Setting your writing compass

Begin with where you are now, in the present

When you set out on a journey of any length, it’s reassuring to have a general notion of where you’re going.

The same can be said of writing, but since there are few absolute parameters set for most writing situations, knowing your ultimate destination, as though you were a train heading for a particular station, can be daunting.

There is much about writing that feels intimidating, and the idea of having complete control over one’s writing experience is illusory if you’re not sure why you’re writing, what your goals are, or what your intention is.

Your response, if you’re overwhelmed, is not to write at all, so as to avoid something that feels confusing and difficult. Think about the issues that then become barriers to writing:

  • Not knowing what to say; precision eludes you; you’re confused
  • Feeling unfocused and irritable, barely perceptible thoughts poke at you, demanding shape and form that you can’t give them
  • Now knowing why you should write, or what your motivation is
  • Negative self-talk: the chattering inner voice of self-criticism, self-doubt, fears, anxiety, ego, anger, obsession
  • Attachment to outcome
  • Wasting time, or using the time you do have available for writing to complain that if only you had more time, you’d get more writing done

There are useful steps to take when you want to write, but you’re feeling overwhelmed and directionless. The antidote to not knowing one’s intention, purpose, goal or direction can be found in the concept of mindfulness. If getting started presents this much of a challenge, learning how to practice mindfulness, where you are consciously aware of each action, each thought, in any given moment, helps focus your mind on the direction you want your writing to take.

Ask yourself what truly matters to you

To be mindful, as a writer, means being consciously aware of your environment, your feelings, your visceral self.

Your visceral self exists alongside your intellectual self, the self with all the racing thoughts that lead you nowhere. If thoughts are the rats in the maze, your viscera are observing the rats, the maze, the thoughts themselves. Your visceral self is highly aware, at any given moment, of your perceptions of reality.

Awareness of one’s sensory perception is taught to creative writers. Creative writing teachers say: Pay attention to your surroundings; notice what that woman over there is wearing; describe her clothes. Notice what color the sky is, and try to describe it accurately. Don’t say ‘it’s blue.’ It’s not blue, not if you look carefully. When you really look, you’ll see it’s dove grey with light blue-tinged clouds shading into silver.

I remember this lesson very well from my creative writing classes, because without these teachers, I possibly would never have learned the word ‘obsidian,’ a wonderful word that perfectly describes some shades of grey sky, as well as being a variety of rock. Some dark clouds have obsidian underbellies in the moments prior to pouring stinging cold rain on your head.

Once you start to really notice the world around you, to pick up and touch stones, and feel their soft smoothness; or notice if your body is tired, if you’re thirsty, how your skin stings when the sun gets too hot; to notice when you suddenly hold your breath, or are aware of how that glass of water tastes… how cool, sharp and hard the glass feels in your mouth, against your tongue… all of these fractions of moments are part of what it is to be mindful.

When you approach your writing from this perspective, your thoughts are already focused, conscious and aware. Sit in this open state, quietly, with no distractions, for a few minutes, noticing with acuity everything around you—the quality of the light in the room, the precise color of your chair, the way the fabric feels under your hand—and then add deep, repetitive breathing (two or three deep breaths) until some kind of answer to this question comes to you:

Why do I want to write [fill in the blank: this book; this poem; at all]?

There was a time when I had no idea why I wanted to write, because I had no idea what it was I wanted, or needed, to say. In 1991, I started teaching adults creative writing classes at night. Did I know, in 1991, what my goal was, my ultimate purpose for writing? I did not. It took me years to discover what I want and need to say, and how I want my contribution to be that I help change the paradigm we have inherited about writing. This goal is what fuels almost all my writing now, but I didn’t know it consciously when I got started. I had to listen for this knowledge along the way. I had to wade through ego, too.

Listen to yourself; you know what you need to write about

At one point, about ten years ago, when I asked myself (again) “Why am I writing?” the answer was “to get published.” At the time, I believed I needed to get published. I needed it for my ego, for one thing, and I needed it if I was going to be taken seriously as an academic. However, I also have the conflicting lack of desire to be on display, to be ‘famous,’ or even to be known. So there was an egolessness warring inside of me, alongside my egoic need for achievement.

The middle ground I found to put those conflicting needs to rest began to emerge over time. I had to sit with my desire to write many times, asking, over and over again, “Why am I doing this? What do I hope to accomplish? What is it that I need that I can’t get any other way?” before it became clear to me that no matter what happens, whether I get published or not, I really do need to get this message out: that we need to see writing differently, we need to have a different way of looking at our need to create, to express ourselves.

So that eventually, when I asked myself “Why am I writing? What is motivating me, what is my purpose?” the answer came back: I want people to be free from their limiting self-talk. I want everyone who wants and needs to write to feel free to do so. I want people to stop believing that they can’t, or shouldn’t, write.

So, that’s why I write. Because if I don’t, I won’t get this message out, and it has to be heard until it is believed, until the paradigm changes, until our beliefs change.

Now we need to find out what motivates you. Why do you write? Why do you want to write, if you’re not currently writing? Once an answer comes to the surface, or the forefront of your mind, then we can state an intention: I want to [fill in the blank]. Only then can you set a direction on your writer’s compass. Without intention, you are directionless, and you will write aimlessly, with no discipline, if you write at all.

7 thoughts on “Setting your writing compass

  1. When I read this page on your blog, I went “Wow!”. Someone else finally understands and is able to say what it feels like to want to write. But they also understand what is like to be unable to move forward with your writing and the frustration it sometimes causes at ones self. So I really enjoyed reading this article and I am definitely going to read the rest of your blog thoroughly.

    • Yes. This is the essence of the work I’ve done through the years with developing writers, is to help people find a way to let themselves write. This is the hardest part for many writers, the process of getting started. I hope you’ll also take a look at my website: for other ideas and thoughts. Thanks for reading. 🙂

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