I recently had to retire a step in my writing process I loved. I loved it because it spared me from the anxiety of discipline. To me, discipline meant making myself write.
For most of my adult life, the concept of making myself write tortured me. It made no sense. Was I two separate people standing on different rungs of a dominance hierarchy? Which part of me was the boss, and which part the employee?
All I knew was that when Overlord Me tried to force Other Me to write, I encountered titanic resistance in the form of anxiety.
I finally concluded that if I was going to write, all of me had to want to write, not just some imaginary internal boss who knew better than the rest of me.
Luckily, I already did want to write, but a wall of anxiety was standing in my way. What I really needed was to let myself write. I needed to lift the pressure that was turning writing into a chore.
I stumbled onto a process that seemed to do the trick: pre-writing in longhand. As long as I was holding a pen, I gave myself full permission to write anything. I learned to suspend all judgment until later. I allowed myself to revise only later when I was typing my draft.
Scribbling my first drafts in a notebook without stopping to censor felt more like play than work, and it was a great way to relieve the pressure to “be good.” It eased, too, the anxiety of trying to create new content while also figuring out how to express it.
To relax my mind further, I added another trick: I promised myself that I could write one sentence and stop. I kept my promise. But most of the time, I wanted to keep writing.
I wrote quickly, messily, and brazenly. In the open prairie of my cheap spiral notebook, my mind could run wild and free if it wanted to; it could even jump the fence and plunge into forbidden territory.
In my notebook I could whine and cuss. I could attack cherished institutions. I could blather and rant and digress and dissemble. I could revel in absurdity. It was bliss.
Then, once my raw content was ready to type, I could tell myself, “No worries. All you have to do now is flex a few fingers. Just copy your rough draft into the computer. You can copy, right?”
Of course, I could. And I had solved a murky motivational problem. I had reduced writing to a simple physical task, relieving the mental pressure to perform.
But as soon as my brain noticed the jumbled words on a page, it snapped to full attention. Being a brain, it was an avid fan of order. It preferred squares to squiggles and logic to intellectual bedlam. Having strong opinions about how writing ought to be, my brain became intensely engaged, and before I knew it, it was concentrating effortlessly. No coercion required.
Even when I was tired or depressed or had a headache, writing a first draft was doable. (Revision of course was a whole other matter.)
I thought I would use my cherished technique forever. Little did I know it had a shelf life.
A couple of years ago, I became increasingly frustrated. Despite all of the problems my process solved, I became impatient with all of the copying. I was writing everything twice—once in my spiral notebook and then again on my computer.
Transcribing my longhand drafts was becoming dull and soporific. While typing, I would catch my eyelids falling; sometimes I would even fall asleep.
As my interest lagged, I was revising my work less as I typed. And especially with long novels, writing everything twice was maddening. So even though I hesitated to abandon a process that had served me well, I finally had to let it go.
I worried, however, that the quality of my writing would suffer. I thought that revising as I typed led to better writing. But maybe there were better ways to write well.
So, instead of adjusting my text while copying, I increased the time I spent planning. I had always rushed through my mind maps, eager to get to the writing itself. Now I spent more time with them, which led to rough drafts that were more polished.
But I still needed a way to avoid premature revision. When creating new content, I encountered the old problem: I was once again changing words around as if the fate of the world depended upon my finding the perfect combination of characters.
I was tempted to re-adopt my old process, as time-consuming as it was. It had enabled me to write quickly and ignore errors. That was because my messy handwriting had discouraged me from stopping to reread, freeing me to focus fully on creating raw content.
But instead of reverting to old habits, I tried something new. Using my mind map for reference, I began typing quickly without looking at the screen. Instead of fussing over words, I focused on the images in my head, knowing that if I made mistakes, I could easily correct them later.
That did it. Writing fast, I lost myself in the rhythm of my typing. I felt engaged and awake, but also relaxed. By typing “blind,” I was able to skip my hand-written drafts while remaining unselfconscious. The best part is that I no longer need to write everything twice.
Since my discovery, I have been experimenting more with my process. Although some of my experiments might fail, even one good change can save time, make writing more fun, and carry my work to a new level of proficiency.
Of course, now that I have refined my process for first drafts, I need a better way to revise.
My current method is to endlessly wrangle words into submission until they either “feel right” or I faint from lassitude. There has to be a better way. A more exciting, fun, and relaxing way. If there is, I am going to find it. And when I do, I will let you know.