Now that I’ve re-caffeinated, I can admit my week in Sweden was just what the doctor ordered. Chatting over breakfast or dinner with my yoga companions, several times it came up in conversation that the person I was talking to was a tortured non-writer.
When we spend our lives wanting to do something and then finally sit down to do it the result can be heartbreaking. This is what I’ve found. The gap between what we want to say or how we want to say it or both and what actually flows out of our fingertips can puncture a dream that’s been keeping us afloat for as long as we can remember. Dragging something precious down to earth is never pretty.
Tortured non-writers are writers on the inside who don’t believe in themselves, they are writers who have forgotten that doing something badly always comes before doing it well. Or they think this is true — but for others, not them.
Yes, there are freak outbursts of raw brilliant talent splattering itself all over the page — but the only people who tell us that if this doesn’t happen you’ll never be a writer are liars.
In June I blogged a few suggestions for blocked writers that came out of an evening with my writing group, but for those not just blocked but stuck before they start — the non-writers I met in Fiskebäckskil, I’d suggest the following: buy some writing books, take a writing class and read today’s zenhabits blog post.
On buying books — skip all those that offer instruction on plot or character or grammar (these are useful for the unleashed non-writers, and even then only some of the time) — start with a tutorial on the soul, not a tutorial on the craft. Go for the ones that speak about freeing up your mind enough to let your fingertips run wild, these books tend to be a mixture of the author’s own journey combined with short writing exercises. The one I brought with me to Sweden was a gift from my mom that had been hiding on my shelf for over ten years — Writing from the Heart. But there are many more — one of the best for getting started or when we lose the shred of confidence needed to set sail is The Artist’s Way.
After I got back from Sweden this weekend I spent time with a friend of mine who I’d never have guessed had writerly trauma. Or not much of it anyway. Once a journalist and a magazine editor and now an entrepreneur with a successful business and still a writer — freelance in the press and with several books under her belt, we were flopped in her sitting room having coffee on Sunday morning when she asked me about my writing process. As someone who coaches me on my writing and whose very livelihood rests on the assumption that not only can she write but that she can sell her writing, I just assumed she was asking in order to offer me (gratefully received) advice. But no. She was mulling over her own method after a week of being trapped in her office till 3am trying to finish a commissioned piece. She started telling me about her novel and how she forces herself to write 500 words of it for fifteen minutes everyday. And how it kills her. How it’s like pulling teeth. I couldn’t believe it. Here’s one of my writing heros telling me how hard it is for her.
One of the questions in Writing from the Heart that I answered during my week of yoga was “what’s your definition of discipline?” Yoga is a discipline and writing is a discipline. I defined it like this:
Discipline is a habit that requires effort, where often it would be easier to say “I don’t feel like it” (or less politely ‘f*ck it’) but I push through that resistance and stick with the process I promised myself.
Now anyone who knows me will recognize the truth when I say that I am one of the most undisciplined disciplined people I know. When it comes to promises I make myself. Like running or writing or yoga. When it comes to promises I make others I just do it. Pretty much always. But with promises I make to myself, I’m 100% inconsistent. I’m not gentle with myself — it’s all or nothing. I’m either *on it* and relentless in my work or I am a total skiver.
While there are sometimes moments in yoga or in writing or in running when I enjoy it as I do it (moments I can usually count in seconds), I never look forward to it. I always feel fantastic for doing it — afterwards. Discipline is about not caving into pleasurable temptation which offers a fleeting high, and it’s about holding myself back from what I feel like doing for one simple gain: discipline deepens the pleasure of being alive. But I’ll have to stop there before I knock myself out with the exact sort of schmaltz I’d rather read than write.
Nancy Aronie, the author of the book I brought to Sweden, writes that discipline is a religion of practice, where eventually it feels worse not to do it than to do it and that the purpose of discipline is to get out of your own way — that it is only through discipline that we find freedom. I underlined that chapter loads.
So on that note, friends from Fiskebäckskil please read today’s zenhabit, but then stop reading and get writing.
Thank you very much to my new non-writer friends and my unleashed writer coach and buddy — both reminded me that just because I may never reach that place where I write exactly what I’d love to write that’s never a reason not to heave a sigh and give it a bash anyway.
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A few rejections worth pining up
- One of many similar received by Dr. Seuss: “too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
- On the The Diary of Anne Frank: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”
- “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” Editor of the San Francisco Examiner to Rudyard Kipling.
- Received by Colette: “I wouldn’t be able to sell 10 copies.”
- Only seven of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime. “(Your poems) are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
- To Ernest Hemingway, regarding his novel, The Torrents of Spring, “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.” [No wonder he drank]
- William Faulkner received “If the book had a plot and structure, we might suggest shortening and revisions, but it is so diffuse that I don’t think this would be of any use. My chief objection is that you don’t have any story to tell.” Two years later he received, “Good God, I can’t publish this!”
- For The Deer Park by Norman Mailer ‘This will set publishing back 25 years.”
- In response to The Spy who Came in from the Cold “You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.”
- On Crash by J G Ballard ‘The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”