Of all my daily practices, this one is the hardest. It was the hardest to start, and it’s the hardest to keep doing regularly.
At first I was surprised by this admission. I’m a writer, after all. Shouldn’t writing be as easy as breathing for me?
Yeah, not so much, I found out.
And this lack of ease showed in the amount of regular, focused writing I did.
Yeah, also not so much.
Writing, But Not Writing Practice
Prior to a couple months ago, I’d let my writing go. Sure, I wrote things on occasion, sporadically, here and there. I’d write a blog post or start a story or work on my novel.
But there was no consistency in it. I was writing, but it wasn’t writing practice in the sense that I did it consistently and regularly and with the intention of improving my craft. I wrote as the mood struck, or as I felt excited about an idea (and only for as long as I was excited about that idea…), or as I needed to get something ready for a project or blog post or other commitment.
As I realized this issue with my writing—and the fact that it was really hard to call myself a writer when I wasn’t writing—I started to do some digging on the subject. I’d had periods of consistent writing practice before, hadn’t I?
And so I thought back to the times, the specific periods in my life, when I was really writing consistently. I came up with two.
First Novel Flow
The first was many years ago, writing my first novel. I remember waking every morning and sitting down and writing, probably eight to ten or even more pages each day before I went to my job on the afternoon shift.
That time was awesome. I had a great idea for a story, I knew my characters, and they were guiding me through this wonderful (at least to me) adventure. I remember so many times during that period coming up for air at the sound of the alarm I’d set to remind me it was time to head to work. You might have heard of flow, the state that athletes, and musicians and other top performers enter when they are “one” with their art. Time bends, and before you know it, hours have passed in what seemed minutes. And in my case, I had another chapter, or most of one, added to my book.
I loved it. Loved the process of writing, of telling the story. Couldn’t wait to get back to it the next day. I don’t even remember taking days off from the writing, even when I wasn’t working. Because I wanted to get back to the story, to find out what happened next.
And soon enough, all that daily writing paid off: I had a finished manuscript! After a polish or two, and the comments and edits of a couple of trusted readers, it was ready to submit to publishers.
And so I picked my ten favorite publishing houses, and sent it out…
Recent Novel Renewal
The second has been in fits and starts over the last several years, as I’ve been at work on my most recent novel (I can’t say it’s a new novel, since I’ve been playing with this story and setting and everything for more than a decade…).
This novel doesn’t have the same sense of easy flow and fun the first did. This one has been (and continues to be) more work. Some of it is the complexity of the story, the building of the setting, the number of viewpoint characters, the twists in the plot.
And some of it is just not knowing where I’m going yet, and struggling therefore to get there.
But, when I did have a sense of the direction of my next chapter or two, the writing did begin to flow, with much the same ease it had on my last book. The characters were taking shape, and the story progressing, and I was happy with the results, and happy in the effort.
Until I reached the point where I realized I didn’t know where the story went next…
Why Not All the Time?
These were both great writing moments for me. Times when I felt inspiration, felt flow, felt satisfaction. So why, then, is it so hard to do that writing work day in and day out? To build a significant body of work? To take on the mantle of the professional, work at the craft, and produce something and send it out into the world?
I have two excuses/rationalizations/reasons, each born out of one of those two periods of regular writing: 1. Rejection, and 2. Expectation.
Rejection is a part of life, they say. It’s part of the process of creating, they say. Get used to it, they say.
And they’re right. On all counts.
But that doesn’t mean that rejection doesn’t hurt. It does. It especially hurts when you’re not prepared for it.
And in my 20s, as I finished that first novel and sent it out into the world, I wasn’t prepared for it. I sent that book out with every expectation that it’d find a publisher. Okay, maybe not the first one I sent it to, but certainly one of those top ten.
So when that tenth rejection came, I wasn’t prepared for it. I was devastated by it. More than I’ve ever admitted, to pretty much anyone.
Yes, I’ve read the stories of great writers getting forty or seventy or a hundred rejections to their first book, only to keep sending it out, and keep working on the next one. And yes, that would be the professional’s attitude.
But I wasn’t a professional then. So ten rejections was all I could stomach.
I feel ashamed to admit that, even now. Ashamed that I didn’t have the perseverance to ignore the rejections, and keep moving forward. That I let the rejections get to me personally, so that I didn’t—couldn’t—start on the next project right away. It was too painful.
I was supposed to be “a natural writer”—I just needed to get my book into the hands of an editor and they’d fawn all over me to get it. I’d be a best-selling author in my 20s, and my life trajectory would be set: like a rocket, racing upward into the stratosphere!
Looking back, I see how naïve, how faulty my thinking was. I believed that I only needed to be discovered, and everything would be perfect from then on. I believed in my talent, not my craft.
And when my talent was called into question, what did I have to fall back on? Nothing. I couldn’t look to the work as the problem. I could only believe they’d rejected me, personally. Rejected my thoughts and my feelings—my self—not the poorly executed work I’d created.
And so, I’ve carried that sense of rejection of myself, that belief that I didn’t have “it”—didn’t have something worthwhile to say, something that others would value—for many years. It’s taken me years to get my writing mojo back. And I still find I sometimes struggle with the aftershocks, with the doubt it created in the worth of what I have to offer, with the phantom pains of carrying that damn thing on my back for so many years.
That feeling of rejection has also created the second challenge for me in writing as practice…
So the second challenge I found myself facing in the act of writing, and the chief problem with writing being the foundation for my “life practices” is this: I found too much expectation in it. I expected the writing to go perfectly—just like I expected the meditation practice to be perfect from the beginning. And that expectation short-circuited my ability to truly practice at the writing, in a relaxed, calm, productive way.
For me, that expectation of perfection comes from a fear of having to face rejection again. It’s the flinch, that cringing away from the possible pain.
And so, my mind rationalizes: If I’m perfect, then I can’t be rejected.
Of course, the problem with that concept is that I’ll never be perfect, and neither will my writing. It will always have flaws.
And even if I could achieve perfection, it wouldn’t necessarily eliminate the possibility of rejection.
So that sense of expectation—that belief that somehow I had to sit down and create something perfect from the beginning, or I’d face that demon Rejection again—crippled my writing for a long time.
It even got so bad that when I decided I need to create a daily writing practice, to get my words flowing again, to get in tune with the work, and the regular practice of the craft, I found myself hobbled by the expectation that even that writing had to be “good” or “productive”—it had to lead to something publishable or it wasn’t worth spending the time.
Practice: Just Doing the Work
My saving grace was a seemingly innocent comment by my friend and coach, Alex Mill. We were talking about writing, and he asked “What if you approached your writing practice more like your meditation practice?”
I don’t know what I said to that, but it was probably something profound like, “What a great idea!”
And so the next day, after my meditation and walking practices had primed me for the work, I sat down to my first real writing practice in a long time. And I wrote.
Just like I meditated, just like I walked. I practiced writing, for the first time in a long time.
Solely for the act of writing, not for what that writing would produce. Solely for the act of putting one word after the other—that was the work; that was the practice. So one word after the other, I practiced writing. Just like my other practices: meditation one breath after the other; walking one footfall after the other.
During my writing practice, when my mind wandered, and I started to stress, or fear, or bottle up, I gently brought it back to center, back to the writing. When I went off on a tangent, as long as I was still writing I just followed it, letting my mind and my writing travel new paths and explore, much like my walking practice did each morning.
The next day I did it again. And the day after. And the day after that.
Now writing practice is a part of my daily routine, just as meditation and walking. And just like the meditation and the walking, some days go smoothly, easily, quickly. Others are difficult. Some days I manage only 10 minutes, other days I write for an hour (or more).
Writing Practice to the Rescue
As I embraced this new frame of mind of writing as practice—that no matter the result, as long as I kept doing it, my writing practice was a success—I discovered two things that freed me. When the writing was no longer about the product, there was no expectation about that product being perfect. And there was no fear of rejection, because the end result was not the words I’d written, but the act of writing itself.
I have realized through my writing practice that those two demons—fear of rejection and expectation of perfection—have kept me from the very thing that would help me break free of them: the practice itself.
Writing practice doesn’t magically free me from those demons. Much like Steven Pressfield talks about in The War of Art, my writing practice is the battleground for my struggles against those two minions of Gravity (aka Resistance, aka the Lizard Brain). Those struggles are part of my practice now.
And as I learn and overcome and perservere, my writing improves—and so does my life.
More on writing practice in Part 5: Fighting Gravity One Word at a Time.
Liked this article? Want to make reading this blog a regular practice in your life? 😉 If so, please subscribe by entering your email in the box to the right. You’ll get the latest from the blog right to your inbox, as well as subscriber-only, insider information on the Free of Gravity manifesto and other goodies.