Overcoming Your Biggest Opponent
Hint: you must learn to work together.
Writers, let’s talk about overcoming your most powerful opponent: yourself. But first, hi! And welcome to summer, the season of cookouts, beach visits, and possibly some sunburn. The kids are out of school. Those of us who teach are untethered. All the patterns of life shift. That’s why so many sweet memories are made this time of year. We’re open to the possibilities.
I tend to think of summer as a time of renewal, even more so than the New Year. What better time than now to start a new project? What better time to write a poem, proposal, or even a whole book? But do it in the spirit of the sun. That star is up there to remind you that you’ve got a lot of power inside.
Before we start, a happy bit of news for me. The paperback of my first short story collection, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You, comes out June 21! It took me over ten years to write that book, and I couldn’t be prouder of the reception readers have given it. The book has a breathtaking new cover. I adore it. As such, we’re doing a giveaway. You can enter: The Ones Goodreads Giveaway I hope you win. Good luck.
For some creative people, knowing how our minds work can be a hinderance. We do what we do and that’s all there is too it. You ask a musician how they play the guitar so fast and they shrug. Or maybe they say “practice.” Today, I want to shift our view to obstructions.
Yes, I written in this space before about the things that hold us back from creating the work we want to create, but today I want to talk about our biggest obstruction: ourselves. Well, not knowing ourselves and not being fair with ourselves.
I have a theory. Writer’s Block. Anxiety and depression around writing. Aversion to writing. Hatred of writing. These things are all connected to not wanting to look at ourselves. This is ironic because the primary mode of a writer is to look at the world and all the people in it, ourselves included.
But, as a class, writers tend to be introverted, and, maybe, a little soft-hearted. Not many of us dream of being on a stage in front of 100,000 screaming fans. Most of us would rather be in a remote cabin with a little fireplace and, perhaps, a piebald kitten named Lily.
This introversion has knock-on effects. The most popular musicians and actors make their livings talking about themselves to the world. Most writers are excellent at hiding ourselves and our truths from the world.
To hide a truth is to cover it with…something else. A lie or at least a fib.
When I was a nascent writer—before I published a book or even a short story—I developed a practice of magic. I am a magic user, which is to say that I believe words and actions have a spooky effect on the world. Small decisions, like carrying a special writing tool or thanking your ancestors before starting, are a type of magic. Prayers are magic. Stories are magic. Poetry is magic.
I tend to overindulge in most things, so it’s no surprise, in retrospect, that I let my magical thinking get out of hand.
I used to write by hand. I had a beautiful composition notebook with crisp, thickly lined pages. I made a pleasant sound when I thumbed through it. And too, I had a favorite hardbacked chair at a favorite coffee shop. I’d arrive at that shop precisely at 6pm and leave precisely five minutes before closing (so that the baristas wouldn’t have to stay late cleaning up after me). In between, I’d have two-shot hot mocha…with whip cream because I’m still, like, 8-years-old inside.
At home, I also had rituals before writing. I had to wash a load of clothes before I started scribbling. I had to wash the dishes. I had to watch some news. Then, I had to fold the clothes and put them up in their proper places. I’m a Virgo. I tend toward seeking order.
Only then, after coffee or folding, could I hope to begin.
My spells tend to get out of hand. Like Mickey Mouse with those broomsticks in Fantasia, I always figure that more is more. Soon, I have no idea what’s going on. Buckets of water are floating around. Orchestral music is thundering. I am cowering.
If a double-shot mocha is good, then wouldn’t a quad shot be better? You’re not having dessert even if your coffee has a half-cup of sugar in it because you need that coffee to write. And why not add a bran muffin to that? You’re not having dessert if they put a few oat flakes on top of your baked good, which you also need to write. (I saw myself in that scene in the film Adaptation where a screenwriter played by Nicolas Cage is bargaining with himself over a muffin to convince himself to write.)
You’re not procrastinating if you also decide to scrub the toilet or the white borders around the house. A clean house means a clean soul. A clean soul is worthy of meeting the muse.
But no madness can hold.
I lost my favorite pen. I grew tired of my elegant notebook. My favorite chair was often taken by others.
I don’t know. I probably gained twenty pounds during that era, drinking a gallon of super sweet coffee (with a pound of bran muffins) each week. But my house was Homes and Gardens spotless. Still, I didn’t write as much or as well as I hoped to.
The magic became the end rather than the means.
Eventually, I undid most of the spells. I decided to focus on what would actually help me write. For example, although I loved the romance of having a gorgeous notebook that identified me as a “serious writer,” I tried writing on my computer, that soulless little appliance. At first, it felt like I was at work. I didn’t care for it much. But I kept at it. I realized that I was much faster peeking a keyboard than I was at calligraphy. It turned out that my brain wants to spin really fast. But handwriting was a applying a brake to my natural speed. Typing opened the racetrack for business.
I backed off the coffee, too. I continue to have a love-hate relationship with the bean but acknowledged that I liked 1,000-calorie mochas because I love to eat and not because I like caffeine. Today, I don’t drink coffee as a habit, but more as a change of pace.
Finally, as a young man, I hated cleaning because society tells young men that we’re not supposed to like cleaning. By cleaning before writing, I was forcing myself to do something that felt unnatural. (Thanks, Patriarchy!) But wouldn’t you know it? I do like to clean things. I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment when all the towels are stacked neatly on the shelf. I like a ringless toilet. I love a made bed and a fresh scent when I return home at the end of a long day.
What I’m trying to say is that the spells I cast 20 years ago were not to make me write, they were to help me know myself. I just didn’t know it at the time.
· Once I stopped fighting with myself, I could come into balance. And that’s what I’ve done.
· Here are some things I learned about myself:
· I don’t like to write daily. I get bored.
· I like to have more than one project that I’m thinking about.
· But I need a project to devote most of my actual writing time to.
· Art feeds my writing.
· Reading feeds my writing.
· Procrastination also feeds my writing, so I need to goof off before I start.
· I write in bursts. I’m more likely to write 20 pages in one day than write two or three pages a day for a week.
· Occasionally, I will be unable to write for days or weeks at a time due to a lack of time or frazzled nerves, and that’s okay.
· Sometimes getting back to the page is hard after the break. Use techniques to get going again.
Ultimately, learning who I am has been one of the greatest gifts I gave myself as an author. Today, when I plan to write, I may go for a jog or read a long Wiki on Clara Rockmore. I’ll probably make the bed or scrub the bathroom sink. Then, I’ll sit in front of my completely-not-glamourous laptop and do everything I can to have a good time creating something special.
I learned how to work with the person I am. I learned how to be fair to that person. I left the guilt, shame, and desire for perfection behind, and that changed my life for the better.