If you are avoiding writing, if you tell yourself you don’t have enough time, try the following: Write a short description of what is waiting for you at your desk. What will happen when you sit down to write? Remember: Writing is never about what happens, but what it feels like when something happens. It may help to imagine a stand-in for you, a character who is a writer. In this case, use he or she instead of I. Teach your readers why this writer isn’t writing. Help them understand why she avoids doing what she likes to do.
Now write a description of a good day of writing for this writer, a day where she finally breaks down, surrenders to the work, and gets lost in it. What’s that like? Write a description of it in such a way that someone who has ever experienced it might understand the pleasure of getting lost in what you’re writing. Write a description for people who think writing is boring, whose only memories of writing are of drafting term papers on subjects about which they weren’t interested. If you were telling a story about a writer who wasn’t writing, this description would be crucial. The reader would need it to truly understand the protagonist’s struggle. For this story to be compelling, you would need your reader to want your hero to write, to do this thing that makes the writer feel so alive.
Return to the first description and find an instance from this writer’s life where she experiences the same resistance in a different part of her life. Perhaps your writer isn’t writing because she worries about “getting it right” and always feels as if she comes up a little short. Write a description of as many scenes as possible in which she feels this way about cooking, or running a marathon, or parenting her children. Really pile it on. No one ever experiences something in just one area of her life. If you worry about getting things right while writing, you probably always worry about getting things right.
I used this exercise to break myself of what I call the “should habit.” For years, I used the word should to force myself to do things I didn’t want to do. I would think, You should pay those bills, or You should mow the lawn. I did it almost every time I had a chore, and I quietly believed that my life would be better if I had a manservant to take care of the mundane tasks so I could fill my days as my heart desired. I was certain my heart would never want to mow the lawn.
Except, as soon as I heard that word should in my mind, a rebellion stirred in me. I was split in two. Half of me was a child who believed he just wanted to play, and the other half was an adult who believed he would be happy once he completed his list of chores. By and by I would do whatever had to be done, but not until I had delayed a little, thereby lodging my protest with the authorities. Or, if I was feeling particularly stubborn, I would do what had to be done but would refuse to enjoy a single moment of doing it. I would check the clock or think constantly of the thing I’d rather be doing.
It took me about twenty-five years, but I eventually saw the connection between the word should and a mild grumpiness that often infiltrated my days. And so, every time I noticed myself thinking should, I would stop and think instead about why I wanted to do what needed to be done. If the lawn was overgrown, I would think about how much I enjoyed a freshly mowed lawn, how meditative mowing can be. My mind drifted as I pushed the mower, its engine creating a pleasant white noise in which my imagination could operate free of distractions. Plus, the difference between a mowed lawn and an overgrown lawn is so clear, so unambiguous. I can see that difference, that contrast, with every swath I cut.
The same practice can be used for writing. Remember: You are built to avoid unpleasantness, not to suck it up. All writers who aren’t writing are rebelling against some injustice or another. The practice here is replacing one story with another. First, pay attention to the movie you see on the screen of your mind when you imagine yourself writing. Is it a movie that depicts your suffering? If so, use your writer’s imagination to tell a different story. You’re a writer, after all. You change stories all the time, and you don’t write stories you dislike. If you picture writing, and you begin to see the story of your suffering, stop that movie and picture a good day of writing instead. After all, you don’t know what’s going to happen the next time you write, do you? And some days you do get lost in the work. So why tell the story of something you don’t want to happen? Tell yourself only what you want to hear: how effortless writing can be, how much you enjoy being lost in it, how alive and on purpose you feel while writing in this way.
Practice this again and again, both when you’re writing and when you aren’t. Practice every time you repeat that suffering in other areas of your life, too. Your mind-set won’t change all at once—you need the experience of changing the story, of stopping that movie, running a different one, and then noting how different you feel, how eager you are to do what only a few minutes ago you were dreading. How miraculous! How ordinary. How absolutely possible.
William Kenower is the editor in chief of Author magazine, a sough-after speaker and teacher, and the author of Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion and Fearless Writing. He’s been published in The New York Times and Edible Seattle, and was a featured blogger on the Huffington Post. His video interviews with hundreds of writers, from Nora Ephron to Amy Tan to William Gibson, are widely considered the best of their kind on the Internet. He also hosts the online radio program Author2Author, where every week he and a different guest discuss the books we write and the lives we lead.
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