By Lynn Grodzki, LCSW, MCC
Private Practice Success Newsletter, Dec 2012
As someone who spends a fair amount of her professional time writing (5 books published in 10 years, dozens of articles written for a variety of professional magazines or journals, and a monthly newsletter for 10 years, written for my email readers) — I know firsthand that writing is hard work.
Did you have a writing project for 2012 that you did not achieve? So many things can sabotage writing: time demands, life demands, or anything else that derails us and makes us believe that whatever we want to express is not worth the time, effort, or exposure.
I have been thinking about my process of writing after completing a long article that was just published in the Psychotherapy Networker Magazine (Read it here) I think this article is some of my best writing, but it was far from easy for me; in fact, it was a slog. It took me a full year to complete and required three completely different drafts, all of which I loved but were rejected (or “corrected” — choose your verb) by a rigorous and thoughtful editor.
Part of the slog of writing this article was that I was on my learning curve, writing in a style that was new to me. The editor kept asking me to slow down and unpack my thinking process, to reveal more about who I am and what I think – to be less of an expert and more of a peer to the reader. His notes for each draft asked me to go deeper and explain further. He wanted a lot of narrative and personal anecdotes.
Even when I thought I had done just what we agreed, he challenged me to start from a new place and use a different slant. After each draft, I felt increasingly uncertain and it slowed my progress. The article went through starts and stops. Months passed. My previous writing experience did not help; I felt like a beginning writer.
Why bother? Was it worth my time and energy? I wasn’t getting paid. Why not stick with what I know? These thoughts were ever present, threatening to derail the process completely. But I found ways to stay on track, helped by relying on a few writing “mantras” — phrases that I have developed over time to hold me to the task. I wanted to share these writing mantras with you, in case they might help you in a similar way.
Lynn’s Writing Mantras
1. It’s my job.
Writing seems like fun only to those who write for fun. For those who write seriously – as a regular part of their work – it soon loses mystery or glamour. When writing becomes tiresome, I remember it’s a job; it’s part of my professional work. I shift from acting like writing is a pastime and raise it to the level of a professional task. As a pastime, I would try to fit in writing time around other more important commitments. But if it’s a professional task, I block out time on my calendar and let nothing else interfere. As a pastime, I can multi-task while I write; but if it’s a professional task, I turn off the phone and email and devote my full attention. As a pastime, I wait to be inspired, to be in the mood. But if it is my professional task, I do it regardless of my disposition.
2. It’s supposed to be difficult.
I hear from those I coach that when writing gets hard, they think they are doing something wrong. But that’s a faulty equation. I frame my process of writing as similar to my practice of exercise. When I go to the gym, if I am doing it right, it’s hard and I moan and groan and sweat. With exercise, hard work is usually considered a sign of effectiveness. So, although it is great when writing comes easily, I don’t need to be worried by the level of effort it usually requires.
Things I find hard about non-fiction writing include: having to sit for hours at a time, when my job already requires a lot of sitting; looking at a blank page; feeling blocked; numerous edits and rewrites; having nothing to say; having too much to say; clarifying my jumbled thoughts; trying to be original. Especially hard is how much time writing takes and how slowly it proceeds. Hard work doesn’t mean I don’t write it well, or that the end product won’t be valuable. It just means that it takes a lot of time and effort. I need to accept how writing is for me, get over my complaints and get on with it.
3. Keep Writing
Several years ago I attended a Mystics game, the women’s basketball team (WNBA) in Washington, DC. They were losing badly, mostly due to the problems their star shooter, Alana Beard, was facing that night. She missed shot after shot. After each miss, the fans in the stadium groaned, except for a small cadre of women seated near me who yelled out: “Alana, keep shooting!” She missed, they immediately encouraged her to try again. Their encouragement actually seemed to help. Alana looked up at them a few times and nodded. She kept asking for the ball and shooting. By the second half, she was making shots that scored. She didn’t give up based on her earlier failure.
I remember that Mystics game and Alana’s willingness to keep trying when I feel like my writing isn’t successful. As Woody Allen said, 90% of success is showing up. It reminds me to keep writing.
4. Let the environment help.
One of my mentors, coach Thomas Leonard, said that not all behavior change has to occur inside of a person. Sometimes, you’re better off trying to use the environment. Can’t write routinely or get distracted and lose your motivation? Set up your writing space with care and creativity, so it helps you write. Once I read an essay by author Joan Didion about her practice. She wrote every day for many hours. She said that sometimes she dreaded having to “go into that room” to get to work. I thought: She has a room just for writing? No wonder she is so prolific. I don’t have an entire room, but I do have a corner of my office that is set up for writing. It is clean, organized, quiet and welcoming. I have a good chair, good lighting. It’s conducive to the task at hand. When I sit down in my writing chair, even when I think I have nothing to say, the contained setting helps to hold me in and get started.
5. Embrace editing.
I am a big fan of editing, and by that I mean letting other people see my writing, while it is in process. Few of us can be objective with what we write. I ask friends, colleagues, other writers, and family to be early readers, and I have regularly hired professional copy editors as needed to help me polish finished chapters and articles. (Tip: your readers should be people who want the best for you, who are clearly on your side, and are able to articulate their thoughts about your work in ways that are helpful.)
The best advice I got about editing came from my colleague, author Nancy Napier, who had published two books when I was still writing my first. I had not yet gone through an editing process with the publisher and she urged me to embrace the editing process. Nancy advised me to let go of ego, stay non-defensive, and understand that editing is a collaboration to produce the best product. This is now the way I receive feedback, from readers and editors: with appreciation, even if I ultimately decide to go a different way.
6. Any day I get to write is a good day.
I am fortunate that I am able to write and that I like to write. For me, writing is a chance to be with myself and reach out to others. It’s a chance to create and think. Even though it is often hard work and requires definite time, space and energy, I remind myself that any day I get to write — whether it is important writing or a short blog entry — is a good day. Wishing you lots of good writing time!