Is Inspiration a Trap for Writers?

Stephen Pressfield said that the Muse wanders the earth looking for someone to inspire, but she only pays attention to the person who is already at work. W. Somerset Maugham said, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” 

Both of these authors understand that writers can’t wait for inspiration. If we’re serious about writing, we must write whether we feel like it or not. The feelings associated with the creative process should follow the discipline of writing, not the other way around. 

Writers offer a range of excuses for not doing their work. The excuse of not feeling inspired deceives more than any other. Anyone who has engaged in a creative endeavor knows the power of inspiration. It's a thrilling experience. And once a writer has written with inspiration at their back, that writer will always desire a repetition of the experience. It’s like getting hooked on a drug. The fact remains, however, we can't count on inspiration striking. 

Now, I have met a handful of people who appear to be in a state of continual inspiration. From what I can tell, these folks wake up every day fully conscious. They throw themselves out of bed, hit the floor running, and accomplish their goals with extraordinary focus and energy, day after day. These folks are like an eternal fountain of cheerfulness, energy, and optimism. I hate them. 

The rest of us begin from a less advantageous position. For the typical writer, rallying the energy and focus to start the creative process will be a lifelong struggle. It’s not that we don’t enjoy the process; we just have problems with the inertia at the beginning. 

Tradition compels us to believe that the people blessed unlimited energy and inspiration are the true creatives. Similarly, tradition suggests that those of us who must exert great determination in creative endeavors are posers or fakers. Neither of these is true. Smart authors of the past frequently described their process as a mystical experience they had no control over, but in reality, they toiled over every sentence in private, usually on a daily basis.

Inspiration can take our writing to a higher level, but only if we consistently write in the first place. Take care not to use the absence of creative spark as an excuse to avoid writing. If we do the work, we are giving inspiration a chance to show up. And the more consistently we do it, the better the chances.

As Louis L’Amour said, “Start writing, no matter what. The water doesn't flow until the faucet is turned on.”

 

 

Can Pokemon Make You a Better Writer?

Growing a routine like daily writing combines two factors: things we say yes to and things we say no to. Because habit creation is complex, each of us must assess how factors will impact our routine. Some factors that strengthen my writing habit could weaken yours, and vice versa.

My Little Experiment with Monsters

Case in point: I jumped onto the Pokemon Go bandwagon last week, along with a gazillion other people who repeatedly crashed the servers. I'll admit that I let it go a little too far, taking more than one unnecessarily long walk before heading home for the night.  

The game was fun, but after rebooting the app unsuccessfully for the fifth time one night, I stopped and asked myself, "How is this impacting other areas in my life, like my writing?" 

The Importance of Selectivity for Writers

Let me be clear--I'm not bashing Pokemon or its players. We need rest. We need to unwind. Recouping our energy and creativity is integral to our ability to complete any task, especially generative ones like writing. So if Pokemon Go or Netflix or some other mainstream diversion restores you, do those things! 

Still, activities can cut both ways. The Netflix binge that gives one person the rest they need to get back to work can have the opposite effect on someone else, pushing them even further from productivity. Some of us have trouble shutting Netflix off.  

In my case, Pokemon Go was a little too distracting. Several of my friends are playing, and they have the discipline to set aside a reasonable slot of time each day. They play for that amount of time and then stop. I'm not that kind of person, at least not with Pokemon. I found myself walking to the store, sitting at dinner—or worst of all—driving sown the road, and thinking, "Wonder if there are any Pokemon around here?" 

When something occupies our mind outside of the time and space we've granted it, we're losing control of that thing. Committed writers must control their mind space. Our brains are like fertile ground for the ideas that fill our writing. The preoccupations are like weeds; they choke out the creative ideas until it’s extremely difficult to write at all. 

Be Mindful about What You Choose

Writers, let’s honestly assess what’s building our writing routine and what’s limiting it. Each of us will come to a unique set of conclusions. I had to delete Pokemon Go—that was best for my routine. For you, it could be the opposite. Maybe catching them all will restore you and fuel your creativity. The crucial thing is to make these choices deliberately. Be aware of influence: say yes to what brings out the best in you.

   

Struggling Writers Seldom Do This

Modern society is fascinated by success stories. Look at social media, and you’ll be inundated by examples of people who’ve turned their life around by getting in shape, improving their eating habits, or launching a successful career. Like most people, I enjoy seeing those posts, but I wish I saw more examples of what happens later. Ever notice that you don’t always hear the rest of the story? 

I suspect that’s because often the person isn’t able to maintain the behavior. Sooner or later, they fail. Not surprisingly, these folks aren’t quite as keen to share their failures online as their successes. I think that’s a shame for a couple of reasons.

Sharing failure has advantages

First, not sharing limits the person who failed. If they felt free to admit what was happening, they could grow. Acknowledging our shortcomings allows us to learn from our mistakes. 

Second, the lack of sharing negatively impacts the people who are interested in that person’s work. If you’ve been telling people about a project, but you don’t tell them when your progress halts, you’re leaving them in the dark. Sure, they’d be disappointed to hear that your work isn’t progressing, but they’ll be far more disappointed to think that you’ve dropped off the face of the earth, or worse yet, that you don’t care to keep them informed about your work. Audience can learn from the hangups, just like the person doing the work.

Sharing about setbacks benefits the person pursuing the goal as well as those who watch their progress.

Failure in writing

Whether you are a established or aspiring writer, people expect output from you. Writing isn’t the kind of work that you can con people into thinking that you’re being productive while you’re doing other things (unless you’re extremely successful and receive large advances). If you don’t write, people won’t have anything to read. They’ll know you screwed up.

Some writers find ways to cover this up. Ever notice that chronic procrastinators are also masters of making excuses? Don’t be that person. If you falter in your writing, admit it.

As much as people want quality work from you, they probably want consistent work even more. In general, it’s more important to keep the content coming than to hold out for your ideal product. This is particularly true because most people use the ideal as an excuse and don’t complete their work at all

How to do it

You don’t need to tell the whole world if you screw up, but you do need to tell somebody. Keeping it to yourself is as bad as not having anybody on board with your work in the first place. 

So the first step is to ensure that you’ve already told at least one person about your project. Do it early. Then review with them about the work on a regular basis. Above all, when you falter, tell them. Ask them for support. Get them to brainstorm with you about how to get back on track.

Notice that I said “when you falter.” While really committed writers become masters of consistency, everyone has the dry periods. If nothing else, something unavoidable will interfere: illness, financial burden, or family emergency. Have the stopgap of accountability in place, so that you will be prepared to get back on track. 

Exhibit real persistence

Anyone can post on social media about how they are starting something new. Very few can post about finishing a challenge or reaching a goal. A crucial component for being in that latter category is having a plan. Know how you will share about any lapse in your performance. Put the plan in place. Just doing that will give you greater confidence, and paradoxically, make it even less likely that you will falter.

Don’t be the person who hides their failures behind excuses, or who fails to communicate altogether. Engage with others, tell them when you’re struggling, and get back on track.

 

 

If You Can't Find Your Voice

Have you found your writing voice?

A significant percentage of writers say they have not. Why is this important? As writers, we have limited tools. We can’t invent a new language or change the rules of grammar, for example. When everything else is stripped away, one thing makes writing unique: our voice.

I believe the study of voice is a crucial part of a writing habit. The search is both a blessing and a curse. Some writers find it easily; others struggle for years. Some writers discover their voice, but then lose it. They often take years to find it again. This latter scenario has been my own experience. 

How I found my writing voice, but then lost it

I became fascinated with writing in high school. After being exposed to great literature, I began to imitate writers I admired. I experimented and grew in ability. When I entered college, the standards were higher, so I stretched. The combination of urgency, criticism, and creativity led to a sweet spot. I found my voice.  

Once I’d found it, I started receiving compliments on my writing. I'd send an obligatory email, but I'd try to infuse it with some personality. Later, I'd get a reply from someone saying how much they appreciated the fact that my emails were interesting. I’d found a way to communicate that was unique. It caught people's attention, even if the subject matter was mundane. 

Fast-forward to graduate school. As a grad student, my writing came under intense scrutiny. Encouragement was sparse. The style I’d developed was questioned by my graduate instructors. They pushed me to assume a different voice. As a result of my graduate school experiences, my voice began to deteriorate. I lost confidence in my writing. I settled for bland prose.

In the years since, I’ve been searching to rediscover my voice. It’s a daily process of blending where I am in life with what I’m trying to say. The more I talk to other writers, the more convinced I become that this is a typical experience. Many of us, if not most, seem to go through stages of finding a unique voice and then losing it. The stages seem to repeat, as well. 

Writing voice and self-discovery

I used to view this phenomenon as a tragedy. What could be worse, I thought, than to find something as valuable as my writing voice and then to lose it? Well, my perception has changed. I now think of this search as just one part of an interconnected life experience. Because I believe that a good life is self-examined, I view this process of finding and losing voice as simply an extension of how mature humans observe their own growth. As we live, we change. Our voice changes with us. 

I’m embracing the challenge of finding my voice, even as it changes. I know the voice that emerges, although changed, will be better for the experience of growing. If you’re wrestling with a similar process, I hope you’ll be comforted in knowing that you’re not alone. 

Is Trying Too Hard Destroying Your Writing?

Perfection wants to kill your writing

One of my favorite sayings goes like this:

Perfect is the enemy of done.

I can’t think of a sentiment more appropriate for writers.

How many of us who love writing have said, “Yeah, I have a novel, but it’s not finished”? 

Or maybe you’ve said: “I’ve been working on this blog post for a few weeks now. I really need to wrap it up!”

It occurred to me recently that submitting to perfectionism can threaten our entire identity as writers. Let me explain by discussing the definition of the word writer.

Who is a writer?

Maybe you’ve noticed that people fall into two camps when it comes to calling ourselves writers. In one camp, you have people like me. I believe that anyone who writes—no matter what they write—should call themselves a writer. As long as they think of themselves that way—and they actually write stuff—then cool, they’re a writer.

But there’s a second camp that has a different opinion. This second camp says that a person should only dare to call themselves a writer if they do it professionally. Unless someone gets paid to write (preferably full time), they don’t have any business using the title, according to this view. 

Now, I used to get angry with the second camp. I felt that drawing this line between people who write just for the love of it and those who make a living writing was arrogant and elitist. Recently, I’ve modified my opinion. Let me explain why.

Fiddling our way out of an avocation

Often (but not always) those of us who haven’t made a significant amount money writing are guilty of self-indulgent perfectionism. I am a member of this group. I admit it. I’m raising my hand. “Hello, my name is Adam, and I’m a perfectionist writer.” My perfectionism has held back my writing. It’s not a good thing. 

Maybe it’s true of you, too. Perhaps you have tinkered too long with a particular project because it hasn’t turned out the way you wanted it to, but you know full well that you need to let go and share it. Maybe you have something hidden on your hard drive or in a notebook that you know you should have shown to others a long time ago. 

I’m not talking about failed attempts at writing. We all have those, and they’re an important byproduct that we throw away, just like sawdust is a byproduct at a lumber mill. I’m not talking about failed attempts; I’m talking about the projects that we finish but refuse to share because of our pride. Instead, we hide these things and fiddle with them. We fiddle because we know that the product doesn’t live up to our expectation. We refuse to acknowledge deep down inside what we already know: that none of our creations will live up to what we dream they will be. This disturbs us, we don’t like it, and so we keep on fiddling.

The attitude of a committed writer

It occurred to me recently that a professional writer doesn’t have time for this. Unless a writer has had so much success that money is no longer an object (a J. K. Rowling, say), the professional must keep churning out content. When the deadline arrives, they send it off, ready or not. Because the professional writer can’t fiddle with their work past a certain point, they learn how to be comfortable with sharing product that doesn't meet their expectations. They even learn (gasp) how to cope with negative feedback from readers. 

This difference plays into the two definitions of the term writer. The reason some people are so adamant that only a professional should refer to themselves by that term has something to do (at least sometimes) with this distinction in attitude. Perhaps there’s still a degree of elitism, but the professional, by virtue of resisting perfectionism, has in a sense earned the right to a different title. 

Done is even better than perfect

Regardless of how you define the word writer, I hope you will think carefully about how perfectionism impacts your work. This has been important for me recently. I am realizing that even though I’ve spent over a year exploring the development of writing routine, I am still wrestling with a strong propensity for perfectionism. Recently, it’s held back my progress on my book. It’s also limited my work on my blog and the email workshop that I send to readers. This needs to change. I’m being honest here in the hope that openness will lead to progress, both for me and for anyone else who needs this reminder.

I leave you with another quotation, this one from Papa, the masterful Hemingway:

If anybody deserved to call himself a master, it was Hemingway, yet he didn’t. Remember this axiom. Scrawl it into your memory. Don’t allow perfectionism to convince you otherwise. Don’t fiddle with your writing. Commit to finishing so that you can move on to the next thing. Swallow your pride, share what you’ve written, and grow. 

Five Tips for Finding Writing Inspiration

Increase the Likelihood of Inspiration with These Tools

One of the greatest myths about writing is the idea that the writer must wait for inspiration. I don't believe that inspiration is something that we should wait for, but it can be a valuable surprise—sort of like a bonus. So, while we shouldn’t procrastinate because we’re not feeling it, the experience of inspiration can take our work to a new level.  Here are five ideas for increasing the likelihood that inspiration will strike. 

1. Music 

Finding the music (or ambient sound) that drives your creativity and focus in writing is huge. I can’t say enough about how my music motivates my writing. The impact is so strong that when I hear certain artists, I feel an urge to write. I begin getting ideas for future projects, even if I’m not actively thinking about writing. Add music to your writing routine if you're not using it.

2. New environment 

I talk a lot about the power of environment to shape a routine and make it consistent. Something that I don’t mention as much—but which is just as true—is that experimenting with a new environment can spike creativity. Whenever I’m feel like I’m disengaging with my writing, I try writing somewhere new or surrounding myself with new stimuli.

3. Books 

It’s been said a million times before, but it’s still true: great writers are great readers. If you want a surge of creativity, read. I’m amazed by the power of a good book to keep me fired up for my own writing. The books you read don’t need to relate closely to what you are writing. As long as they inspire your creativity, they are making a difference. Some of the most inspiring books that I read are zany science-fiction. Even though I’m not writing science-fiction at this time, these books still inspire me to write.

4. Conversation 

Conversation with other people does wonders for inspiration. If you can have just one friend who will talk to you openly about your writing, you will greatly increase your creativity. If you can have several people with whom you can talk in a group or even individually, so much the better. There’s something special about bouncing your ideas off of at least one other person; it can greatly boost your creative power. 

5. Art 

Here’s a unique one. If you’ve been inspired by certain forms of art in the past, keep a mental file of those works. When you’re feeling discouraged, revisit those pieces. This can serve as a reservoir of creative energy that you tap into when needed. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the art needs to be closely related to what you’re working on. As long as it inspires you to create, it can benefit your writing. 

Here’s a personal example of art that inspires. A few years back, my wife surprised me with a large print of one of my favorite photographs. It's the feature photo for this post that you see above. A framed copy hangs near my desk. This is a shot from World War II, during The Battle of Britain. It’s a photo of a bombed out library, a casualty of Nazi air attacks. These English citizens are doing their best to continue life by browsing for books, surrounded by destruction and disorder. The photo moves me because of their commitment and vision. Every time I look at that picture, I’m inspired. 

Engineer Inspiration

The next time you’re struggling to commit to your writing, think about these sources of inspiration. Try one or more of them. I hope they will empower your writing as they have mine. Always remember that you are ultimately in control of your writing, not your feelings,  and that inspiration, while it can be serendipitous, mostly results from the choices we make.

 

 

7 Steps to Save Your Writing When You Let It Down

When You Fall off the Horse

Every writer I’ve met struggles with periods of inactivity. If you haven’t experienced this, the odds are that you will, sooner or later. Falling out of the writing habit is difficult to avoid. Because of this, we should develop a plan to deal with it. 

One reason I strongly advocate for routine is that it guards against falling out of habit. It's much more difficult to completely stop writing if we have a daily ritual. The fact remains, however, that even the most consistent of us will eventually fail.  

Knowing this, we should develop a plan to get back on track as soon as possible. The real danger doesn’t lie in missing a day or two. It lies in not resuming our routine after that day or two. 

We see it all the time. Someone who set a goal for themselves such as writing a book experiences something that interrupts the project. The writer deals with the interruption. Later, instead of picking up and resuming where they left off, the individual never finishes the project. Sometimes, the person gives up on writing completely.

Because we know this happens to writers, we should take steps to prevent this kind of outcome. If we create an action to deal with interruptions, we can be confident that we will resume as soon as possible. Several factors can help with this.

1. Think Beyond Desire

The plan must be more than an emotional drive. Too often, writers rely on sheer willpower to carry them through rough patches. This works great, until we encounter fatigue. Feelings lack consistency. We need a plan that remains viable regardless of how we feel.

2. Make It Specific

Remove uncertainty from the process of getting back on track. Develop specific actions that you will take to set yourself back on a path of consistency. Write down these steps and keep them somewhere prominent, where you will review them regularly until you know them by heart. The remaining tips below can serve as a starting point.

3. Don’t Beat Yourself Up

If you fail your daily writing target, don’t beat yourself up! It happens to the best writers. Cut yourself some slack and recognize that missing a day or two (and perhaps more if you are on vacation) is not certain death for your writing. While failing your routine isn’t ideal, it’s far less of a threat to your writing than the destruction of your confidence. So be easy on yourself. This is not a paradox. It’s entirely reasonable to hold yourself to a high standard of consistency, yet still be kind to yourself if you screw up.  

4. Get Back on Track as Soon as Possible

Resolve to get back on track as soon as possible. Don’t allow yourself to stay stuck. Do whatever is necessary to get started again. Sometimes, this means tossing yourself a softball to get an easy hit. It might take the form of giving yourself permission to write something really simple or silly. Even if what you write is unsharable—even if it’s something that goes straight into the trash, the fact that you wrote it puts you back on the right path. Keep the bar low when getting back into your routine. Perfectionism is a habit killer, and never more so than when you have fallen out of your ritual. 

5. Recognize What Distracted You

It’s important to identify the source of your habit’s interruption. Ask yourself if the source of the disruption could interfere again. If so, what can you do to work around it?

For example, if a commitment to a friend or family member interfered, determine if this could happen again. If so, figure out how to schedule future interactions with this person. That way, they’ll be satisfied that you are committing to them, and you’ll be satisfied that you have protected your writing time. 

If you were distracted by some kind of entertainment, develop a system of rewarding yourself for avoiding that distraction. Perhaps you can tell yourself that you will watch an hour of your favorite show, but only after completing your writing target for the day. It’s unrealistic for most people to completely ignore their favorite forms of relaxation, so barter an exchange between your writing and your hobby. Use the thing that could distract you as a incentive for staying on track.

6. Create a Buffer

One strategy that guards against faltering is to create lead-time between when you write and when you share. This particularly benefits writers who have committed to regularly deliver writing to an audience. If you have a blog, for example, it’s valuable to write well in advance of your posting schedule. The same principle follows if you’re traditionally published, if you’re a student writing papers, or if you’re working on a book and you've announced a deadline. By getting well ahead of the due date for your projects, you’ll always have a buffer if you fall out of habit. As mentioned before, this is valuable because it will prevent you from overreacting emotionally. If we always write at the last minute, any disruption can mess with our scheduled sharing. This in turn can have disastrous effects on our confidence. Getting ahead and staying ahead offers peace of mind, which helps us to remain confident and consistent.

7. Take a Planned Break

Sometimes, a writer simply needs a break from writing. If you’re beginning to feel that writing is a chore, it’s probably a sign that you need a vacation from writing. Sometimes, the break will just be a day or two. Other times, you might need a couple of weeks. I think it’s fine for writers to take a break, but it’s crucial to have a plan for resuming. Commit to restarting the routine when your vacation is over. Know that getting back into the swing of your habit may take a few days. Resolve to push past the inertia you may experience until you can get things rolling again. 

Stay the Course

Sooner or later, most of us will fail in maintaining our writing routine. This isn’t a big deal. The big deal is how we handle that failure. If we allow disappointment to paralyze and prevent us from returning to our routine, we’re in trouble, but with a solid plan and a resolve to get back on track, falling out of routine is just a speed bump. Let’s focus on the long term and shake off any setbacks.

The Moment You Become a Real Writer

The Inciting Event

Have you had your Harajuku moment as a writer?

Author Tim Ferriss describes an incident when his friend was shopping for clothes and lost his cool. While looking for clothing in a Japanese city, Ferriss’s friend became despondent because none of the clothes he wanted were available in his size. The episode sparked the friend to finally lose the weight that he’d been fighting for a long time. 

Ferriss uses the term Harajuku moment to refer to a specific point in time in which an individual feels overwhelmingly convinced that something needs to happen. The moment is a tipping point. The individual becomes a different person as a result, with an altered attitude and approach. I believe that the principle of a Harajuku moment is often crucial in the formation of a writer. 

The Curse of the Legitimate Excuse

Many of us spend months or years talking about how we intend to write. We say we want to become a writer, but we don't take the necessary steps. I have known so many people who fell into this category; they talked and talked about how they wanted to write more. They shared their ideas for a novel or inspiration for poetry. And yet, the vast majority of these people never take action. They never actually do what’s necessary to become a writer. 

My Harajuku Moment

I've been this person myself. I even earned college degrees related to writing technique and the teaching of writing, but then I became a virtuoso of excuses for why I couldn’t write regularly. It was ridiculous. Yet, I allowed myself to spin these excuses for years. 

My own Harajuku moment happened when I considered how much I could have written if I’d stopped making excuses. I realized that during those years, if I’d simply written a few hundred words every day, I could have completed several novels. The revelation hit me: if I’d just sacrificed a few things to write, I could have penned my own version of Harry Potter. I knew that I’d been legitimately busy. Family, work, professional education, financial woes—all of these things took up time and energy over the years. However, when I considered that in spite of my obligations, I’d spent thousands of hours doing other things to relax, I realized that I was a big liar. Somehow, even though I’d sworn that I had no time to write, I’d still found time to watch Netflix, play games on my phone, and sleep in. This really got to me. 

In a single moment, I was struck by the truth that if writing was truly important to me, I would find time to do it. It’s like Jim Rohn says: “If you really want to do something, you'll find a way; if you don’t, you'll find an excuse." That's a great way to think about the Harajuku moment: it's being confronted with the knowledge that our situation could be much different. It can only be different, however, if we take action. 

In Which I Curse You

What it took for me to change is the same thing that I wish upon you: a Harajuku moment. If you are serious about becoming be a writer, but you haven't taken action to insure that it will become a consistent part of your life, then I hope you experience a dramatic episode of truthful reckoning. I don't say this lightly. I know that most people who want to write have good reasons if they fail. But if the act writing is truly important to you—if it offers you self discovery, the power of expression, the ability to think clearly, or the ability to help others—then I want you to reach a state of existential discomfort that will push you to become a writer. 

It’s much, much better to be filled with resolve than to be filled with regret. If writing is important to you, I hope you will take the steps to make it a part of your life. If that Harajuku moment is necessary, I wish it upon you. 

The Myth of the Lonely Writer

Writing is surrounded by many myths. Often, these myths hold us back by promoting unrealistic perceptions about our craft. One such belief is the myth of the lonely writer.  

As with most myths about writing, the idea of the lonely writer stems from a romanticized view of the craft. 

Many of us are drawn to the cliche' of the solitary creative. Isolated in his or her writing space (preferably in a private studio filled with sentimental objects) this character feverishly toils to create a work of literary brilliance. This archetype is fueled by centuries of poetry, novels, and films about writers. While it contains some truth, the cliche' promotes several unrealistic expectations about writing. 

Before I move on, let me stress that I think that solitude benefits most writers. I believe that isolation has a place in a healthy writing practice. What I’m reacting to is an extreme view of independence that has the potential to limit growth.

I could point out many problems with the myth, but I’ll focus on three lies that fuel the romanticization of this concept. These lies relate to the themes of genius, productivity, and grit.   

The Lie of Genius

All of us have heard stories about literary geniuses who sequestered themselves away for years and then later emerged and presented a masterpiece to a waiting world. We’ve heard stories like this about Emily Dickinson or Henry David Thoreau. We’ve been thrilled by these stories. For many of us, these dramatic biographies fueled our initial interest in writing.  

Now, there is truth to the idea that living in solitude can help people to create great works. It's also important to remember, however, that the authors in these stories were usually very unusual people. They weren't the average writer. To suppose that imitating their lifestyle will make us equally successful at writing is a bit like supposing that just because Michael Jordan always ate a steak before a game, we too can eat steak and play world-class basketball. 

In addition, we can't link the solitary habits of certain geniuses with the quality of their work as some kind of cause-and-effect. It could be a matter of simple correlation that they happened to be hermits and they happened to create works of literary genius. We can't assume that the genius of their work follows in cause-and-effect fashion from their solitude.  

We also need to consider that the genius of their work may have happened in spite of their solitude, rather than as a result of their solitude. Really, there's no way to prove that famous lonely writers created their masterpieces because they were in fact, lonely. Who knows, maybe Emily Dickinson would've written even better poetry if she hadn’t been an isolated spinster. Maybe not, but who knows? 

My point is that we can’t assume that key literary figures created works of genius as a result of their solitude. Don't shun the association of your fellow writers or the benefits of criticism on the grounds that you are emulating these literary figures. That usually doesn't work. 

The Lie of Productivity

Efficiency is another matter that writers often get wrong when they think about solitude. There’s truth in the idea that spending time alone can boost productivity. However, it’s also true that many writers who spend too much time in solitude become highly inefficient. Writing in isolation should be characterized by productivity, but for many, it turns into long sessions of staring at their navel.  

The best practice for the typical writer is to balance periods of productive solitude with periods of productive socializing. During the solitude, the writer knuckles down and writes like mad. During the social periods, the writer regroups with one or more other people to share, to encourage, and to offer constructive criticism. Maintaining the balance between these two spheres gives the greatest benefit to most writers.

The Lie of Grit

One last lie is that lonely writers have greater resilience. This is also a myth. 

Again, we can look at certain anomalies—writers who were productive and consistent in their isolated existence—but these are not the norm. The average writer who works in isolation is less likely to complete a project, not more. Every year, millions of people resolve to write a book. Every year, the majority of those people give up after a few days. Typically, those who abandon the project worked in secret and lacked support. 

The isolated writer has the greatest opportunity to squander time and energy. For most of us, great consistency in writing comes from avoiding the hermit mentality. If you lack the grit you need to complete a project, you most likely need support more than solitude. Find encouraging friends. Ask them to keep you accountable, and they will! There's no need to act as if you must pull yourself up by your own bootstraps day after day, week after week, month after month. It’s smart to have friends, colleagues, and peers to rely on. If they can help you stay consistent, leaning on them is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of intelligence. 

A Balanced Solution 

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not bashing solitude. I love solitude. I probably love it too much. What I've learned, however, after years of mediocre writing output, is that prolific writers usually balance solitude with social accountability. If you can grow and produce by spending oodles of time by yourself, peace be with you. But please, be alert and pay attention to whether solitude truly furthers your writing or holds it back. 

Here's my cold, harsh pronouncement for the day: I believe that for most of us, the myth of the lonely writer is an excuse. It's an excuse to avoid being held accountable by others. It's an excuse to sidestep clear communication in writing, which is difficult. It’s an excuse to treat writing as an exercise in self-aggrandizement, rather than an opportunity to serve. It’s an excuse to fuel our fantasies, our vanity, and even our fears, rather than to employ writing as a means of facing reality. 

Being alone is good. It's powerful. It's even necessary. Like everything in this life, however, solitude can be misused. 

Don't let the myth of the lonely writer twist your practice into something imbalanced. May your work be truly filled with genius, productivity, and grit. I'll be here if you want to share it with me.

 

Don't Make a Resolution if You Want to Write More

This past week, I thought about my approach to the next year. You probably did something similar. My take on this topic is a little different than some: I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions. 

I wrote about my thoughts and posted them on medium.com, a site that allows any user to blog in a shared format. I’m adding the link because that post discusses my writing ritual. I think my readers at BTBC will recognize some of the themes.

I believe that resolutions can sometimes work for people, but I also believe that many folks deeply discourage themselves if they fail. The post explains what I believe is a much better approach for achieving our goals:

Resolutions Suck--Do This Instead

If you read this, please let me know what you think in the comments here. And it’s okay if you don’t agree with me!

Defeat Writer’s Block: A Mental Hack from the Age of Discovery

                                                  Michel de montaigne

                                                 Michel de montaigne

About 430 years ago, Michel de Montaigne wrote a series of short works that became famous. People still read these writings today because of their profound ideas and their excellent style. I’m attracted to what Montaigne wrote for many reasons, but the biggest reason may be the title he chose for the collection. He dubbed them with a name no one had used before. He called them “essays.”  

Literally, essay means “attempt” or “trial.” The revered Montaigne, who wrote short works that would go on to stand the test of hundreds of year and would be upheld as models for an entire genre, didn’t think it beneath himself to consider his endeavors to be mere attempts. This is a liberating idea, an idea that can help us to grow as writers if we embrace it. 

Trying=winning

When we write, we must resist the notion that we are creating something perfect. We are only writing an attempt. The desire for perfection is a feeling that dominates most of us when we undertake something creative, and perhaps in no other area so much as in writing. We’re filled with this sense of obligation to our reader (and rightly so, to an extent), but too often this feeling goes too far. Certainly, we want to reach our audience, but we can’t suppose that we’ll create the perfect piece of writing in the first draft. We need to lower the stakes. We need to accept that all writing is just an attempt, a trial. 

I’ve met so many people who have the urge to write something, especially a book, but who don’t undertake the task because they hold up an unattainable standard. The benchmark they set is so impossible, they can’t even begin. These folks should take a cue from Montaigne. 

Imperfect writing is fine

Each draft that we begin is only an attempt. Nothing that we write is as good as it could be. A book or essay is never really finished—we just force ourselves to stop tinkering and allow people to read it. There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of writing. Shakespeare had deadlines. Hemingway had an editor. Even the best of the best decide to stop writing and walk away. If they wanted to, they could keep revising for ever, but they don’t. We need to recognize, no matter what level we are at, that we have to stop at some point and let what we’ve written stand for itself. 

Acknowledging from the get-go that what we write will not be as good as we want it to be is paradoxically powerful. Of course we want our writing to be perfect. Accepting the idea that it won’t be perfect can be deflating; sometimes it can even make us feel like the task is worthless. On the other hand, acknowledging the inevitability of imperfection is also empowering. When we recognize that perfection is only a pipe dream, we are free to explore what really lives in our head. We cease to interact with a projected creative self and become acquainted with the creative self who truly exists. 

Uncertainty is a blessing in disguise

Exposing what we really have to say can be a scary experience, not unlike hearing our recorded voice for the first time or seeing a video of ourselves on a stage. But it’s also one of the greatest opportunities in life to experience an incredible blend of challenges and rewards. Seeking to reconcile our target achievement (or projected creative self) with our actual level of achievement (actualized creative self) is a process that can easily fill a lifetime. And this is a process filled with joy and wonder, as well as certain disappointments. Like all life, creativity can be painful, but that pain is the necessary corollary to the rewards to be had. 

As I write this blog post, I am keenly aware that it is not coming out the way I had intended. It lacks the punch that I envisioned. It lacks the style. The overall direction is different than what I had thought it would take. Yet all of this is normal, even preferable to a hypothetical perfection. The unknown is part of what makes writing so alluring. It makes it challenging, for sure. Yet, this quality of unpredictability and of not perfecting so much as attempting is ultimately freeing. It allows us to explore or minds—not as we imagine them to be—but as they truly are. Unveiling our own thoughts is exciting and scary at the same time. To write on a daily basis is to strike out and blaze a trail—like the explorers of Montaigne’s day—through the wilderness of our amassed thoughts. Discovery awaits.

Never stop attempting

Resist the impulse to avoid writing because it is uncertain. Accept that all of our writing will be imperfect. Take comfort in the knowledge that for even the best of writers, each day is just an attempt. If we remain faithful to that ongoing attempting, the goal we seek as writers is inevitable. 

Now please, go write something. Let it be bad if it needs to be. Just make that attempt and know that you are on your way. Feel free to brag in the comments.