One of the biggest lessons I have learned since I first started to take writing seriously about five years ago is that to do good work—to do any work at all—you need the ability to get out of your own way.
Every single day of a writer’s life brings fresh doubt and uncertainty. Some days that doubt and uncertainty are at the very forefront of a writer’s mind, making it difficult to think about anything else. Other days, it just lingers in the background like an annoying specter that sometimes tries to scare you into inaction with its petty, but nonetheless concerning, gripes.
Either way, there will always be barriers to progress, mental traps to negotiate and a general resistance to getting anything done.
Resistance is fueled by all sorts of things. Anything from doubt in your abilities, to a feeling that you are wasting your time, or the nagging feeling that you might as well give up because no matter how hard you try you don’t seem to be getting anywhere.
You think of all those other writers out there who seem to be making it work, who are selling a lot more books than you are, who are publishing more than you are, who are better looking than you are and so on and so forth. The list of woes can be endless.
If you don’t find a way to get past that kind of resistance, it can grow to be mighty and seemingly insurmountable after a while.
Luckily, there is a surefire way to cut through that resistance like a laser through flesh.
You focus on practice instead.
Practice Makes Possible
A few years ago I made my living from teaching martial arts professionally. I lived and breathed it, often training every day at the gym that I owned. Despite having been training for a long time at that point, I still knew I had to practice to improve. Inevitably, there where many days were I didn’t want to practice. I encountered the same resistance that I still encounter now when I sit down to write, which was driven by the same fears and doubts I have now about my writing.
Not only does that prove to me that said resistance never goes away, but it also proved to me that it could be beaten back by simply focusing on the act of practice and the desire for mastery.
That was how I was able to train so much, even though I often didn’t want to. I would just show up and embrace the process of practice with no real expectations of what I wanted to get out of the session, except further practice and a step closer to mastery.
That attitude kept me training consistently for years. It is also the attitude that keeps me writing consistently now.
Instead of sitting down with the weight of expectation on my shoulders, I instead sit down to write without any (hardly any) pressure to make the writing conform to some notion (usually someone else’s) of what makes “good” writing.
I simply just write.
The days that I encounter the most resistance are the days when I am putting myself under too much pressure. When I’m thinking that I have to up my word count so I can get more books out, or that what I’m writing isn’t working or isn’t good enough.
Those are excessive pressures that do nothing to stimulate creativity or help the flow of writing.
Such pressures serve only as blocks that dam up the river of words and stop it from flowing.
To get past the resistance, a shift in perspective is needed. You need to stop worrying too much about the outcomes you want to see and focus instead on the simple act of writing.
Practice makes writing possible because that’s all you’re doing, just writing. And if you do this every day, the resistance will soon lessen, and the act of sitting down to write will become much easier.
Though never that easy, as Glenn Kurtz writes in his sublime book, Practicing: A Musicians Return To Music:
“Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.”
Make A Pact With Yourself
I believe every writer who ever found success, no matter how big or small that success was, made a pact with themselves that stated if they made the effort to sit down and write every day without any expectation, then eventually their commitment and perseverance would be rewarded, and something good would come out of the struggle.
When you make this pact and stick to it, something good will always come out of it. Not necessarily success in terms of money or fame, more in terms of becoming better and better at your craft.
In saying that though, the better you get at your craft, the more chance you have for finding success (however you want to define success).
When you make such a pact with yourself, you are taking a leap of faith and putting your trust in the creative process. No more worrying and getting in the way of your creative self. You just sit and write, trusting that you will get somewhere.
As Dani Shapiro wrote in her memoir about the writing life:
The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.
That’s the attitude that keeps me writing every day. Sure, progress can seem dreadfully slow or non-existent at times, but when I look back, I see that I am always progressing in regards to craft and creativity.
Perhaps the most surprising part of all of this for me is the fact that my subconscious, my creative self, jumps fully on board and is always there to guide me.
Nine times out of ten, whenever I sit down to write, I end up writing something worthwhile (i.e something that isn’t unreadable garbage). Usually, that is another thousand or two thousand (often more) words of fiction. Sometimes it’s an article. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s something.
“The Pact” is very much a two-way thing. As soon as you stop showing up to write every day (as sometimes happens because life can get in the way) that creative part of yourself will begin to pull away. When you do finally sit down to write, you might find it a struggle to reconnect again. It can take me a couple of sessions after a break before that connection is firmly established once more, which is why I try not to take many breaks from writing. I don’t want atrophy setting in and destroying the connection I fought so hard to establish in the first place.
As Susan Dennard says in her article, The Writing Is All That Really Matters:
You’re going to have put your butt in the chair and your hands on the keyboard. You’re going to have to push through every chapter until you reach, The End. And nothing–absolutely nothing in this entire world (short of hiring someone to do it for you) will change the fact that the writing is all that really matters.
That’s why you have to stay on the ball, as one missed practice session can turn into two and then three and before you know it you’ve lost weeks and nothing’s been done.
Commit To Practice And Watch The Improvements
Make the pact.
Show up for practice.
We all know what happens when a football player doesn’t show up for practice. They get benched during games.
Don’t get benched by your creative self. Sure, you might want to strangle that part of yourself for dragging you into this writing shit in the first place, but honestly you should be thanking it, for where would you be without writing? Right?
So keep showing up.
No matter your fears or doubts or uncertainties, practice will obliterate them all.
To quote Kurtz again:
From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.
I sit down to practice the fullness of my doubts and desire, my fantasies and flaws. Each day I follow them as far as I can bear it, for now. This is what teaches me my limits; this is what enables me to improve. I think it is the same with anything you seriously practice, anything you deeply love.
Just start writing, trusting that the words will flow when you do, and watch your resistance shrink away like a vampire in the sunlight, leaving you to be engaged and happy in your work (mostly).
And then, when the session is over, you get to bask in the joyful satisfaction that comes from knowing that you created something.
That you did good work.
That you showed up.