“I admire anyone who has the guts to write anything at all”, said admired writer and novelist E.B White.
Randy’s This Year You Write Your Novel reminded me to pull Ralph Keyes’ The Courage To Write off my bookshelf. I’m not a huge fan of books on writing. It’s too easy to think ABOUT writing, than to actually sit down and write. Nevertheless, this book is exactly what I need when I want to be distracted. It inspires me.
Keyes contends that writing is an act of courage. Check out what these other not-so-obscure authors have to say:
“All my life, I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one” – John Steinbeck
“Blank pages inspire me with terror” – Margaret Atwood
We like to imagine White on his New England farm dashing off lighthearted essays and charming books for children when he wasn’t slopping hogs or chopping wood. In fact, White worried over every word. He rewrote pieces twenty times or more and sometimes pleaded with the post-master to return a just-mailed manuscript so he could punch up its ending or rewrite the lead.
In addition to being a consummate rewriter, White was a gifted procrastinator.
Procrastination is the sap that drips from the gnarled branch of anxiety. I think the tree is rooted in fear. Recently I linked anxiety to my periodic depressions. This is a good thing as my therapist and I are going to have a field day, and it may yield results in my writing. If I can gain insight and lick this, I hope the days when I want to complete that assignment but decide to “just give the kitchen sink one last polish” will be fewer. We are not alone. Procrastination, anxiety and fear are much more common to writers than I realised.
So when the blank page is staring at you, what to do? William Moon once advised a group of aspiring writers, “Anything you can do to trick yourself out of panicking, do it”. When you’re afraid to write try some of these:
* Give yourself permission to just do one small part.
Tell yourself you’ll just write one sentence and then give up. You might be surprised to find yourself achieving just a little more.
* Give yourself guilt-free time out.
At university my friend Nathan “knew” when he just wasn’t going to sit down and study. Rather than mope about the house in a miasma of guilt, he gave himself permission to go to the cinema – and not to feel guilty. He reasoned it was a better use of his time to enjoy a movie than to feel guilty all afternoon and achieve nothing.
* Develop the space where you write so it works for you.
Do you like to sit in your kitchen and write in pencil? Do you like to write with a glass of wine? Do you like to write naked? Whatever works for you will help lower anxiety.
* Do something different.
This is a foil to the previous point. If you sit to write, try standing for a change. Or lying in bed. Or writing on the back of envelopes, if you normally type at a keyboard.
* Use fear as an ally.
Anxiety can give a heightened perception that can yield great insight and great writing. Bad days are sometimes easier to write about than good days.
* Try prayer or meditation. If you’re spiritual, starting with a period of unburdening and relaxation may help. Many studies have shown this can calm practitioners.
* Acquire Ralph Keyes’ book.
He suggests solutions as well as detailing the foibles of the great and the lowly. If you’re going to read a book about how to write, it might as well be a good one. (I’ll take that kickback now, Ralph.)
Above all, take heart: “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted”, according to Martin Luther King Jr. If salvation is in the hands of such as these, surely we can handle a mere pencil and paper? The comments are waiting: Go, write now.
Jonathan Elliot writes at Spritzophrenia where he mangles the interface between spirituality, personal development and humor.
First published as a guest post on Randy Murray’s blog. Thanks Randy!