Sunday, February 25, 2018

This Is How Writing Works

This is how writing works for me, which is going to be different than how it might work for you since each of us holds a pen in our own unique way, or types by applying our own subtle or not-so-subtle pressure with our finger pads to the keyboard, or looks through our own lens at a blank sheet of paper or computer screen.

You might think that writing starts with a blank sheet of paper, but it doesn't, not for me anyway, although that sheet of paper is foremost in my mind (not the paper itself so much as its blankness). I know, of course, that sheet of blank paper is waiting for my words to fill it, even though I’m not yet at my desk. But, even so, writing doesn't start with that blank sheet of paper.

It starts with fear. 

I can be in the bathroom washing my face and thinking about that piece of paper or I can be lifting my head off the pillow after a good night’s sleep and suddenly, before I blink my eyes awake, that blank sheet of paper can flit into my thoughts, and along with it comes the fear that always accompanies writing, or, on some days, not writing.

See the way it works? Writing starts not, as you might think, with a blank sheet of paper, but with a choice: to face this fear of emptiness, of blankness, or run away. Sensing this fear is the way writing begins for me long before I sit down at my desk. It doesn't matter what I plan on writing. It only becomes a day of writing if I’m able to overcome this fear and choose to write.

This fear is such a large part of my being. It seems to accompany me everywhere—into the shower or to the bathroom when I brush my teeth or on my morning walk or while I’m eating breakfast or as I’m checking e-mail or making lunch or during my late afternoon run or even after dinner when I’m reading or stealing a few minutes watching Netflix. And feeling these moments of fear means that I'm constantly feeling the need to make a choice--to go to my desk to write or to get into the car and go to the beach to avoid writing; to sit down in front of my computer or to go back to bed; to take my journal and pen to a quiet nook in the library or to retreat to a local nature sanctuary to go birdwatching.

Writing starts with fear, and if you don’t feel this fear before you begin to write, you’re one of the lucky ones. I've felt this fear in many different forms ever since I started putting words on paper in high school. The fear that I won’t have anything to say. Or the fear that what I do have to say is utterly worthless. Or the fear that what I say will sound stupid and inane and ridiculous. People will think I’m silly. You’re a writer? They’ll ask this question innocently but with such an undertone of disdain and disbelief in their voices that I’ll begin to doubt myself. Me? A writer? Who am I kidding? Just because I happen to be holding a pen and notebook in my hand? Oh, how funny!

So, this is how it works (for me): writing begins with fear and with learning anew each day (each moment) how to deal with this fear—to face it, to put it in its place, or to step over it without disturbing it while it quietly sleeps—so that I can get to the page and begin writing.

But here’s the thing: getting to the page doesn't mean I've accomplished my mission. Sneaking past fear isn’t enough. Once I reach the page, I’ve got to deal with my own doubts and lack of self-confidence to get words on the page. You may think it’s easy once I get to the page, but it's not. Waiting for me on the page are the demeaning voices that I hear in my head and that can distract me and pull me off course if I let them. I need to shut them out if I’m going to write. Doubt, lack of confidence, insecurity, fear—these are all obstacles that can keep me from writing unless I learn how to hurdle over them or crash through them or subdue them if I want to write anything.

What I've learned over time, though, is that words have great power to dispel fear and doubts. When I finally get to the blank sheet of paper and start writing, in spite of the fear and despite the voices warning me to stay away from the page, suddenly I discover—because it’s the way my brain works—what I’m thinking. It's like magic. A light bulb goes on as soon as my pen starts moving across the page. It’s as if the keyboard lets me slip past my fears and doubts once I start typing. This is how I discover what I’m thinking, and I don’t really know what I’m thinking until I start writing. (Believe it or not, I had no idea I was going to write about fear when I started writing this morning).

I would love to be able to compose sentences and paragraphs and whole stories in my head. But I’m not that kind of writer. I’m the kind of writer who needs paper and pen. I need a keyboard and a screen. There’s something about moving my fingers and seeing my hand move, or just turning a page, or hitting the “return” key, something about these small actions, that, for some reason, bring out my thoughts.

Without paper and pen, I’m mute. 

Words come slowly, often with a struggle. Rarely do they flow out of me. Each sentence, each paragraph, is shaped on paper, by paper and by pen.

What about you? Do you struggle with fear? Do you prefer a pen, pencil, or keyboard? Do you compose in your head, or are you the kind of writer who needs to write in order to discover what you think? 

One of my teachers, Joy Chute, told me years ago that ultimately whatever method you use to write is irrelevant as long as you get the words on paper.  If a particular method fails you, abandon it. If it works, embrace it... and write!

For more information on how writing works, visit:


Bobbi Miller said...

What a great, inspirational discussion. And timely, too. I'll be sharing this with my students! Thank you!

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, as always, Bobbi, for your kind words. I hope the discussion helps your students in their work.