I was on a solo walk-and-talk through the house. Down the hall, past the living room and around the kitchen, I practiced what to tell Lenee for our meeting at 10am.
We both knew she was ready to begin her memoir. Touchstones of inspiration decorated her writing studio. Goal-oriented and full of stories, she wanted what she’d lived to help others. Her big mystery was how, exactly, to start this thing. Should she first research ways to structure a book? Go on a quest for an agent? What about the chunks of writing she’d finesse to a sheen and later scrap?
To the ceiling I let it all out: how lots of us writer-people struggle with these worries when we start a project. Our unknowingness makes us anxious. We crave direction. Research and workshops seem so enticing! Oh, if a team of smarty-pants writers would just tell us what to do.
So of course we procrastinate. We (read 'I') might even devour whole plates of cookies when we’re feeling this stuck.
In time, hopefully we figure it out. Just one task can pull us through:
We write before we know the arc to our project, or the framework, or the theme. We write even when the paragraphs look clunky or the tone sounds bland. Other activities—like making peanut butter sandwiches instead of writing, or going to juicy lectures instead of writing— just delay our progress. Only when we find the courage to dig in – repeatedly—with our pens or computer-type machines, can our stories spring to life.
This breezy little lecture to no one had made me oblivious to the light striping the kitchen floor. I hadn’t noticed my cold feet. By my fifth lap around the house the oven clock stopped me.
I was late for my writing time.
In a flash, I whined about how ending my talk seemed silly. A break so I could write?! Surely I needed to extend my practice speech— for Lenee’s benefit—more than I needed to sit at my desk feeling dumb? I grumbled. I took in a long big breath. It was clear what I had to pick.
To my office I trudged, and slumped in my chair. The Word document glared at me from its greyish rectangle, looking as blank as the last time I started from scratch, like nothing. And how could I make something out of nothing anyway?
I tapped twenty minutes into my timer. Whatever popped from my mind went straight to the page. Nothing fancy or preachy. Just words, words, words. I pretended this was writing.
Through the first page I fought myself not to leave the desk. My line of sight wandered from wordsville out the window, where wrens hopped around a Palo Verde. I thought how I wanted to be a bird. How I wanted to hop from branches, and fly into the big blue day.
These dreamy dreams began to dissolve the more I clacked my thoughts into written form. It was dull going. Paragraphs inched together ever-so-slowly. No big picture in sight. I kept typing. When the timer beeped, I brushed my hands together with glee.
The next day, three surprises: Those twenty minutes of drudgery now looked like a fuzzy maybe, an idea going somewhere. If I squinted, I could see how more time spent with this draft might morph it into an essay. And wow, pulled from thin air! a motivation to continue writing.
Inch by inch
On Wednesdays I revise my essays and blog posts from 10am to noon. I write in my Tuesday and Sunday Listen & Flow classes. And I journal the mind-body-soul stuff whenever it asks for air. I call this my writing pattern.
But sometimes I show up to my desk and have no idea what to do with my writing. It bores me. There’s a problem, but I’m not ready or able to figure it out. I plead with the writing teachers in the sky to let me have an eensy weensy escape, like fixing the irrigation lines in the yard. How impossibly hard it is to stay where I am and plod on! What helps? Stick with my doggone pattern.
I think we writers can make amazing stuff if we establish a pattern for our writing projects. This means making a pledge to stay put while we write, and to write with regularity. We stay with it until it becomes as habitual as brushing our teeth.
On a fundamental level, the pattern also gets us used to what writing feels like. We learn to withstand the discomfort of not knowing the answers all the time. We get to experience the thrill of watching our stories come together. We become resilient to the days when nothing’s going well. Plus, writing opens up space from which brilliance can spring.
Luckily, our incremental progress motivates us to keep going. The more time and energy we invest in our writing pattern, the more our writing will bloom.
Stitches to consider
A writing pattern should fit you, your life and your tastes. Here are a few positive suggestions for getting started:
When you write, just write—with an earnest attempt not to measure your personal value against your hours of effort, your output in pages, or your attitude that day. Know that if you put in your time, you succeeded.
Try writing at a time of day or night when you’re mentally clear and open. Maybe that’s 11am, 3pm or 1am. See how you feel, and how productive you are.
Write on the same days each week. Pick the frequency and days that suit you best, and stick with this plan for now.
Go for the span of time that’s neither too easy nor too difficult for you. Three examples: fifteen minutes every weekday; an hour of writing Tuesday and Thursday; or thirty minutes on Saturday and Sunday. You decide. If you like, use a timer and program it with a bell or sounds that please you.
Stand up for your pattern. Write at the time, on the days, and for the length of time you set for yourself. Your steady repetition in these areas will make your pattern automatic.
Learn the difference between your heart needing a pause and your whiney voice wanting a bubble bath every minute the work seems hard. Writing is difficult! Check in with yourself and decide when you really do and don’t need a break.
Extra gentle advice
Some days your tasks, problems or favorite people will seem to outrank your writing. Write anyway. By writing you teach them (and yourself!) that your creative work holds weight.
Offer yourself kindness and courage as you open to what your heart/mind want(s) to say. You may also want to secure a spot where your inner-editor can relax until you’re ready to call her/him in.
Know that you are the boss of your writing pattern. It should match your preferences. Set it up exactly how you like. Follow it and stay there a while. Notice how it’s going. If it begins to feel too airy or too constricted, modify it.
When you reach the stage where your pattern feels natural, and your project is humming along, you'll begin to sense your project’s structure and meaning and direction. You'll clarify the answers to those questions that puzzled you a while back. Magically, you’ll want to keep going.
End of the walk
What I began that day of my walk-n-talk was this essay. On day two, the work seemed slightly more interesting than it had on day one. Before a week was over, the writing had a form. Its answers had begun to appear. In the end I was astonished that I could have a successful business meeting with Lenee and a workable essay—because I (grudgingly, some days) followed my writing pattern.
So think about where you are with your writing. If you have something you’ve been wanting to start, breathe in deep and just begin. Anywhere. The more days you show up to this project, the more days you’ll be surprised by everything you didn’t know you knew.
Happy writing. :)