Believing In Myself as a Writer

IMG_0206 2This has proved to be the hardest part; this belief in one’s self as a writer. I once started a journal with: “I don’t know what to write.” The rest of the journal remained blank. I don’t journal well. 

I fight with myself as a writer every single day. I reject this self-imposed isolation. I hate it. I don’t want to do it. I don’t know how not to.

It doesn’t help that my insecurities are fueled by difficulties getting published. Every time I receive a rejection, it sets me back, and I have to begin all over again, Sisyphus rolling this rock back up the hill. I am getting older, waiting to get that rock up that hill.

I’ve learned too, through the years, that the quiet writers need has a dark side; we also need responses, we need to know others read our writing. The answer is, we need readers who feel engaged with our material, but the challenge is, how to inspire and motivate the reader (without using extrinsic motivation, like schoolmasters of yore used a cane to beat recalcitrant writers?).

The blogosphere-world has exploded, and it’s literally impossible to read and respond to everything you see. I know that when I read something someone has put time and effort into, I can’t always be counted on to respond with the truth—to say, wow, no one will read this, you’ve found yourself a subject that’s bound to turn others off! Or to find time to compliment the writer who has managed to come up with a compelling subject, who I want to read over and over again.

I’ve had to force myself, in the past year or so, to be sure to comment on people’s blogs. This is why I limit how many blogs I read, and I don’t follow many. The greatest irony for me—someone who wants more than anything to encourage writers—is that it isn’t possible to encourage every writer I see (and then sit and wonder why no one is encouraging me!). It feels overwhelming to use each blog experience as a “teaching moment,” to tell them, the way I tell myself, alright, too much detail, excessive vocabulary, you’re losing your audience… etc. All the things that go wrong, go wrong in my head before they go wrong in the writing. 

I rationalize: I shouldn’t need encouragement, should I?

Oh, but I do.

All writers do. 

Step One To Thinking of Yourself as a Writer

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Here is step one in the six-step, developmental process I’ve created to help you think of yourself as writer. Subsequent steps can be found at The Collaborative Writer’s Online Course website (you’ll need a password for access to the self-directed online courses, so let me know if you’re interested in going forward). 

In the first step, we focus on the idea of ‘inspiration’ and begin with a poem intended to get you thinking about what what we mean by ‘inspiration’—where does it come from? How can we best use our ‘ah-ha!’ moments? How can we harness the energy of inspiration? These are all fundamental questions every writer navigates over time, and it’s where we’ll begin our journey. 

 
Inspiration
As to the flash of inspiration
and traffic laws on writing’s path—
what comes can’t be stopped, 
what leaves will not be restrained.
It hides like fire in a coal
then flares into a shout.
When instinct is swift as a horse
no tangle of thoughts will hold it back; 
a thought wind rises in your chest,
a river of words pours out from your mouth,
and so many burgeoning leaves sprout
on the silk from your brush
that colors brim out of your ears 
and music echoes in your eyes.
—from The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters
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Inspiration: What it is, what it isn’t

WHAT IT IS

Out of nowhere, a thought, feeling, or response to something you’ve read or heard enters your consciousness. What was unformed energy is suddenly a perception. You have something to say! Quick, write it down, because if you don’t, this idea is so unformed, it will be lost in an instant, and another brilliant thought will be lost to posterity.

WHAT IT ISN’T

This is not a subject, theme, or three-volume novel—yet. You have not yet discovered your subject, what it’s about or the why of it. All you have right now is an idea. This is not the time to call an agent to arrange a contract with a publisher. You are not in pre-writing yet. Nothing concrete might come of this idea. It is a start, a place to begin.

THINKING ABOUT IT

Invention is a stage in the writing process we don’t understand very well and therefore tend to mythologize, largely because it seems so entirely out of our conscious control, yet it’s where creation seems to begin. It often seems like the most magical moment in the writing process. Because of this, I believe we often invest too much in the notion that we must always sound utterly original and unique; otherwise, why bother?

Many developing writers don’t think of writing as a way of discovering what it is they want to say. Instead, they sometimes believe that they need to know precisely what it is they want to say before they begin to write, that writing should reflect a thinking process that is more or less complete. After all, we read only the finished works of Hemingway or Shakespeare. Society praises these works as brilliant, ignoring the writer’s process, with all its complications and confusions.

Something to keep in mind is that we often discover what we think, feel, or believe during the writing process itself. The physical act of writing (whether it’s by hand on paper or by hand as we type) forces us to make connections in our mind that we wouldn’t have otherwise perceived. Likewise, brainstorming, allowing yourself to write freely, without expectation of grammatical or editorial correctness, is an excellent way to allow your deepest, most authentic thoughts to surface.

Focus, at this stage, on exploring ideas, rather than imposing structure on your work.

WRITING EXERCISE #1

There are traditional methods of invention; the Ancient Greeks were using them over two thousand years ago. Coming up with ideas might seem the hardest stage of all in the writing process, but the easiest way to think of something to write is to have an emotional response to something you’ve experienced.

Strong emotion is a useful gauge of what’s important to us. There’s no faster way to know what you value; what’s important to you is an excellent place to begin your writing. You come to know yourself better when you allow yourself to explore your emotional responses.

Find a piece of writing (a newspaper article, a blog entry, an editorial of some kind) that spurs your response. Without editing yourself (especially without predetermining which emotional responses are appropriate) write as much as you can in response to the article. If it helps, imagine you’re speaking directly to the person who wrote the article. Disagree with him or her; tell the writer exactly what you think. 

If you’re angry, let yourself be angry; if you’re excited, let yourself be excited. Write by hand in your writer’s notebook, or write online and save your document. When you feel ready, share your response with me, and we can discuss what you’ve learned about yourself. The next step will be determining whether or not you’d like to develop an idea you discovered during this writing exercise.

Write to me when you’re done; let me know how your process goes. Or, if you’d rather work on your own, go to The Collaborative Writer Online Courses for more information.

The Oxymoron of Finding the ‘Free’ in Free Writing

When I was young, my father said something to me about the novel I was writing at the time that I’ve never forgotten. His response to my concern that I was spending years of my life doing something that might lead ‘nowhere,’ was “Write it. What have you got to lose?”

Children learn rules adults have to forget

Some rules we learned as children hold us back when we become adults

Although in many ways it’s a reasonable question, intended to encourage a sense of adventure, my answer hasn’t changed much in almost 30 years.

The answer for a lot of writers at any age, level of skill or experience  is, “Actually, I have a lot to lose.”

Although perhaps it shouldn’t be true, in fact, we have a great deal invested in our writing.

Self-esteem, ego, a desire to be part of the writing world, to publish, to see our name in lights; to have a movie made out of our writing, to be taken seriously—all of these desires might be wrapped up inside the act of putting pen to paper. Writing can seem desperately important for so many reasons, it’s hard to list them all.

My early experiences with writing led me to the place I am today, and I have lived every step of the process I talk about. I’ve watched students and clients struggle with their own esteem issues around writing, and I have learned that not everything we’re taught about writing helps our self-esteem; that in fact, there are very good reasons to question a lot of our inherited beliefs about writing.

Too many of those beliefs are either holding us back or causing us some kind of unnecessary anxiety. How do we liberate ourselves from our self-imposed limitations? By changing our minds about what we think we know.

Because I take the need to work at craft seriously, I’m a strong believer in the idea of discipline when it comes to one’s writing habits, except for two caveats.

Why Do We Need To Write Everyday?

I do not, technically, disagree with writing every day, even though I don’t believe you have to write every single day. I don’t think you’ll lose your chance to become a writer if you write less often, nor does writing more sporadically (and probably more realistically when it’s not your primary paying job) delegitimize you as a writer.

In fact, at least one book, The Weekend Novelist, has been written to help the aspiring writer maximize the use of her available time when writing every day sounds like a form of torture, and you’re afraid if you don’t develop ‘the writing habit’, you won’t be a “real” writer.

The only negative you’ll usually hear about developing a daily writing habit is that it’s tedious:

Of course there’ll be days when you feel uninspired, when you have nothing you want to write about, or when you’re hectically busy. But if you’re going to stick with writing fiction long-term, it needs to become part of your daily life.

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Forcing yourself to write every day is the first rule every professional writer uses to impress upon the aspiring writer how disciplined you have to be to succeed. Although forming a daily writing habit is usually a good idea, there are writers for whom this particular rule is a hurdle, not a help.

The uncertain or insecure writer isn’t sure he should be writing in the first place. Perhaps he’s taking time away from his family. Maybe no one supports his desire to write. Since the desire to write is quite often squelched early in life, and dismissed as impractical, many people feel guilty for wanting to write at all.

Maybe he has sent many pieces out, and has yet to receive an acceptance. Perhaps he’s had an emotional blow elsewhere in life, and now doubts himself in general. All of these situations have happened to me, or to others I’ve known and worked with, so I know they’re all possible, even for professional writers who have grown accustomed to writing as their way of life.

Too rigidly adhered to, forcing yourself to write every day can feel like scraping a dry bucket out of empty well, which can lead to feelings of self-doubt.

As writers, we need to accept that the ability to write begins with feeling good about ourselves (contradicting the prevalent social myth that all writers are emotional messes). There’s not a lot of personal freedom in the act of writing when we’re tied up in self-imposed knots of misery about ourselves, our habits, or beliefs that keep us stuck. 

The aspiring writer who has too many hurdles to overcome before he’s even begun to think of himself as a writer is at risk of preventing himself from continuing on.

How and When to Use the Writer’s Notebook

The other habit I disagree with is feeling forced to keep a writer’s notebook, especially if you feel no impetus to do so, but think you should because that’s what “real” writers do.

Instead, my belief is that keeping your notebook should flow organically from your internal desire to practice two important writer-skills: Observing and describing the world around you; and encouraging your imagination.

Although the idea of encouraging your imagination might seem obvious, or, conversely, like it’s an unnecessary skill now that you’re no longer a kid, Jessica Lasser, a writer who also conducts writing workshops for 9-16 year-olds, has the following to say about developing your imagination:

[I]magination isn’t some artsy fartsy muse that floats around sprinkling fairy dust on a few lucky people who “just happen” to have great imaginations. Imagination is a muscle. And like any other muscle, it gets stronger when you exercise it regularly. Think about it. What does your brain do when you read your favorite books? It takes a jumble of letters on a page, and it turns them into sights, smells, sounds, people, places … it creates an entire world inside your head out of nothing but ink and paper. That’s your imagination at work.

Jessica teaches free writing as a way to access the imaginative part of your mind’s capability to free-associate and exist in what I could call “flow-writing,” where the writing, as she reminds us, resembles the inner (imaginative) world we create when we’re immersed in a good book. However, I think the key here is not to bother calling the writing anything in particular; rather, to use your writing as a way to encourage this flow to happen.

The fastest and easiest way to use a notebook to encourage your imagination is to create simple writing prompts for yourself. You can use someone else’s ideas to do this, or you can set yourself a task each time you open your notebook that you’ll focus on one word or idea and then write whatever you want to, for as long or as short a time as works for you. 

The thing is, imagination doesn’t really respond all that well to rules, and when you start writing, that’s the worst possible time to impose rules on yourself (and that includes “calling” your writing anything). At the writer’s notebook ‘stage’ of writing, your writing might consist of notes; it might be made up of lists, it might be responses to color; it might be drawings. It might be phrases you’ve overheard others make. The point to the notebook, I believe, is to feel free keeping it. If you feel like you have just found yourself a new rule to bind yourself with, find something else to inspire your imagination, since imagination is easily destroyed by too much reality.

If keeping a writer's notebook sounds boring, why not draw your thoughts?

If keeping a writer’s notebook sounds boring, why not draw your thoughts?

To find that sense of personal freedom, you have to let go of a lot of rules. You know how people always suggest you try thinking like a kid at times like this?

I went to sites for kids to see how adults who teach kids engage their attention to do things they don’t necessarily want to do (one of which is writing, especially on command).

I very much like many of the suggestions on this page, and this writer’s energy about keeping a writing notebook:

You’re going to write and draw and paste all kinds of things into your Notebook so it could all end up in a big jumble!

As the whole point of the notebook is to make your ideas instantly accessible, it’s a good idea to number all the pages of your book before you start writing in it, and to leave some pages blank either at the front or the back for an index where you can list the page numbers of various types of information as they build up.

For example, one heading might be “Names for Characters” or another might be “Quotes” or “Ideas for Stories” or “Information for Settings.” Make sure also to put the starting and ending date on your Notebook as it will be the first of many Notebooks you will fill up as a budding author!

Instead of focusing on rules every writer should follow, implanting the idea of creating writing habits that might not be entirely necessary or even entirely realistic, I suggest we start small, and keep the goal realistic. If you want to create solid writing habits that will stand the test of time, there’s nothing that says that “writing every day” can’t also mean writing one sentence, one paragraph, or even just one simple idea. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with planting a seed on any given day that, when the time is ripe, will stand a chance to grow into something splendid because, little by little, you grew it and persevered, over time.

To Write or Not To Write?—That Is The Question

I don’t want you to worry so much about procrastination, and I will explain why.

japanese garden

It’s not possible to expect the brain to produce at the same rate, the same quality, every single day. We need downtime, and we need rest and distraction. Inspiration is not encouraged when we’re feeling pressured; studies indicate that in fact, creativity requires an incubation period.

There are studies that make it clear that focusing on a highly complicated cognitive/emotional task like writing (which is not, after all, merely mechanical; it requires sorting, valuing, putting into hierarchies, ordering, memory-retrieval; plus all the emotions that come up and have to be worked through) puts tremendous strain on the brain.

And that’s on a good day when everything is working like clockwork and we experience ‘flow.’ On a bad day, there are deep wounds to recover from, as perhaps we stumble into yet another of what I call “subduction zones,” the memories that must be cleansed, but first must be accepted and worked with, if we are to write them out of our system.

Where is the simple need for calm, in all of that? I don’t think we can be writing machines. Thinking it’s possible to do this with no pause for rest and reflection denies our complicated humanity, psychology, and ignores how the brain actually works while we write.

Although we’ve been told to think of the brain as a kind of ‘computer,’ I prefer to use a non-mechanistic, and therefore, organic, metaphor. I start from the Shinto principle I learned when I was a kid, living in Japan, of waiting (with as much peace as I can muster); in this case, it’s waiting for a thought to build.

Japanese garden

In Japan you see rainwater collect at one end of a hollowed-out piece of bamboo until it’s heavy enough to spill down into a larger bowl. This is an organic process, and it’s not one that anyone labors over or agonizes about; it’s a simple and elegant approach to controlling and containing rainwater, which otherwise would spill out onto the ground and be wasted, or worse, flood the ground of their tiny little gardens.

The fundamental principle that forms my metaphor is that my brain is like that garden; I spend a lot of time pruning and working in the garden of my mind. When the “rainwater” collects, I am ready to write, but I won’t be able to write until the rainwater has had a chance to collect. This could take awhile.

So, here’s the thing: the metaphors we usually use to define procrastination in relationship to writing stem from a masculinist rhetoric of agonism, which is anti-woman, anti-feminist, and anti-human being, if you ask me. It’s also Western, and “yang,” instead of being Eastern and “yin,” and therein lies what’s wrong with it. Rushing like a freight train toward its goal, it is mostly concerned with achievement and “getting there,” rather than slowing down to appreciate the ride.

Focusing on being finished means you don’t get to focus on craft. Focusing on achievement means you don’t get to appreciate the work as you perfect it. Focusing on product means you ignore the human demands of process, which are organic and complex. Where is procrastination in this equation? To procrastinate means we’re over-focused on the finish line. It’s the end-point of any task we haven’t yet begun that appears so daunting, so much of a challenge, we lack the courage to commit ourselves to any wrong word that might lead us astray.

Procrastination too often stems from a fear of what we can’t see: the endpoint. But ask yourself how you can possibly see the finish line before you’ve even begun the race?

Procrastination implies (or perhaps it demands) that we think about “finishing.” It doesn’t take recursivity into account; it absolutely ignores process, and it denies the reality of being in the body, needing time to sleep, needing time to experience the totality of one’s emotions. I think the biggest problem with the concept of procrastination, as we frame it in the West, is that it relies on a metaphor of linearity, and it foments agonism (which is the foundation of everything we think of when we write, including the idea of creating a protagonist versus his antagonist—you wouldn’t have that terminology if it weren’t for agonism).

Agonism makes procrastination a given, because by definition, it means we are constantly “struggling” with our writing. Agonism underlies competitiveness; it mocks the possibility of collaboration; it idolizes the isolated genius as the sole author of his creation. 

Without agonism, we wouldn’t buy into the Western ideal of “progress,” which is always portrayed as linear, constantly in motion, and, needless to say, masculinist (if you don’t like this word, I understand, but throughout history, the Author was male, and this kind of rhetoric continues to underlie our beliefs about writing).

Agonism limits not only the way we think, but how we think about ourselves, especially if we have a hard time being that which the mainstream culture wants us to be. For too long, the accepted image of the writer was always masculine, which is not going to happen for me in this lifetime. Does that mean I don’t get to be thought of as a writer? I think you know the answer.

You see how little you should worry about procrastination? It’s not the highest concern on my list of concerns for writers. If you hold back from writing forever, and never give yourself permission to write, then, yes, I’d agree there’s a problem, but if you’re resting while you tend your mental garden, then you’re not alone.

The Writing Spirit: A short video about the writer’s soul

bookTake a look at this short video, and consider some of the things these writers say about the nature of the soul and the force inside of you that pushes you to become a writer.

Some of the ideas are, in their way, a little disturbing, because once again (as in the mythos of the ‘divinely inspired writer’) we get the sense that the urge to write is somehow outside our conscious control, that it’s forced upon us by something deep within us.

Some would call this our ‘soul,’ while others just accept ‘the voices,’ as one writer in the video calls them. When we divorce the urge to write from mystical-sounding metaphors, though, what remains?