For When Writing Is Hard

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“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.”

-William Zinsser

 

When people find out I’m an editor, they often say they want to write but they can’t find the time.

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And I always nod and smile. I understand. Life happens and our best laid plans get changed. Everyone has to roll with it and learn to adjust.

But here’s the truth. I’m sick to spitting from “rolling with it.” I don’t care if that’s insensitive or inconsiderate. Sometimes, the time comes to make the big sacrifices for what otherwise won’t get done. And writing always seems to take the back seat.

Of course you can’t force writing to happen and you can’t push for it when you’re just being selfish. But why would we think it’s selfish to write? Many people, even writers themselves, think writing is a selfish thing.

It’s not.

Writing is always a huge sacrifice. I’ve worked with all types of writers for many years, and every one of them has sacrificed incredible amounts of time and money to do it, neither of which they’ll get back. And they’re not doing it for themselves. Every single writer I’ve known has chosen to write in order to help their readers.

That’s their motivation.

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This is why for years, I’ve made getting motivated and staying motivated my focus. First, because it’s so easy to get distracted from the true goal. And second, because it’s so hard to continue when life crowds in.

And life always, always crowds in.

The truth about writing is, though it seems like the easiest thing in the world to do, until you actually try it and realize all it requires, you have no idea how difficult it can be.

I like to compare writing to playing golf because both are seemingly simple concepts that are surprisingly hard. I played golf for our high school, just enough to know it’s almost entirely a mental game. Professional athletes in any sport will tell you the way to win is by conquering the game in your head, and that’s no more obvious than on the golf course.

Just like writing, golf isn’t a difficult concept. Everyone knows how to do it. Anyone can swing a club and connect with a ball, just like anyone can set up a sentence and connect with a point. The challenge doesn’t come from simply doing that; it comes when your mind turns on you and takes what was simple and makes it into something Faulknerian hard by overthinking it. What’s hard about it is, you can know you’re overthinking it and want to relax to make it simple again, but even wanting that can make things worse.

In fact, I’ve come to believe it will always happen until a person learns how to outsmart themselves.

You can’t stop thinking about pink elephants by telling yourself not to think about pink elephants. And you can’t stop complicating your writing or your golf swing by trying to. That makes positive change completely impossible.

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The secret to overcoming unnecessary complexification is a simple mental trick of distraction. Think about something else.

Something more important: like readers. The solution isn’t forcing yourself to change, or pushing or demanding or disciplining. All of those typically only make it worse. The only way to overcome your writing problem is to stop thinking about it and to focus on your higher purpose. Your deeper motivation.

I focus on the higher purpose and weekly motivation almost exclusively on this blog, and I don’t talk much about writing tools and tips because while they often sound good, unless you’re at that exact spot in your writing process, trying to apply some tip won’t work. Tools and tips are fine and good. But they don’t solve the reasons you get stuck. They tend to confuse and frustrate the process as much as they help.

What we often need is the opposite tactic. Not a new idea or practice, but to let go of all we think we know. By God’s grace, he’s put in us the perfect refocusing tool: it’s called prayer. Or some call it meditation. It’s simply relaxing and bringing your mind back to center, back to God, back to love and ultimate comfort. That’s where you remember your higher purpose.

When you think too much, you get anxious, you try too hard. When you let go of all you think you need to do, your breathing slows and your muscles release. And whether you’re swinging a club or writing a sentence, you just let it happen. All you know so far about how to do it can come out naturally. And that’s the only way to enjoy yourself.

Sometimes, even trying to enjoy the process can become a self-defeating goal if you’re someone who tries too hard at everything (which, ahem, in my experience, writers are). When we’re having trouble writing or doing anything complex and difficult, we need to continually return to non-active mode.

Stop trying and forcing the process. Slow down, relax, and refocus your mind on just saying what you have to say.

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Don’t forget that when you’re not enjoying yourself, that’s a red flag. You can’t try harder to get the joy back. Stop pushing. Writing instructors have done damage with this “rule” about writing even when you don’t want to. That’s not helpful. Regular practice is important, but you don’t get people to do it by guilting them into it. You know what it’s going to sound like if you don’t want to write? That’s right. Bad.

Back off. Be patient. Get away and remember why you started. Pray and calm yourself.

Then when you’re settled, come back and just write what you want, if you want. I promise the writing you do when you aren’t pushing it will be some of the best work you ever do.

It can be easier. But you have to want to do it. Don’t lose that self-respect. Don’t forget your real motivation.

 

“Writing is far too hard work to say what someone else wants me to. Serving it as a craft, using it as a way of growing in my own understanding, seems to me to be a beautiful way to live. And if that product is shareable with other people, so much the better.”

– Jane Rule

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9 thoughts on “For When Writing Is Hard”

  1. complexification…eeuuwwww. what an evil tool of the enemy, but what a nifty word. fun to form with the lips. that would be god turning all things to the good?

    love from your faithful student relaxing and soaking up the relief dripping out of this post. i suddenly feel the urge to write.
    xoxo

  2. Dare one dwell on the wisdom of Solomon (Ecc 8:15): “so I commend the enjoyment of life, for nothing is better … than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany … [the work] all the days of [that person’s] life.” And, in a less sardonic mode, David’s picture is of a person as a tree, planted by streams of water, that yields it’s fruit in its season (Ps 1). Both restful images suggest the opposite of the frustrated toil that you, Mick, can probably spot in a minute.
    There is lots of pressure to perform (build that platform, build, build, doesn’t matter how you feel, or what’s going on in your personal background, build, build, build!)
    Thanks for giving permission to rest and recoup, grow by the stream, and let the fruit come in it’s season.

    1. Absolutely. It’s good to hold one thing and not let go of the other. ;) Perfection may never come, but pursuing the ideals matters.

  3. kathleen, i am SO THERE with you on the Ecc 8:15….especially in regard to this writing life.
    thanks for the Ps 1 hit, too.
    both fit perfectly
    love
    suzee B

  4. Mick and Kathleen, thanks for the dose of encouragement needed this morning to come to grips with my feelings of a lack of motivation to continue revising and editing my memoir. Prayer–the sweet peace we can all receive if we only stop and say the words.

    1. Practice. It all becomes easier with practice. Create the habit. Then it’s harder to break it. Thanks for the affirmation, Sherrey. God bless your words today!

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