I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. More or less. Sometimes I pursue other ambitions, but I keep coming back to the desire to write. Or at least, the desire to have written something. It would be great to have already written something brilliant and enjoy the attendant love and praise, but the writing itself is so hard. The work at hand is so imperfect and wanting. I continually resist and avoid practicing the craft. It’s much easier to idly read blogs for an hour or two.
Is This My Dream?
It makes me question my desire. Is this really my dream? Or do I just like to fantasize about being that successful author? I believe in the idea that you should do what you love. You’re probably not going to like everything about what you do, but you should generally want to do something you love, right?
So why not write? Am I just plain lazy? Not willing to put in the time and effort? Or is it possible I don’t really like the actual act of writing that much?
Doing What You Love
Paul Graham wrote a great essay a couple of years ago, How to Do What You Love, that included a couple of points just for us aspiring writers:
That’s what leads people to try to write novels, for example. They like reading novels. They notice that people who write them win Nobel prizes. What could be more wonderful, they think, than to be a novelist? But liking the idea of being a novelist is not enough; you have to like the actual work of novel-writing if you’re going to be good at it; you have to like making up elaborate lies.
Another test you can use is: always produce. For example, if you have a day job you don’t take seriously because you plan to be a novelist, are you producing? Are you writing pages of fiction, however bad? As long as you’re producing, you’ll know you’re not merely using the hazy vision of the grand novel you plan to write one day as an opiate. The view of it will be obstructed by the all too palpably flawed one you’re actually writing.
“Always produce” is also a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject yourself to that constraint, it will automatically push you away from things you think you’re supposed to work on, toward things you actually like. “Always produce” will discover your life’s work the way water, with the aid of gravity, finds the hole in your roof.
–Paul Graham, How to Do What You Love
Wise words, and I think of them often when I’m failing to produce.
So many writers struggle with resistance and avoidance. Much writing advice stresses the importance of actually writing (surprise!), and letting the work be its own best reward. (Really? That’s all we get?)
We’re encouraged to break through our resistance. To sit. To write. We’re told that gradually we will start to break through, if only we would write. Our muse will come if we can reliably be found at our keyboards trying to turn out the words. But again, it’s so much easier to do anything else.
Breaking Through Resistance
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to something I am working hard at these days: exercise. Especially running.
Pushing Through Boundaries
Whether outside on the road or inside on the treadmill, the first two to three miles are usually tough. But if I stick with it, I’m feeling pretty good by miles four and five. I start to look forward to that feeling and am willing to do the work to get there. Experience tells me that the reward is worth the effort. Had I not pushed myself to stay with it and keep going farther, I wouldn’t have discovered how much I enjoy running. (How much I love to do it?) I would either be working at it with grim determination, or would have stopped by now.
Physical exercise is different than writing, of course. With exercise, you just have to do it. Which I know can be difficult in its own way to get started on, but once you’re doing it, there’s not much to it. With running, you just move your legs and breathe. That’s over-simplifying things, but I think is essentially true, at least for my exercise goals.
With writing, it’s not as simple as “just moving your fingers on the keyboard.” You have to make them say something; hopefully in an interesting way. (And you have to contend with a thousand critical voices in your head, constantly tearing down the work in progress. And there’s the fear of exposing yourself so nakedly. And, and, and…)
So it occurs to me that I should work at my writing more. Keep at it even when each step is a struggle, keep pushing ahead even though it would be so much easier to give up yet another day. I want to see if there is a “three mile barrier” that I can get past, and enjoy a similar sense of satisfaction and reward as I get from running. I want to crave writing the way I’ve lately been looking forward to a run.
Die When You Die
Another feature of running is that I “run when I run.” When I’m running, oddly enough, that’s what I’m doing. I don’t switch from running to wandering aimlessly around the Web and then come up for air an hour later, feeling empty and defeated. (Of course, on a treadmill it would be possible to do both, but I’d still be doing the thing I mean to be doing.) Not so easy to stay focused on writing, with all the potential distractions near at hand, but it would be beneficial if somehow I could focus on it for a duration longer than five minutes. One of my favorite writing teachers understands how it is:
It is important to have a way worked out to begin your writing; otherwise, washing dishes becomes the most important thing on earth–anything that will divert you from writing. Finally, one just has to shut up, sit down, and write. That is painful. Writing is so simple, basic, and austere. There are no fancy gadgets to make it more attractive. Our monkey minds would much rather discuss our resistances with a friend at a lovely restaurant or go to a therapist to work out our writing blocks. There is a Zen saying: “Talk when you talk, walk when you walk, and die when you die.” Write when you write. Stop battling yourself with guilt, accusations, and strong-arm threats.
–Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Write when you write. It sounds so simple.
Related to this is that I can think about exercise as a discrete unit of work. I know it will take about an hour or so to get a good workout in. I can plan for it, do it, and be done with it for the day.
I make my writing goals out to be so much more ambitious and vague. I think of all the time I could and should be doing it, and the task becomes too big. I don’t know how to write for five hours in a day, so I never start. It just weighs on my mind all day. I don’t sit down for the half hour or hour that would strengthen my writing muscles and increase my endurance. Or, if I do put some time in, it never feels like enough. I never feel like I can be “done” for the day. So again, I just avoid it.
If I can learn to treat my writing time more like exercise time, then maybe I’ll be less of a basket case about the whole process. I think this is what “write when you write” should mean for me. Pick the time, do the work. Write. Then be done writing. Go enjoy some family time without distracting thoughts about ambitions and dreams unrealized.
The Work As Its Own Reward
The hardest part may be finding satisfaction only in the writing, and not depending on the things I hope may result from it: love, recognition, and riches. With exercise there is immediate feedback: a sense of well-being, and longer term effects: better health and weight control. I don’t expect anything more from my running than personal enjoyment and better health.
With writing, so far, I usually feel more mentally ill as I grapple with it more. And longer term, there is an increased sense of hopelessness that it will “pay off.” I’d so love for my writing to pay the bills, but that day seems impossibly far off, if not unreachable. Bitter, petty inner voices try to convince me to stop doing it. I suppose they’re only looking out for my best interests. Just trying to protect my ego. If I don’t try, I won’t fail.
The feedback loop isn’t as positive for writing as it is for running. And it’s harder to measure progress. With running, I know if I’m running farther and faster; if I’m losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight. With writing, there are only doubtful voices, questioning if I’m doing the right thing, and pointing out that I’m most likely just wasting my time. (The voices are clearly focused on external rewards.)
I don’t have answers for these voices. I guess I’ll just have to write more and try to invest time more consistently from day to day. Hold on to the possible connection to running, and try to break through the three mile barrier, in whatever way that boundary may manifest itself in the writing process.
I’ll get back to you with the results. You can help, by reading and providing feedback, and spreading the word if you enjoy what you find here. At least with the magic of the Internet, I can click the Publish button and instantly share these words with you today…