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About the Writer:

Hannah Six is a freelance writer, creative writing teacher, who also works (to pay the rent!) as a writer/editor at a nonprofit association in Washington, D.C. She has been published in a variety of newspapers and magazines, has contributed to several books on writing and the writing life, and is certified in the Amherst Writers and Artists Institute method of leading writing workshops. Hannah lives in Georgetown with her husband and two (mildly insane) cats.

Writing is Not a Trip to the Dentist
(even if it sometimes feels like one)
Hannah Six

“I hate writing.”
“I’m not creative.”
“I’m a math person.”

Believe me - I’ve heard them all, and (at times) have said them all, except for the math part. I really can’t begin to compare writing to an algebraic equation. Regardless, the bottom line is that I agree: Writing is hard. But I don’t agree that it is naturally hard, or that it has to be that way. I think we make writing hard by thinking too much, worrying about what our readers/editors will think of us, and trying to force words out of our brains before the words have even begun to form.

Our culture, to a large extent, detests the concepts of waiting, relaxation, and tranquility, despite the recent interest in yoga, meditation, and Pilates. Most of us work hard to be quick and efficient, then “schedule” time to move at a natural pace into our calendars. Pretty soon, relaxing becomes just as much—if not more—work than actually working! This do-it-all-and-do-it-now attitude acts like a viral infection on creativity, resulting in too many cases of “false writer’s block.”

“I just can’t write this. I have nothing to say,” is a frequent lament among writers of all backgrounds, especially among those facing deadlines for articles, essays, or novels. As a reporter for a daily newspaper, I learned a few things about writer’s block. First, it usually masks, or portends, a really good story. Second, it’s an important part of the writing process. And, third, sometimes you just have to do it anyway.

I only write when I'm inspired. Fortunately I'm inspired at 9 o'clock every morning. - William Faulkner

The “I-can’t-do-this” myth all comes down to a few ideas perpetuated by people who believe writing is something only well-educated, highly trained, and excessively talented people can do. The truth is that we are all talented, all perfectly suited to write. We speak every day. Writing is simply speaking, except it’s on paper. “Speaking,” as Pat Schneider (author of Writing Alone and With Others) says, “is simply writing on the air.”

Another myth is that writers must feel inspired to write well, or even to write at all. This is not necessarily so. Sometimes it’s the act of writing itself that inspires us. So, inspiration or no inspiration, we sit in front of the computer, or at a table with pen and paper, and we do what we can. Then we revise and edit it. It’s really that simple. Sometimes the writing is good. Sometimes it’s not so good. But it can almost always be fixed.

I don’t worry about inspiration, or anything like that. It’s a matter of just sitting down and working… coming back and reading what I have produced. I am unable to detect the difference between what came easily and when I had to sit down and say, “Well, now it’s writing time and now I’ll write.” There is no difference on paper between the two… you sit down and you have just conditioned yourself: Now it’s writing time and you have a deadline sitting out there somewhere and you’re going to do the very best you can here at this moment; and so you do it. - Frank Herbert (author of Dune)

OK. So writing isn’t always easy, even for people who write every day for a living. You may be wondering how that’s supposed to help you finish your novel or complete the short story you’ve been agonizing over for weeks.

Well, first off, sometimes it just helps to know others are suffering: Misery loves company. But it also helps illustrate the point that what you write does not have to be perfect. In fact, if you work on a single paragraph for an entire year, it probably still won’t be perfect. When you release yourself from the strain of perfectionism, you often release yourself to write more freely. So relax, and just write. Just write.

But wait! No, I really mean it: WAIT (Words Accumulate In Time). Procrastination may be your mind’s way of processing information. I think of it as a compost heap… Every day I throw some more garbage on top, and with time it all turns into a wonderful, rich fertilizer, and makes good things grow. (Natalie Goldberg, author of the fantastic book Writing Down the Bones, first drew my attention to this idea.) Do you have a little time to spare? Can you put the project off without causing difficulties for yourself or others? That may be your best bet.

By allowing ideas and information to “compost” in your mind, you are giving your powerful subconscious time to do some of the hardest work for you. Often, when I don’t know what to say about a subject, I find that putting it off for a little while gives me a sense of urgency that, combined with the extra time to think and plan, results in a quickly produced and well-crafted piece. If I rush myself, however, I usually end up creating more work for myself than if I had just relaxed and trusted the process.

In the end, though, you must always come back to the moment when you type your first words, or write them on that blank page of paper with your favorite pen.

Begin. Write something, anything, and the fountain of ideas that has been mounting pressure within you as you thought, read, talked, and procrastinated about writing will burst forth. Or, it may just trickle a little. But, with patience, you’ll have something on paper. And that’s a good place to start.

P.S. For those who doubt, this column is a classic example of all of the above

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