On Just Doing It — That Is, the Writing

girl with bookI often get lovely readers here (thank you for reading, readers!) who ask me wonderful questions. I love this! I love giving advice! I love telling people what to do and solving other people’s problems! They always seem so much easier than my own!

One thing people ask a lot is a variation on: I have so much trouble getting started with my writing. Or I have so much trouble finishing the pieces I write. Or I have so much trouble getting my writing out into the world. … Do you have any tips for dealing with this?

I usually write some vague words of encouragement — give yourself deadlines! believe in yourself! — but the fact is that there is only one answer to all of these problems, and it does not sound very inspirational or empathetic. The answer is: Just F-ing do it. How do you start? Sit down, open a file on your computer, and type. How do you finish? Sit down again, re-open the file, and keep writing until it’s done. How do you put it out? Put it out. Start a blog. Give it to your friends. Read at public readings. Find a place that will publish you. What do you do next? Do it again.

Good news, though! I have forced myself to find a few more words of wisdom on this subject, mainly from others. I realized this morning that perhaps the worst person to ask for advice about how to motivate yourself to be a writer is a professional writer. How to motivate yourself, for me, comes down to this: I have set up my life such that if I don’t write, I don’t pay my bills, and I don’t eat. I like to eat, and I like to have my phone free of creditor calls. Therefore, I write. Do I start some side writing projects and leave them unfinished? Sure, but I don’t have time to fret over them or see them as failures or see them as evidence that I’m not a writer. The last time I was free of professional writing obligations, I was about 17 years old. If you count the school paper as a professional writing obligation, we can knock that back to about 11. Before that, I wrote plays to be performed in my garage by my friends. Even then, I was giving myself deadlines and obligations.

That said, I’ve been and continue to be plenty stuck in other areas of my life. Sometimes I get sick of practicing guitar. Even though I love running and working out, sometimes I get really lax about it. So I get it. Seth Godin, who writes the only blog I read every single day, tells us in today’s post that we can change our habits. This definitely includes disciplining your writing. He writes: “Change is hard, sometimes nearly impossible. But if even one person as far behind as we are has dug in and done enough work to finish that marathon, to change that habit or to learn that skill, it means that it’s not impossible. Merely (astonishingly) difficult.” Read the whole thing here.

Carol Tice, a super-successful freelance writer, has some other important advice: Stop reading about writing, and start writing. It’s fine if you read a little. It’s fine if you read, say, my blog, like you are right now. But I’ve seen many, many students get stuck in the pit of reading about writing — there are so many books, so many blogs! — without ever stringing one of their own sentences together. You know how to write. You’re not going to get better until you practice.

On Facebook last night, I posted a (slightly more expletive-filled, and shorter) version of this post, where a lot of my friends are writers and artists; they offered some good advice as well. “When you’re a writer, done is good,” AK Whitney said. “Probably ask the question, ‘Do you believe in the quality of your work…or not?'” Beau Mansfield added. (It’s okay if you aren’t feeling great about the work, by the way; maybe it’s just for practice then. That’s totally valid. Oh, the things I’ve written in my life that, thank goodness, remained for my private reading only. But the point is, maybe you’re stopping because your writing isn’t up to snuff yet. Just keep going until it is.) Jennifer Pozner said, “I have hated writing every single day since I started in high school, and I’m relatively certain that I’ll never finish during at least 65% of all my articles. Then I just keep on working, and do it again. Because it’s what I’m best at. And because that’s what you have to do to do — the work.”

So there you go. I don’t think any of this advice gets you out of the part you’re avoiding — the actual writing. Just know we’re all right here with you, trying to avoid our own writing, and then, finally, doing it anyway.

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