Preparing Your Mind for Writing: How to Make the Shift

All worthy writing starts with a deliberate shift in your mindset. Pausing to get into the right frame of mind can make all the difference for you and your work.
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I teach a workshop called “Fearless Writing,” which is not a “how to write” class but a “how to get into the frame of mind where writing is possible” class. If you’ve ever had a good day of writing, you are already familiar with this frame of mind: It is relaxed, patient, receptive, curious, intuitive, and interested. You don’t go to the ideas—they come to you. If you write fiction, your characters talk to you and surprise you with their choices. If you write nonfiction, buried memories from your childhood will surface, or you’ll have new insights about a subject you’ve studied for years.

This guest post is by William Kenower. Kenower is the author of Fearless Writing: How to Let Go of the Things That Keep You from Creating Your Best Work. He is also the editor in chief of Author magazine, a sought-after speaker and teacher, and the author of Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion. 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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I have learned that nothing I write outside of this frame of mind is worth sharing. Everything I write before I enter that state is forced, mechanical, and disjointed. All my years of craft can’t change this. So I’ve learned that when I write, my first and most important job is to shift out of that frame of mind I normally inhabit bopping around the world. Not one word is written until that shift occurs.

As necessary and pleasant as this shift is, writers can find it difficult, and some days they can’t make the shift at all. These are a writer’s darkest hours. We feel talentless, alone, and useless. Perhaps you’ve lived such a day. Fear not—we all have. There are so many reasons we keep ourselves from making that shift. (So many reasons, in fact, that I’ve written an entire book about it.) Fear of failure, lack of trust, worries about the market and money, fear that there are more important things to do, like taking care of our children or mowing the lawn. Any and all of these fears can keep us from having a productive and happy day of work.

Corner any writer and they might share his own pet fear with you. Yet what one challenge we all face stems from the very nature of our attention. When I’m not writing, most of my attention is on the world around me. It must be, since I’m trying to navigate it. From the roads I travel to the conversations I have to the articles I read to the movies I watch, all my senses are in constant relation with that world. I love that world. It’s stimulating and fantastically varied, and is often the source of my inspiration.

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But when I sit down to write, I must move my attention elsewhere. Whether I’m writing fiction, poetry, essays, or memoir, all my attention must move to a world only I can perceive. To write, I must forget about the world outside my window, about my family and my friends and my job and even the chair in which I sit. All my stimulation, interest, and energy must come from within me, must flow from a fount only I can turn off or on.

It is every bit like entering a dream, and just like I cannot fall dead asleep the very instant my head touches the pillow at night, so too I cannot flip a switch and be ready to write the moment I sit at my desk. I must allow myself time to move from the bouncy, outward-looking mindset of my day-to-day life to the quiet, inward-looking mindset of my writing life. Many writers develop rituals to help with this shift. I write first thing in the morning, immediately after meditating, feeding the cats, and making coffee. I think it helps. We’re all a little bit like Pavlov’s dogs in our habits.

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But more important than our rituals is the understanding that a shift must occur. Many writers, particularly beginning writers, suffer because they misunderstand this shift. I certainly did. I worried because I wasn’t in the mood to write or because nothing came quickly. I thought I wasn’t focused enough, disciplined enough, or, on my worst days, talented enough. I tried to crack some mental whip to get myself writing. It never worked.

I have since learned that writing must begin with kindness. As much as I love to write, as happy as I am when I finally do find that dream I’m seeking, I cannot move from one state of mind to another unnaturally. This shift cannot be forced. I must sit for a time in complete trust that what I want waits for me in a private world, a world unknowable to others, until I enter it and share what I find on the page.

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