from happening.  In essence, Kirkpatrick asked us to consider the fears that taunt us and how we use competing commitments, i.e. “I want to write a chapter a week, but I don’t want to be separated from my group of girl friends.”  Think about the activities that compete with your writing.
    8. Identify underlying assumptions.  Generally, Kirkpatrick addressed our need to find underlying assumptions by looking at our secret fears (#4 above — those things you’ve used (competing commitments) to manage your life and emotions).  What do you believe will happen if you overcome these barriers?  And are your barriers actually based in truth?  Assumptions are not facts, and we can test them by starting with smaller experiments that test our beliefs and whether they are true.  Remember D in #3 above?  Try rewriting that in a positive tone:  “I will attend a conference and talk with an agent, and see if I survive.”  Sounds better, yes?  And likely this will work out in your favor, at least as it applies to your survival.

This is a sampling of what the harpies can do to your moving forward with success in your writing.  That is if you listen to them and allow them control.  Try just one thing this next week that you’ve been putting barriers up against and see if it actually will work for you.

What harpies are plaguing you?  What about barriers?  Do you have any you use regularly?

10 thoughts on “Writers Beware of “Hostage-Taking Harpies”

  1. To me, the biggest harpie is having an idea or even a word come to me and then WHAM…gone! Before I had a chance to write it down. So frustrating. I think harpies are particularly cruel to women in menopause. Just sayin’… 🙂


    1. Grace, I am laughing so hard at your comment on how cruel harpies are to women in menopause. Perhaps that’s been my problem the last year or so. 🙂


  2. Thanks for sharing. I think that it is always helpful to realise that it is not just you, but that other writers have similar experiences. Sometimes a wave of sheer panic can come over me that my writing is no good, my book is no good etc. I’ve come to realise that I’ve got to let go of my own perfectionism as no book is perfect, that this is a learning journey and that my writing, promotional skills etc will all improve as I continue to gain more experience and knowledge


    1. Cynthia, thanks for taking the time to comment. Perfectionism is a great enemy of mine, that and self-doubt. Looking at writing as a learning process is a good way of overcoming these feelings.


  3. Sherrey, Thanks for sharing these clear-cut measures for identifying the barriers to our writing. They are great reminders. It seems once we can identify and label them, we can work on a plan to send those “harpies” packing. What “harpies ” plague me?..all of the above at one time or another as you have mentioned. Somehow, seeing the fears in black and white makes them seem so silly, like staring them down will make them shrivel and blow away!


    1. Kathy, I’d love to be able to stare them down so that they would shrivel and blow away! They seem so overwhelming at the time they’re bearing down on you. And then when you look right at them, you reach a realization at how insignificant they are. 🙂


    1. Joan, since self doubt is also a biggie for me, we’d better not rely too heavily on each other in a flood — we’d end up with no one to row the boat!


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