I personally excel in reasons why writers avoid writing, so today’s guest post is near and dear to my heart. When you’re done reading, I encourage you to download Justine Tal Goldberg’s free writing diagnostic and to visit Write by Night for tons of great tips and tools on how to write better, right now. We are in the presence of blog post awesomeness today my friends.
Jen is discouraged. She’s been working on her novel for three years (although most days it feels like forever), and the only part of it she likes is the opening paragraph. In fact, that’s all there is to like. That opening paragraph’s five measly sentences is all that’s been written, and if Jen doesn’t change her habits now, that’s all that will ever be written.
It’s scary, but true. The habits we nourish, and thus the writing life we build for ourselves, can mean the difference between finally writing that book, finishing that short story or landing that first publication, and failing to achieve that goal we’ve worked so hard for.
It’s the difference between telling your story and not.
I feel Jen’s pain. Despite being a writer (or perhaps because of it), when it comes to not writing, I am a total pro. I can convince myself of anything if it means shirking a writing session: The phone is ringing. (It’s not.) I left the stove on. (I didn’t.) I’m having a curiously strong psychic feeling about my sister. I have to warn her! (I’m not and I don’t.) After many frustrating years of getting in my own way, I know a little something about self-sabotage.
You know what I’m talking about. When you procrastinate a project for so long that you end up frantic and frazzled, racing against the clock, right up against your deadline: self-sabotage. When you work like crazy for something you desperately want, then suddenly decide you don’t want it anymore: self-sabotage. When you tell yourself you’re not good enough anyway, so why even try: self-sabotage at its worst.
Call it biology or bad luck, we humans—and writers especially—love to get in our own way. Self-sabotage is natural. The question is not how do we do away with it entirely—answer: we don’t. The real question is, how do we deal with it productively so that we’re finally able to write the way we want to?
So without further ado, here are the five most common reasons why writers avoid writing and are not writing as much or as well as they want to, along with a practical solution for each.
Reason #5: “I don’t have good ideas.”
How do you know your ideas aren’t good if you haven’t yet tried to write them down? What “I don’t have good ideas” really means is, “I don’t have enough confidence in my ideas to try them out.”
Writers who make this claim are often perfectionists. They convince themselves that their ideas, and by extension their writing, must be perfect in order to be worthwhile. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Much of writing is play—exploration and experimentation—and even the most practiced writers’ first drafts are sloppy and sprawling. Far from perfect.
Solution: Practice getting playful with short bursts of stream-of-consciousness writing. Use paper and pen for best results. Write for 5 minutes without lifting your pen from the page. When you get comfortable with that, up the ante to 10 minutes, then to 15. Once the words start to easily flow, the ideas will follow.
Reason #4: “I’m terrible with deadlines.”
Being bad with deadlines is a statement about priorities. You can’t seem to write that chapter you promised yourself, but if your house were on fire, you’d put it out pronto. You skipped today’s writing session, but you got your grandmother’s prescription to her right on time.
These are deadlines, too; they’re just higher stakes. For a procrastinator, the lack of urgency inherent in the writing process is the kiss of death.
Solution: Raise the stakes. Set up a reward system for your writing, and enlist a friend’s help to make sure you keep to it. When you reach your goal or meet your deadline, you get a reward; when you don’t, you don’t. The key here is to make the reward something meaningful. Eating a candy bar, for example, is trivial, but telling your family you’ve just completed Chapter One of your memoir is meaningful.
Reason #3: “I don’t know how.”
I’m going to let you in on a little secret . . . neither does anyone else. Ask a professional writer if she feels 100% confident every time she faces the blank page. Her answer will be a resounding no. You can study writing for years, earn an advanced degree, publish countless books, and teach others the craft, and you’ll still have days when you feel like you know nothing.
This is because writing is creative and creativity is unpredictable. Each new piece is like starting your education all over again. Long story short, when it comes to writing, trying is knowing.
Solution: Read a lot. Write a lot. Try and fail again.
Reason #2: “I hate everything I write.”
This is the writer’s plight, to never be fully satisfied with the translation from mind to page. I have good news and bad news. Bad news first? Okay. The bad news is that this never goes away. Never. When you’re 90 years old and dictating prose into a digital recorder because your arthritic hands are too cramped to type, you will still hate every word you write.
The good news is that the loathing of your work is absolutely necessary to your growth as a writer. If you loved every word you ever wrote, how would you ever improve?
Solution: Stop rereading every sentence a hundred times before you move on to the next. Stop dwelling on what you’ve written and look ahead to what you have yet to write. The promise of better quality is always only your next writing session away.
Reason #1: “I don’t have time.”
When I talk to struggling writers, which I do a lot, our initial conversations often go something like this:
“I really want to write, but I work full time and have a family and am super busy all the time.”
“How much T.V. do you watch every night, ballpark?”
[Pregnant pause] “Three hours.”
Solution: Quit looking for free time in your busy days. It doesn’t exist. Instead, look for time you’re not spending as wisely as you could, then repurpose that time for your writing. You’ll be surprised at how much more you can accomplish in a day.
Bottom line: while these reasons feel legit, they’re not actually reasons at all. They’re excuses, comfort blankets, lies we tell ourselves for any number of reasons to avoid the work of writing. Because writing is hard and scary and risky and exhausting and a million other things that make us not want to do it. But it’s also worth it.
How about you, writers? Why do you write and why do you avoid writing? What solutions to your self-sabotaging “reasons” have and haven’t worked for you?