In theory I have accomplished great many things. Written books and articles. This blog would celebrate its first decade (at least). I would be semi-professional in pilates, judging by the amount of hours I’d put into the practice. Which is the operational word here. Because in practice I am a master procrastinator. I am one of those people who have the most brilliant ideas for self-development and who generally think they could do many things as well if not better than others and then finally – get done absolutely f**k all.
I’m no stranger to the self-help aisle. They’re my favourite places in American bookstores (Europeans seem to be far more sceptical, as the self- help sections over here are generally rather pathetic in comparison). I like reading what I should be doing. I like getting advice on how I should look at various situations of my life (I also like telling my friends how they should or should not look at various situations in their lives). I know how people have gone through career transitions, taken crazy risks and trained themselves to do something completely different. Lack of knowledge is not the problem here. Lack of doing is.
I like to go back to the fabulous Dani Shapiro every now and then to get reassurance that actual writers also struggle with overcoming the “it’s going to be shit anyway” -voices inside. “Still Writing” is the best book about writing that I have come across. Writers, Shapiro writes, often say that the hardest part of writing isn’t the writing itself; it’s the sitting down to write. The doing. It sounds so simple.
Yes, but no – it’s not simple. Somehow, within the time-span of having decided to sit down and write to almost having sat down and being ready to write, I’ve managed to get stuck in the middle of the six steps of creative process (usually hovering between stages three and four):
1. This is awesome.
2. This is tricky.
3. This is shit.
4. I am shit.
5. This might be OK.
6. This is awesome.
That’s to say I’ve decided it is going to be shit before I have written a single word. What makes it so hard?
Writing is very intimate. I do write a fair bit at work, but writing professional, non-personal texts is a different exercise. Even if there is critical feedback now and then, it is never something I would take personally, it’s just about adding this element and updating that part. Why can’t I implement the same mindset to my own writing? Surely it does not define me as a person any more than speaking notes about clean energy do? As I mentioned above, I am passionate about giving advice to others. I want to encourage hesitant friends to go for it, to ignore what anyone thinks and to just keep up to whatever it is they’re about to do, because it will be brilliant and even if it isn’t, at least they’ve tried. These advice never, and I want to underline ever, apply to me. I much prefer to listen to the tireless voice inside my head that tells me it will be shit.
Writing requires stamina and concentration. Very often I have neither. I am also frequently convinced that no-one will read anything but tweets and aspirational affirmations in a picture format anyway. Why should I (or anyone) bother? Technology and social media have turned me, too, into a goldfish unable to focus attention on anything. I don’t even want to know how many times a day I check my twitter-feed (I shall not reveal how many times I’ve checked it while drafting this post). Thoughts wander, then comes the irresistible urge to check something on the internet. I’ve found out that the only way to re-train brain to concentrate is by reading. Reading lots of actual books. Magazines and internet don’t count. Reading books is exhausting, because we are not used to concentrating on something that offers no audiovisual stimulus. At the same time it is one of the few things you can do that is truly relaxing and does your brain good.
Writing must be a regular habit like teeth-brushing. A constant state of high or flow is a myth. A friend who used to write and do stand up comedy professionally once told me that even the bad jokes must come out, just to give space for the development of the really good ones. That it does not matter if everything is not crazy-brilliant all the time. The only thing that matters is just doing, keeping going. Because even after having cracked a so-so joke, it’s still you up on the stage carrying on with the show. Not the hecklers. To continue with similar affirmations, the following quote has been attributed to former US President Roosevelt (ever so slightly modified): “It is not the critic that counts; not the woman who points out how the strong woman stumbles. The credit belongs to the woman who is actually in the arena, who spends herself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if she fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
There’s a great expression in Twelve Step programmes: Act as if. Act as if you’re a writer. Sit down and begin. Act as if you might just create something beautiful, and by beautiful I mean something authentic and universal. Don’t wait for anybody to tell you it’s okay. Take that shimmer and show us your humanity. That’s you job.
– The above paragraph is from Dani Shapiro’s “Still Writing”, which I think you should read. And then start