Why do so many people who want to write – people who love writing, love words, love stories, and claim writing is their passion – not actually do so?
I found myself pondering this question this week while running on the treadmill at the gym, and came to the conclusion that writing and physical exercise have much in common.
I made a similar comparison in my very first post on this blog, when I wrote that my creative muscles were out of shape, and that a mere 126 new words had strained them near to the breaking point. But now I’m making a literal comparison. Exercise is another thing that many people want to do – that everyone intuitively knows they should do – yet not everyone does.
I know why. It’s not because of laziness. With writing or with exercise.
Don’t stop ‘til … ever
My place of employment – where I have now worked for nearly three years – is located above a commercial fitness center to which all staff receive free membership. This makes it very easy for me to work out regularly: I make a point of visiting the gym 3-4 times a week during my lunch breaks, and enjoy the physical and mental benefits associated with regular exercise.
But sometimes, I miss my workouts. There are certain times of the year where I do a lot of work off-site, plus, I tend to get really lazy during my summer and Christmas vacations, my most recent New Mexico vacation included.
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson about not doing this by now. Indeed, I’m already notorious around the office for complaining (usually following such a prolonged absence from the gym) how the human body is like the other half of a codependent relationship – that once you start giving your body what it wants (i.e. exercise), you can never stop again.
Or you’ll be made to feel baaaaaad – made to regret every night you opted for dessert (especially if it was, indeed, every night), or every cool, refreshing cocktail you brought to your lips in the 40+ degree heat when what you should have been raising in your hand is an eight-pound hand-weight for 6 and 7 and 8 and one more set!
Yes pain, less gain
This was certainly the case after my trip. I was only away from the gym for two weeks, but during my first week back, you’d think I’d never exercised before in my life.
Every minute on the treadmill was spent gasping for air and pumping my legs desperately to avoid falling off the machine. Every cardio and strength class left me feeling vaguely like my limbs were made of reinforced steel, they were so heavy to lift and move about as directed.
Every afternoon, I developed a headache no matter how much water I drank before, during, and after my exercise; every night, my muscles would burn like fire, and every morning I’d wake up momentarily incapacitated, I’d grown so stiff in the night. The first day after working out was agony. The second day was 100 times worse. Advil became my new best friend, as did a slow, shuffling gait that managed to relax my knotted muscles just enough that I could start the whole torturous process anew by working out all over again.
And this is me, I thought to myself. Me, who was already in good shape, a healthy weight, eats a good diet, a non-smoker, doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, and sleeps well at night. If I was suffering so in my efforts to be active, how would someone who had little to no fitness history and was given to numerous health-decreasing vices fare in my place?
Fast-forward to present, two weeks after the fact: same person, same treadmill, much different physical response. All this, plus the realization that many people who want to exercise don’t for the same reason many would-be writers don’t write.
Because exercise – because writing – is hard, and they’re afraid they can’t handle it. They’re afraid it will hurt like hell. They’re afraid people will make fun of them.
They are afraid.
Everything to fear
When it comes to writing, people are right to be, according to some, for it’s a scary endeavour that never gets any easier.
Roald Dahl, beloved children’s author of James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Witches (among others), perhaps described the source of this trepidation best. He wrote,
A writer of fiction lives in fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not.
This is a fear with which I, personally, am all too acquainted. For me, the first 20 minutes of every writing session is spent in a state of low-level anxiety over not knowing how to get started. And even once I do manage to get started, always in the background lurks the nagging question of “What if today is the day?”
What if today is the day I run out of mojo? It takes a lot of ideas to sustain a 300+ page story; what if today is the day it all just shuts itself down – the day the idea fairies go on strike?
Even though I’ve outlined my novel-in-progress to within a inch of its life to prevent this very fate, what if today is the day the words just lose their vigour, their music, their magic? What if they dry up like autumn leaves and fall away to dust, leaving me forevermore cursed with empty pages?
Along those same lines, Irish TV writer Graham Linehan, in a radio interview with the CBC (42:45 to 48:56), remarked regarding having to face an empty page that,
It’s hard to sit there and face your own inadequacy, which is what writing is a lot of the time.
Linehan also quoted American screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who has claimed that, “Every day I sit down and don’t know what to do for a living.”
And these are all writing professionals. If they say writing is difficult, scary, painful, etc., what hope is there for someone who’s little more than a novice with a dream? How is s/he supposed to get through it?
I’ll bring this post full-circle with a return to my exercising analogy by quoting the famous words of Nike, the sportswear company:
Just do it.
If you want to write, you have to just do it. Because of your fear, not in spite of it.
Fear is a good thing. An old boss once told me that fear means that the thing in question is important to you. If you’re afraid to write, that probably means you’re meant to write, if not for the world, at least for your own well-being.
Six quick tips for fearful writing
(which is technically still writing, as opposed to not writing)
Here are six tips to help would-be writers if not overcome their fear, than at least fly beneath its radar and work through it:
- If you can’t do it well, do it poorly: Give yourself permission to not write award-winning work. That takes time and practice to produce, and even award-winning writers don’t write award-winning words all the time. Not writing because you’re paralysed by the need for perfection is more often than not just going to leave you not writing. Save the perfection for when you’re revising; in the meantime, just write something. Anything. Like prayer, no writing is ever wasted.
- Move forward, not backward: Don’t re-read the chapters / pages / paragraphs / sentences you’ve already written; you might not like them in the moment, and decide you don’t want to keep going. Keep going! It might read better when it’s all finished, for the subconscious has ways of connecting the dots that you may not even be aware of at the time. And even if it doesn’t connect everything, the joy of having completed something usually supersedes the dislike for what that something says. Plus it’s much easier to see where you went wrong with something entirely on paper/screen than if it’s still half in your head.
- Make time for writing (because nobody has time for it): If you don’t make time to do it, it’s not going to happen – simple as that. Schedule it in your iCal/Google Calendar if that’s what it takes, make it a recurring appointment, inform your family and friends about it, and most importantly, honour it.
- Set a writing goal: It can be a goal for daily words, daily pages, writing sessions per week, or measured blocks of time per session. It doesn’t matter if the number is great or small; the real power is it setting it and writing it down (ah, the irony), for now you’re beholden to it.
- Entertain yourself on the inside (not the outside): The biggest enemy to writing is everything else you could be doing instead of writing. Especially anything found on the internet, for the internet has declared war on writing productivity. Be amused be the stories in your head as they work their way out, not what’s trending on Twitter.
- Lose the adjectives: If you are actually engaging in the act of writing, it’s okay to call yourself a writer sans “novice” or “aspiring” or “newbie”. Even if you’re unpublished, or unfinished with your work-in-progress, or hyperventilate at the thought of writing a novel. Who cares if some people don’t agree with you; all that matters is that you believe it. It’s a mental game: the sooner you begin taking your seriously as a writer is the sooner you’ll actually become one – the sooner you’ll start holding yourself to a higher standard, which – so long as you remember rule #1 – will result in an improved quality of work.
Bravery isn’t doing something scary when you’re not actually fearful; it’s doing it in spite of being afraid. You can do it. Yes you can.