I recently talked to group of students and, feeling a little frisky, I guess, I decided to talk about some of the reasons they might not write as much or as well as they would like. It’s an old saw of mine and it seemed to fit into the flow of what I was saying, but I’m not sure how well my message was received. In my defense, I merely pointed out that they’re human.
I had of course told them about how to compose themselves in moments, but many years of experience and coaching have taught me that merely hoping, and even planning, to write a paragraph doesn’t guarantee that the work will get done. Three familiar vices, in particular, seem to get in the way.
The first is ignorance. Making your plan the day before, you may think you know what you want to say, and feel like you know what you’re talking about, but, the next day, having now arrived at the appointed time in the appointed place, and having restated your key sentence with your knowledgeable peer reader in mind, you realize that you know much less about the subject than you thought, that your doubts about it are stronger than you had anticipated. There is now the temptation to get up, go to the book shelf, and find a way to remedy the problem immediately. Don’t do this. You have planned your moment and you should stick to it; you have 27 minutes to appreciate the depth and the breadth of your ignorance on this matter. Weigh it in words, gauge it in sentences, explore it in the paragraph. Knowledgeable people are not afraid of their ignorance and here’s your chance to face it squarely. Write it out as well as you can.
The second obstacle is just plain old stupidity. You plan your writing moment, or don’t plan it at all, so that it coincides with events or activities that are likely to interrupt you in your work, or distract you from it, or otherwise interfere with what you wanted to do. Or you forget to bring the notes or sources you need to do the writing to the place in which you plan to do it. or you insert your writing process into your social life (like during a family visit or a vacation) or your professional life (like a conference or workshop) and, lo and behold, the tension becomes unpleasant or outright unmanageable. Well, you made this mess so go lie in it! Don’t let yourself off the hook just because you’re an idiot. If you don’t have a computer handy because you planned to be in the wrong place at the right time, find a piece of paper and a pen. If you’ve got to let the plumber in, do it, but get back to work as soon as you can. If you have to keep the lady waiting, do it, and suffer her fury later.
Finally, there is laziness, which is particularly familiar to me. Sometimes we just don’t feel like moving from the sofa with our morning coffee and our Twitter feed to the writing desk and its rigorous demands at the time we said we would. Sometimes the problem is even more acute: we don’t feel like getting out of bed. And sometimes we can blame the weather: “It was too beautiful a morning to surrender to the machine,” says Henry Miller somewhere. But ask yourself, was is it really? Will it really be more pleasant to loaf for the next half hour than to get the writing done and then go outside and enjoy the sunshine? The key to my approach, remember, is that you know exactly what it is you’re not feeling like doing. There’s a particular paragraph to compose in a particular moment. It’s this discrete little responsibility (to yourself) that you are thinking of shirking. Don’t. Just go and do it. Get it done. Sure, it’s easier said than done, but is it really so hard to write one, little paragraph? Come on!
All this, as I told the students, may sound a little harsh, a little scolding. But it’s important to remember that these are just normal human imperfections. We’re all a little ignorant, a little stupid, and a little lazy, at least some of the time. It’s natural that these vices should interfere with our writing too. And I have found that writers have a particular knack for saying these nasty things about themselves. The twist is just that they usually say them when they know they aren’t true: if they’ve been lazy they’ll “confess” they were ignorant; if they were stupid they’ll “admit” that they were lazy. What actually prevented them from writing is thereby concealed by what looks like a moment of brutal honesty.
My advice, then, is to be honest, at least with yourself, about why you didn’t write the paragraph you planned to write or why it didn’t turn out as well as you had hoped. That will make it much easier for you to take control of your writing process going forward. But, please, don’t be too hard on yourself. Sometimes your vices win out and you simply abandon the writing moment. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Remember that, at the end of the day (!) it’s just a paragraph that you didn’t write. As the moment in which you had planned to write it passes, release yourself from the burden of having to write it today. Resolve only to think about it again when you call it quits for today and plan your moment tomorrow. Find time for that paragraph in the days to come. Get all the other things you planned for today done as intended. Appreciate your finitude. Also the finitude of your failings.