Yesterday, I was trawling iTunes for a decent podcast about writing. After a while, I gave up, because 90% of them talked incessantly about “self-discipline,” “making writing a habit,” “getting your butt in the chair,” “getting yourself to write.” To me, that’s six flavors of fucked up.
Okay, yes—I see why we might want to “make writing a habit.” If we want to finish anything, we’ll have to write at least semi-regularly. In practical terms, I get it.
But maybe before we force our butts into chairs, we should ask why it’s so hard to “get” ourselves to write. We aren’t deranged; our brains say “I don’t want to do this” for a reason. We should take that reason seriously.
Most of us resist writing because it hurts and it’s hard. Well, you say, writing isn’t supposed to be easy—but there’s hard, and then there’s hard. For many of us, sitting down to write feels like being asked to solve a problem that is both urgent and unsolvable—“I have to, but it’s impossible, but I have to, but it’s impossible.” It feels fucking awful, so naturally we avoid it.
We can’t “make writing a habit,” then, until we make it less painful. Something we don’t just “get” ourselves to do.
The “make writing a habit” people are trying to do that, in their way. If you do something regularly, the theory goes, you stop dreading it with such special intensity because it just becomes a thing you do. But my god, if you’re still in that “dreading it” phase and someone tells you to “make writing a habit,” that sounds horrible.
So many of us already dismiss our own pain constantly. If we turn writing into another occasion for mute suffering, for numb and joyless endurance, we 1) will not write more, and 2) should not write more, because we should not intentionally hurt ourselves.
Seriously. If you want to write more, don’t ask, “how can I make myself write?” Ask, “why is writing so painful for me and how can I ease that pain?” Show some compassion for yourself. Forgive yourself for not being the person you wish you were and treat the person you are with some basic decency. Give yourself a fucking break for avoiding a thing that makes you feel awful.
Daniel José Older, in my favorite article on writing ever, has this to say to the people who admonish writers to write every day:
Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.
The antidote, he says, is to treat yourself kindly:
For me, writing always begins with self-forgiveness. I don’t sit down and rush headlong into the blank page. I make coffee. I put on a song I like. I drink the coffee, listen to the song. I don’t write. Beginning with forgiveness revolutionizes the writing process, returns its being to a journey of creativity rather than an exercise in self-flagellation. I forgive myself for not sitting down to write sooner, for taking yesterday off, for living my life. That shame? I release it. My body unclenches; a new lightness takes over once that burden has floated off. There is room, now, for story, idea, life.
Writing has the potential to bring us so much joy. Why else would we want to do it? But first we’ve got to unlearn the pain and dread and anxiety and shame attached to writing—not just so we can write more, but for our own sakes! Forget “making writing a habit”—how about “being less miserable”? That’s a worthy goal too!
Luckily, there are ways to do this. But before I get into them, please absorb this lesson: if you want to write, start by valuing your own well-being. Start by forgiving yourself. And listen to yourself when something hurts.
Next post: freewriting
I need to read this again and again and again