Since early childhood, I wanted to be a writer. I wrote exuberant stories about vampires, hidden treasure, and animals. Over the years, teachers, friends, and relatives read my stories, smiled, and encouraged me. They told me I wrote well, and so I should write more.
By adolescence, writing was not just something I wanted to do. It was a sacred calling. It became even more serious after high school graduation. Writing was no longer a childish game. It meant teeth grinding discipline and sacrifice. I was ready to slap my idle activities on the altar of my artistic aspirations.
With the intensity of a pilgrim, I marshaled my energies and earnestly began to plan. I was a brilliant planner. I delivered impassioned motivational speeches to myself. Each time I did, my heart raced and my excitement mounted, as I imagined myself caught in the ecstatic blaze of inspiration, my fingers scintillating with power at each stroke of a pen.
However, with all my ambitious planning, I had a big problem: I rarely ever wrote. I wrote mainly when I had to for a grade. When I did write, I was praised, and I was grateful that someone had finally forced me to do something that I wanted to do.
I did have scattered episodes of exhilarating inspiration, and I would hurry to my notebook and scribble down my thoughts. At those moments, I remembered why I wanted to be a writer. But in general, writing had changed for me since childhood. So much pressure. Such a lofty undertaking. So many expectations.
Writing felt too important, too sacred, to even begin. I felt as if my entire life was on the line each time I took up a pen.
At the same time, I was uncomfortably conscious of the monstrous gap between my plans and actions. I thought that I must need more powerful motivational speeches or a greater awareness of what was at stake.
I listed the potential benefits: happy creative life-style, money, office in a quaint house on a solitary beach-side mountaintop, world-wide acclaim as a genius.
Then I listed all the terrible consequences of not writing: wasted potential, dissatisfaction with life, the disappointment I would have in myself if I let laziness stand in the way of my creative goals. When this strategy failed to make me prolific, I was led to an unsettling conclusion: I must have poor character.
Poor character meant that I was unable to do for myself what a teacher did: to threaten punishment if I failed to write and offer a tempting reward – like a good grade – if I obeyed.
I wanted to create an internal Writing Monster to enforce discipline: a teacher with claws, perhaps, that would live inside my brain and give me cookies when I wrote well or grimace and swipe at me when I failed to write.
I tried recreating at home the ordered discipline of a classroom. I set a goal of four hours and gave myself severely short breaks. I heaped guilt on myself when I cheated, my only leverage, the emotional equivalent a bad grade.
These efforts never worked. This amazed me because threats and rewards had done wonders in so many other areas in my life, such as maintaining a straight A average in college. Until I figured out how to motivate myself, I had to do something. I desperately wanted to write.
Therefore, I did something I should have done long ago. I took a deep breath to prepare myself for a long, arduous creative journey – and bought a stack of books about writing. Reading books about writing was wonderful because I felt as if I was moving toward my goal of being a writer – without having to write. The visions of success they inspired felt almost as good as the real thing. Within those books, I sought the elusive magic called “creative flow.”
Most of them urged reading more classical literature, so I did. Every time I finished a new classic, I felt a surge of accomplishment and knew I was a better writer already. I was absorbing, as if by osmosis, the genius of Dickens, Twain, and Dostoyevsky. I congratulated myself and wondered how many classics I had to read before they conferred Real Writerdom.
Actual writing still hurt. An army of imaginary critics peered over my shoulder and berated me. I could hardly write a sentence without thinking it was bad, and not only bad, but a grotesque and repellent reflection of my innermost being.
There were still unexpected moments when inspiration seized me, but I never could summon them at will. Most of the time, writing depressed me.
A medical diagnosis of bipolar disorder following a manic burst of creativity confirmed that my mood crashes were not imaginary. My doctor prescribed stabilizing medication, and my mood flat-lined. Creativity shriveled. I slept and ate in a daze.
I turned to my books about writing for inspiration, but some of them made me feel worse. In a few, the advice was, “If you always have trouble making yourself write, then you probably don’t want to write. You just like the idea of being a writer. If writing is painful for you, abandon it and leave it to us, the “real writers.”
I drew back. Ouch. Because of many remarks like these, I started avoiding instructional material on writing. It was true that I had trouble making myself write, but there had definitely been times when I had loved doing it. Now I had to ask: What if I didn’t want to write anymore? What if all this time I had been deluding myself about something so basic to how I saw myself?
The question of wanting began to obsess me. When was the last time I had wanted to write? I thought of my childhood vampire and animal stories. The fun. The adventure. The possibility. They all seemed so far away. Guilt, not joy, seemed to be the only thread left connecting me to my former passion.
Lacking joy, I used force. I constantly fought myself. I gritted my teeth. I ordered my fingers to move. Blind will vied against some resistant, and substantial, part of who I was. It was like walking against a spiky wall.
During one particularly painful writing day, I rebelled. This was a different kind of rebellion than the kind I was used to, that pushed against my writing. I rebelled against what writing had become. I rebelled against the army of critics that lived in my head. I rebelled against pleasing.
I rebelled, too, against the idea that I should write. I did not want to write because I should. I wanted to want to write again. And to only write for that reason. If I could not achieve that, I was going to let it go.
If I wrote, I wanted to write only what made me happy. I wanted to give up “discipline.” I wanted to get back to the freedom I had enjoyed in childhood. No one had ever forced me, in third grade, to write a vampire story.
I changed how I worked. Instead of hourly time targets, I made a modest new goal: to write a sentence a day. I had read this advice somewhere, or at least a version of it. The idea was that you could trick yourself into prolific writing with tiny goals.
Past attempts at this had failed because, after a couple of times of it working, I would always have the thought, “Liar! You are just saying to write a sentence. You really intend to write for hours. You’re mean! Time for mutiny!” The “tricking yourself” advice made no sense. How could I trick myself if I knew everything I was thinking?
So this time, I modified my approach. To let myself know it was really okay to stop, I would really quit after a sentence now and then. This method ended my resistance and, as a bonus, left me unfulfilled and wanting to write more. As long as I had written my one sentence, I congratulated myself.
Each day I took a new step toward writing a novel: a sentence, an outline, a question. I discovered that, during those moments, the spark I had missed arose; I was enjoying writing again. Almost every time, I wrote more than I had planned.
A memory. An intriguing hook. An idea to explore. I was silly and reckless. I wrote only what excited me, and however I wanted. I, and not an “inner teacher,” decided how long; I could write a minute or four hours. As days passed, all the “shoulds” fell away. The wanting I had craved, and remembered from childhood, took their place.
My notebooks became full. I stopped fighting myself. Which selfhad I been fighting? The part I needed most: the creative, crayon-brandishing child standing guilty by a marked wall – the side that resists being controlled, that refuses to eat slimy okra, that yearns to write most when it should be doing something else.
Many well meaning people had told me I should write. I had embraced the idea. But nothing, it turned out, had riled my rebellious side to mutiny as the word “should.”Writing went best when it was forbidden, a sneaky tryst with words at night as I curled up with a pen, defying sleep.
The reward-and-punishment motivation model had worked in school, but in doing creative work for myself, it worked against me. I had to unlearn my school conditioning. Many critics of how writing is taught in school blame a lopsided emphasis on grammar as a seed of creative block. But the harm of school for me was not grammar rules, but the belief that anything worth doing requires force.
The educational system is built on the assumption that students will do anything to get out of doing work. Whether this assumption is true is open to debate, but in any case, it reduces emphasis on the intrinsic rewards of an activity, whether it is learning or creating a story. Slapping a “should” onto anything sets the energetic, creative side against it.
My path to focusing and being fully engaged in writing was to get the “rebel” on my side. I wrote when I should be doing other things, at night when I should be sleeping, or when I should be cleaning. I wrote what I saw as true, even if it defied everything I had been taught.
As a result, when I write now, all of me is writing. This does not mean writing is always easy. Sometimes, especially during the final revision stages, it is exceedingly difficult and painstaking, and when it is over, I feel exhausted. But because I love writing and enjoy it, I am willing to do whatever it takes to get it to where it needs to be.
I spent many years thinking I had to learn military self-domination to write regularly, but unlearning it was what I really needed for a creative spring to begin. It seemed counter-intuitive and wrong to lose the mindset of “discipline,” but I found that only after letting it go could I enjoy the fun of creating and begin my best work.