We all need a certain amount of discipline in order to get our writing done, but sometimes we cling too tightly to rigid beliefs, habits, and expectations when what’s really needed is letting go.
I experienced a bit of letting go myself last week and it really paid off. I entered my office intending to work on the last chapter of Part Two (of three) of my memoir. But when I sat down at my computer, I had a strong desire to rewrite my chapter summaries for part three instead. I’d written them over two years ago, and a lot has changed in my life since then, in ways that I knew impacted my memoir. The summaries needed a complete overhaul as a result. In the past I might have forced myself to stick to my original plan to work on the chapter. My methodical self might have said something like, Don’t jump ahead. You’ll get there. Finish Part Two first.But I felt such excitement and passion to work on the summaries instead. It was as if something was tugging at me, and I couldn’t resist its pull. I had to follow. You’ll get to the chapter, an inner voice soothed and prompted. It’ll unfold easily once you’ve got Part Three straightened out.
The new summaries unfolded effortlessly. And then I experienced another pleasant surprise: I began sorting notes and journal entries, and assigning them chapters. I had documents for seven chapters open on my desktop simultaneously. I dumped material from my notes into each one. This brought each chapter into focus. Each one’s theme, and the stories I’d use to express it, became clear. Now there will be no blank page to face when I sit down to write these chapters. Working on all seven chapters at once is not something I ever planned to do, but it helped me see both the final section and the book as a whole. It also defused my fears about writing the first two chapters of the third section, which deal with difficult material. I was able to see those chapters—and by extension, those experiences—within the context of what felt like a safer whole.
It’s important to point out here that I approached this work differently than I usually do. Over the years I’ve experimented with taking breaks during my writing day. My typical MO has been to sit down, write, and the next thing I know hours have passed. On a good writing day five hours feel like five minutes. I’ve known for years that this isn’t great for my body. I’d tried setting timers, but they’d go off and I’d hit reset and keep working. I’d do this multiple times, as many as six or seven.
But I recently heard this expression: “Sitting is the new smoking.” Scientists say sitting is that bad for us! So last week, while working on my chapter summaries—and then that final chapter of Part Two—I took lots of breaks. In the past, I moaned about household chores pulling me away from my writing. But over the past year, while grappling with anxiety, I discovered that putting things in order around my house calms me. It’s something I can control. So I experimented with interspersing chores and other activities with my writing. I washed dishes, meditated, made beds, ate lunch in the yard listening to birdsong (a luxury I enjoy living in Southern California), folded laundry, and walked around the neighborhood. Rather than distracting me from my writing, these activities helped relax me, and also gave my writing some space. Ideas flowed while I was away from my desk.
I probably wouldn’t have discovered this on my own, but I’ve been taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction class—MBSR—based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. Practicing mindfulness creates space in my life, and also in my writing. “Give it space,” my meditation teacher, Gloria Kamler, says, giving permission for a difficult thought or emotion to arise. I’m learning to release my grasp on thoughts and feelings. As a result, I am loosening my grip on how I work, trying to detach, observe, and pay attention to the present moment. The result is that I’m experiencing greater ease in my writing and in my life, and I’m trusting more.
Still, I sometimes have strong ideas about what I think I should do and how I should do it. This can be helpful, except when it isn’t. “Stop shoulding all over yourself,” Gloria says. This is as good a lesson for writing as it is for life.
I often tell my students and clients that our main job as writers is to stand back and allow whatever needs to come through us to do so. We are vessels—the more spacious the better. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to back away from it, to give it space. This is a liberating process. And so is the knowledge that it’s not always what we do that matters so much as how we do it.
When was the last time you gave your writing a bit of space? What happened? I’d love to hear from you.