Make it messy


There are two bits of advice about writing that I return to time and time again when I am feeling stuck with my work.

The first: “Write drunk, edit sober.” This saying is attributed to Ernest Hemingway, that master of brevity and flourish-free language.

And the second: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.” This piece of advice is from Natalie Goldberg in the classic Bird by Bird.

Both of these insights speak to me, because I have a tendency to clam up before I really get going. Maybe you have this tendency too. I am often so caught up in the desire to tell a great story, to dazzle my readers with wit and charm, to surprise them with something unique, that I find it hard to get going. The pressure gets to me, and hello writer’s block. I get stuck striving for perfection and elegance right out of the gate, instead of doing the actual work of writing.

Writing a “shitty first draft” (Goldberg’s term) and writing drunk are not excuses for me to churn out bad, careless work. But it does mean that I have the freedom to write the raw material of the story that I need to write, without the fear of judgment. No-one will see my first draft except me. I have to remind myself to simply get the story on paper, in all its beautiful, terrible, first-glimpse glory—and then shape it into something that someone else might want to read.

Don’t worry about perfection or form or style or commas. Produce the beginnings of something that excites you. Write fast and sloppy. Let your characters do whatever they want. Use simple language and un-fussy descriptions. And write every day or as often as you can manage it, until you have a lovely messy first draft in your hands. Save the polish until later.

Writing is hard. Getting started is harder. Allow yourself the freedom to churn something out, poke around in the mess, and see if you can create something shiny and beautiful from it.

The river of words


Some days, the words come easily.

It can happen when I am indexing a textbook, critiquing a story, or working on my own writing. I am the grizzly bear in the river, plucking words like salmon as they hurtle past. They come fast and furious, and I must rush to catch as many as I can. The challenge is to not let the meatiest ones slip past un-scooped.

Other days, I am the salmon swimming up the river. I strain against the pressure of the work, the weight of the text, the burden of expectations. I try to find the path of least resistance. Each surge forward is a herculean effort, but somehow I make headway against the flow.

I have come to value both kinds of days. The former shows me the joy of what it’s like when the going is easy, and the latter teaches me that I can persevere even when it’s not.

Grizzly bear or salmon—which one are you today?


Conquering distraction

A huge pile of unwashed dishes in the kitchen sink and on the co

Dirty dishes are my kryptonite.

After moving to a new home in a new city across the country, we didn’t have a dishwashing machine right away. I grumbled a bit, but took on the mantle of Dishwasher-in-Chief. Despite the chapped hands and time spent elbow-deep in sudsy water, I found hand-washing the dishes to be extremely meditative. It gave me a sense of accomplishment, and helped me start or finish my day on a squeaky-clean note.

It also came in handy as an excuse not to write. How easy it was to turn to the sink instead of my work in progress! But the dishes have to get done, I thought. I’ll write when they’re all done.

I should have been glad when the dishwasher was finally installed, right? I was, but I found myself mindlessly puttering in the kitchen once the dishwasher had been filled or emptied, as if I was looking for more dishes to do.

I had duped myself into thinking that doing the dishes—or doing anything, in fact—was more pressing than writing. Despite thinking I was a pretty disciplined person, I had slipped up and let my distractions get the better of me. I had a minor a-ha moment, shook my head, and powered up my laptop.

There are still some days where I think I would much rather clean out the cat’s litterbox (gross!) than write. Some days, I tell myself that it is absolutely critical that I use the Magic Eraser on those baseboard scuff-marks right away. As a writer, I am not proud of those days. As a regular human person, I am still vulnerable to them.

So how do I conquer those distractions? Here’s what I try to do:

I show up. I kept telling myself that I was “writing in my head” while I was doing all those dishes. But I wasn’t writing! It was only after I got my butt in my chair that I was able to ignore the pull of that particular distraction and puts one word after another.

I identify what I what to accomplish. I identify a word-count goal, a scene, an outline, or a character study—whatever I think I can reasonably accomplish in the time I have set aside.

I set priorities. If I have three things to work on, I prioritize them in a way that works for me. And I don’t beat myself up if I don’t finish everything on the list. That just leaves me with a starting-point for the next day.

I recognize my fears and barriers. Something is making it awfully easy for me to focus on household chores, instead of my writing. It’s important that I take a moment to reflect on what is keeping me from writing the next sentence, the next scene, or the words, “The End.” I acknowledge how powerful those barriers might feel. But I know that my impulse to write is just as powerful.

The dirty dishes, the neglected laundry, the dusty windows, the gross litterbox—these things will never go away.

But time will. More quickly than we can imagine.

What will you regret more at the end of the day? That you didn’t finish the dishes? Or that you didn’t write the story that only you can tell?

Write first. The dishes will still be there when you’re done.


Photo from Depositphotos.