Being a writer, rather than someone who dreams of being a writer, is a challenge. Insecurity can be the twin of creativity — give yourself permission to just get started.
On assignment recently for SPAN Magazine, I had the privilege of interviewing Vijay Seshadri, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Sarah Lawrence professor, and all-around inspiring gentleman. During our conversation, which focused on crafting prose and poems alike, one statement reverberated loudly:
“Writers don’t dream of writing. Writers write.”
There’s much wisdom within those twin sentences, and it’s a sentiment that echoes my own experiences. At times, writing feels wonderfully easy — as Seshadri described, almost like taking dictation. There are other times when lining up words feels akin to slogging through quick-drying cement.
In keeping with Seshadri’s assertion, here are tips that have helped me continue to be a writer who writes, regardless of what obstacles exist between dreams of filling a page and actually getting it done.
Just get started
Motivational speakers, performance psychologists, and religious leaders have all said it: the hardest part of completing a challenge is getting started. Often, I’ve found that profoundly true of writing. Even on days when I seem to have no words inside of me, once I start, momentum takes hold. Self-bribery can be a decent catalyst (“After I write two paragraphs, it’s time for a cup of fancy coffee”), or setting low expectations (“An opening paragraph and then I’m done”). Regardless of the spark, once started, I often find myself creating far more than the minimal goal I initially set.
Give yourself permission to be awful
Fear can hobble even the most accomplished writers. What if you suddenly run out of inspiration? What if your brilliant turn of phrase is, in fact, laughably awful to the reader? Insecurity is often an unavoidable twin of creativity, and it’s one that must be dealt with proactively.
When I’m on deadline, I sometimes tell myself — ahead of time and somewhat tongue-in-cheek — that what I am about to write is going to be very, very bad, and spitting out a draft that downright stinks is perfectly okay. The fear goes away. If I already know that my written output will be terrible, what is there to be scared of?
This bit of mental jiu jitsu done, and permission to create something not very good granted, I relax and write. Nearly every time I do this, what I come up with is actually quite usable, or at least presents a solid starting point from which to finish the project.
Have multiple projects going at once
It’s rare for me to have fewer than five distinct writing projects going at the same time, and often more. I like it this way, especially when writing itself proves difficult.
Perhaps I’m only in the right creative space to work on a magazine article about medical science research in India, or maybe it’s long-form political fiction or bust. As long as there are no pressing deadlines, I go towards whatever project in my portfolio feels the most organic. When one begins to feel stale rather than inspiring, I move to the next, revisiting the first when I can approach it as new again.
Having multiple projects simultaneously spinning also helps temper the highs and lows that come with involved writing. An experience of head-against-wall banging is made less intense by the excitement of progressing on a piece that’s completely unrelated.
Focus on incremental progress — and stay flexible
If you’re working on a novel-length story, or a memoir, or a multi-page feature article with deep research, looking at the entire scope of your task can cause more paralysis than inspiration. The answer? Approach like a craftsperson. Divide and conquer.
In practice, let’s say you have a major project — and the flu. Your capacity to concentrate is maybe ten percent of what it would otherwise be. Are clever chapter titles all you can focus on? Dive in and write them down. Do you feel that working on anything beyond Wikipedia research about your protagonist’s favorite hobbies will make your head melt? Do the research and don’t worry about anything else. The moment you feel capable of shifting your attention to another angle of literary creation, go with it.
Remember, every major work, regardless of content or format, is made up of smaller sections, sentences, meanings, fragments, words, letters. Every addition you make to your work in progress, no matter how seemingly insignificant, inches you closer to completion.
Making yourself a writer who writes, rather than someone who dreams of being a writer, can be a challenge, and these strategies are really just the beginning. What do you do to spark your own creativity and, when it comes to writing, just get it done?
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