on doing the work

or how to start and keep writing

i am in a period of my life where i am working consistently and well. this is not work i am being paid for, at least not in the sense that i am making my living off of it. you might not agree that it’s very good. but personally, i feel proud of what i am making, and i also feel proud of the practice i’ve created. if you’re anything like me, developing a writing practice, or any other consistent creative practice, has been difficult. this piece is for you.

regardless of the financial outcome, i feel lucky to even be able to write. i have been writing long enough that i know that being able to write is a gift, both in terms of what i’ve been granted artistically and also that having the time, and the mental wellness, and the energy to write regularly is not something to be taken for granted. i have gone through long periods of writer’s block, periods where i am doing nothing of spiritual or creative value and i am resentful toward myself and the universe and god and where i can’t even read other people’s books because i am so jealous that other people are not only published but actually got to have the experience of writing, which i myself am seemingly incapable of.

it’s important to point out, to myself and to anyone else reading this who also has decided to call themselves a writer, however earned or unearned they feel their claim to that title is, that we don’t know what other writers’ writing experience actually entails. maybe it all came to them in a single flash of divine brilliance, or every day they woke up, stretched, and immediately wrote two thousand words of the most beautiful, heart-stopping prose the world has ever seen. maybe it felt like pulling teeth, or they wrote half it in just a few weeks and the second half took the better part of a decade. maybe they didn’t touch their manuscripts for months, or years, and they were so mired in guilt and shame over the fact they weren’t writing that they couldn’t even open the document on their computer, let alone actually work on it, because to open it would be tantamount to admitting their failure. we don’t know. we cannot compare ourselves to the unknown, especially when the only evidence we have of the unknown is a shiny, hardcover book of essays, and our own known is a pile of notebooks with coffee stains and an abundance of run-on sentences. (i, myself, am fond of run-ons, but that’s a different essay.) doing this sort of comparison is not only by-nature inaccurate, it’s also damaging.

regardless of other people’s writing experience, i’ve had my own, some of which has driven me to self hatred and some of which has made me feel like i am godlike in my talent and ability. probably neither of these extremes are particularly healthy or well-adjusted ways of going about having a creative practice; certainly neither of them are sustainable foundations to build on. if you have to bank on godlike ecstasy and divine guidance to write, you might never write again, or it be years before you pick up your pen again. if you hate yourself for not writing, it’s incredibly difficult to just start writing again, even if it feels in your mind like the solution to your problems.

self hatred is stickier, and more difficult, and more messy than nearly any other emotional realm. sure, you can logically know that getting back into the swing of things will help, but how do you actually get back into the swing of things? it’s difficult to begin again, difficult to read over the last draft you wrote, difficult to suspend your judgment and self-loathing long enough to write something of merit without your brain telling you, in looplike fashion, “this sucks. you’re a shitty writer. why are you even bothering? you have nothing interesting to say. is that fourteen line tangent supposed to be a sentence?”

half of the work is just the approach to the work. you cannot be a writer if you do not write. you cannot be an artist if you only make art when things are good and easy and it feels like the universe has perfectly aligned to cocreate with you. sometimes the universe does align. sometimes it’s the easiest, most natural thing in the world to sit down and spill your guts or master a new technique or otherwise make things, in the way that you want to make them. but a lot of the time it isn’t.

any creative practice worth having, therefore, has to tackle the issue of how to actually have a creative practice. it also has to deal with what you’re going to do about your ego.

the ego is a fickle, strange creature, one prone to both long, delusional daydreams and scathing bouts of self-loathing. the self hatred and godliness i referenced earlier aren’t just two ends of the extreme; they’re spaces i regularly inhabit. (although now, thank god, the frequency with which i swing between these poles is much less often.) i will be in a flow state, writing thousands of words at a time without breaks, feeling witty and clever and profound and brilliant, and then the next day i will wake up and feel the dread of having said nothing interesting and done nothing of value and essentially just being a boring, arrogant pile of shit masquerading as an artistic and clever individual. it should be reiterated that this is not something that occurs on a seasonal scale, or only after completing big projects; this is a twelve hour time difference we’re talking about. sometimes it’s two hours.

what the ego wants to do is protect itself. why we even have egos, i don’t know, except they’re inherently tied to narrative and the human need to define and categorize and chronologically order everything of note that we experience (or think we experience). the voice that tells you you’re brilliant is your ego, just as much as the voice that tells you what a talentless hack you are. both voices exist to protect you, although they have very different ways of going about it. the voice that tells you you’re godlike in your talents is a way to bolster yourself, to keep you moving and strike down any harm that may come your way. the opposite voice, its twin brother, says you are talentless so that if anyone else should say you are talentless, you’ve already heard it and prepared for it and they can do you little or no harm. both are reactions to the unknown, which every new artistic project, every draft, every potential reader or critic or internet troll represents.

(a note about the ego: having a healthy ego doesn’t mean humbling yourself or making yourself smaller. having a healthy ego means having a (mostly) accurate perception of yourself, one that you know to be fallible and not at all serious. a healthy ego makes you feel right-sized, the way looking at the ocean makes you feel human-sized.)

how do you create, then, without listening to either of these voices, or at least without believing them so deeply that you run yourself into the ground or stop making art completely?

the only inoculation against ego is repetition. if you only write when you feel inspired to do so, and then you sit down one day and try to write regardless of how you feel, you will probably feel like shit. forcing yourself to put words down on paper when you feel like you don’t have a single original thought in your head will inevitably — at least at first — make you question what the fuck you’re doing. but you have to offer your struggling writer self some gentleness here: of course you don’t know what or how to write uninspired — you’ve never done it before, at least not consistently enough to know how to work your way around the blocks and the nagging little voices and the weird, fatal sense of entropy enclosing the whole project. blaming your writer for not being able to write every day when you’ve never actually taught it how to do so is a little like blaming your cat for pissing on the floor when you haven’t cleaned the litter box. do you wish the cat could just do what they’re supposed to do, without you having to devote your every waking moment to their urinary success? yeah. but also, it’s just a fucking cat.

it’s precisely in the process of having to navigate the internal critic and the sense of doom that you will learn how to write. more than just developing your skills as a writer, these moments of persisting despite the (very rude) voices in your head telling you that you don’t have what it takes are the only way to actually begin and sustain a writing practice. for years i wrote only when i was inspired, or only when i had a specific project i was working on. there’s nothing wrong with this approach, and in fact it worked for my needs for a long time. i knew i wanted to be a writer one day, but everyone in my life (consistently, and without being asked even in the slightest) told me that that was not a thing that people could just decide to do. i was told to get a degree, or study journalism, or go into law, since i knew how to talk and argue and i was a world-class bullshitter. (one time a boy at a house party told me i should be an actress, because i was extremely beautiful and also a great liar. i made out with him.) i was given all sorts of alternatives and addendums. but certainly nobody told me i should actually just write.

throughout my late teens and early twenties, before i realized this was actually, really, truly what i wanted to do, i either didn’t write at all, with the exclusion of journaling, or i wrote piece by piece. i managed to journal consistently enough, usually every day but sometimes with long stretches of nothing. actual pieces occurred between much more consistent stretches of nothing. this was fine, for the most part; when i felt like i had a good idea or a poem was coming through me — that strange and magical experience of being a vessel, or a portal, for an idea to come into the world — i would write, and usually i got it pretty close to what i considered the right iteration of that particular poem. (i have a theory that most poems exist independently outside of us or our perceptions, like the platonic ideal of the chair which all human-made chairs aspire to be; we, as poets, are responsible for being the transcriptionist and doing our best to get each word in its right place.)

i cannot stress enough the importance of journaling, if you are serious about building a practice. if you’re like me and you’re prone to working in bursts and fits, instead of consistently, building a journaling practice is the first step toward building an actual writing practice. first of all, it’s a great way to write about writing — what’s working, how anxious you feel about the fact that it’s not working, new ideas and stories and whatever’s floating around in your head, still in the briny, fetal stages of development. journaling is also a great buoy against the waves of self-loathing when you’re not producing much — sure, you haven’t written a poem in a month, but you have managed to put down three pages a day, every day, regardless of that. maybe it feels like nothing now, or it just makes you feel pathetic to sit there every morning with your earl gray and oat milk and write about your life as if anyone would ever care. i’m here to tell you to not worry about the ambiguous “anyone” when journaling. banish them from your mind completely. your journal is for you and you alone, and one day when you are five years in the future you will flip back through and find a beautiful line, one that you can use in something you’re working on. if that doesn’t happen, you’ll be reminded of how you felt at twenty-two, or meet a version of yourself you forgot existed, or else just thank god you’re not as annoying now as you were then. all of that is good. all of that is helpful. you are journaling for your own mental fortitude and growth, and every day in the present that you journal is a gift for your future self, regardless of if they ever read it again or not. writing is writing is writing. it all adds up to something, eventually. you might not know where it’s going or how it’s helping you, but i promise you, all motion is good motion.

i wrote like this for years — no real sense of urgency, a sort of laziness to the whole deal, but still putting out stuff that i liked occasionally and keeping my hat in the ring, at least peripherally, by journaling regularly and doing lots of intensive foundation building in the form of therapy and various writing exercises that were designed to help me emotionally/mentally/spiritually in some way or another. if you are a writer, please go to therapy, or at least do introspection on your own. writing is the deadliest art; the american canon is absolutely littered with suicides and drug overdoses. even if you are happy and have never touched a drug in your life and have no mental health problems, therapy, or some other form of emotional excavation, is an excellent exercise in how to go in to the deep parts of yourself and still come out okay. writing necessarily takes you into yourself, even as it connects you to others; having a sense of what that self is, and how to get out of it, will only strengthen your art. it will also keep you capable of writing the dark, heavy shit, without making you lose your mind.

like i said, for years i had no sense of urgency. this was because i, like most nineteen year olds, was convinced my youth would last forever and that everything i wanted would just sort of happen without me having to try very hard for it. this is where the god complex comes in a bit; i was convinced that someone in the field would just stumble across my work one day and be so blown away, so completely astounded by the sheer force of talent radiating off me like an electrical charge, that they would sign me as a client, give me a hundred thousand dollar advance, and change my life overnight. it’s a nice daydream, but it’s not one i’m going to gamble on. (although, if any agents are reading this and have the budget for such a thing, i’m all yours.)

the other side of the god complex (and astonishing arrogance and ignorance) that i touted around in those years was the self-loathing i mentioned earlier. because i had no discipline as a writer, and also because i was convinced i was fated to be a bestselling author before i was twenty-two (even though i had never, you know, actually completed a book), i would struggle immensely against the writer’s block that came in like black clouds over an otherwise beautifully planned picnic. i had the sense that i should be writing, since i, you know, wanted to be a writer or whatever; but anytime i tried to force myself to do anything “creative” without feeling that divine spark of inspiration i would fall on my face. this was not even necessarily a case of me feeling like i had no ideas or nothing to write about, although there was plenty of that too in those years. i would have well-thought out, interesting ideas for a story or an essay (or at least, well-thought out and interesting to me), and i would sit slack jawed at my computer for an hour, nervously typing an opening sentence word by word, and then read it, clench my jaw, and furiously backspace over the whole thing, lest anyone catch me writing an imperfect sentence.

this was, needless to say, not a fun time.

i can’t tell you why i didn’t have discipline, except for the fact that i never took anything seriously in those years. i say that without much of a moral judgment; i was nineteen, and i thought the world revolved around me, and since i knew i was a good writer i just expected the rest of the world to catch on eventually. most nineteen year old artists are like this, self-absorbed and completely unaware of the reality of the art world, although to be fair, it’s hard to be aware of the reality of your field when you haven’t yet actually done anything in it. you haven’t really learned how to think yet when you’re nineteen, and so you are much more susceptible to these sorts of beliefs, namely that of being the center of the universe. what did david foster wallace say? ah, yes — “everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different than everyone else.”

tangents aside, i had no discipline, and because i had no discipline i was instead subject to the random whims of fate and inspiration and self hatred — namely, my ego. i was lucky enough to keep my head on just enough to catch the occasional poem passing through the ether, although i also had plenty of ideas that seemed brilliant at two am and which i told myself, i’ll remember this tomorrow, only to — of course — have no fucking idea what it was come morning. maybe some of those ideas were brilliant, maybe they were all shit. more likely it’s a combination of the two. but i’ll never know, or get to explore them, because they went flying on past me to someone who had the presence of mind to actually get out their notebook and write them down.

this is where the discipline comes in: in recognizing what ideas you might want to explore later and taking the sixty seconds necessary to transcribe them in whatever form you can manage in your post-sleeping med, pre-sleep daze. it comes in valuing what you have, and what you are trying to do, enough to give it an honest shot. it’s not important whether or not the ideas turn out to be good; that’s secondary to the process, just like whether or not people love your book is secondary to you actually writing the book. you have to grant yourself the necessary space to wrestle with these ideas, allowing that it will probably take the rest of your life to come to any conclusions (if any conclusions are ever to be reached at all). seeing ideas through to their end is the work of writing, the same as the process of writing is about grappling with your ego & your fears & all the social conditioning that’s led you to believe you will never be as good as the greats and you are a fool for trying to make things out of words instead of going into accounting. (accountants, it should be noted, can also be writers, and poets, and jazz musicians, but no one is going to tell you that in our culture.)

discipline means showing up to do the work regardless of how you feel. and i don’t say this in a “your feelings don’t matter” sort of way, or that you absolutely must write a certain number of words every day or else you’re trash and will never be a success. of course your feelings matter. they are your process, or at least a good chunk of it. i just mean that, if you are going to develop a habit of writing regularly, whatever that looks like for you, you will have to commit to writing even when you don’t feel like writing. because that’s what writing is. it takes a lot of time, and energy, and bad drafts, before you can start to develop your voice and figure out who you actually are and what you are trying to say. but that process, that great unknown variable in the equation, is where you will actually learn how to write.

if you’re a writer, you’ve likely already stumbled upon some good things, ideas or poems or little scenes that came to you almost fully formed. and i won’t take those away from you — if ideas exist outside of us and want to be made into being, it would seem logical to also think that they are capable of choosing who to be made through. if a good idea came to you, and you executed it, and then more ideas came, it stands to reason that the ideas liked your work and knew you were a good fit. that’s rather flattering, isn’t it?

but not every idea is going to come fully formed, and some ideas are simply too big to deliver themselves neatly wrapped and with a bow on top. you might catch a poem out of thin air, but a novel is an entirely different beast. so is a newsletter, or an advice column, or anything you’re writing regularly or under deadline. you have to get comfortable with learning new methods, trying new exercises and changing things up. you cannot write your way into a good life if you are unable to sit with the feeling of being a failure. which is not to say that you should feel like a failure, or that low self-esteem is necessary to becoming a good writer. but it’s rather unreasonable to expect that we should always feel good, or that we should never experience doubts, when what we’re doing everyday is essentially diving into the unknown. the point of writing frequently is to get to a place where the feeling of failing, or falling flat on your face, becomes less frequent. if you can get over the hump, if you can sit with the doubt, if you can find a way to write even on the days where every idea you try on for size looks ridiculous, you will, by the very nature of the work, not be a failure.

you are growing a body of work every time you sit down to write. will all of it be good? no. but you can’t create good work unless you’re also willing to make awkward work, or stupid work, or just plain shitty work. in building a habit you give yourself the opportunity to make better work, consistently, even if it’s not as graceful as the ideas you pull out of the ether. that is why you build a habit: not because everything you ever write from that point onward will be perfect, or so you can achieve critical acclaim, or because doing so will mean you never have to experience self-doubt again. you write because you want to write, because you have the compulsion to do so. and in learning how to write even when you don’t feel like it, you’ll learn the actual, secret joy of writing: which is that one day, once you’ve put enough hours in, it will feel easier. but! (and this is a big one, so prepare yourself) –

it will always remain a bit of a puzzle. and that, if you can get to it, is where all the fun is.

enjoy my writing? consider subscribing to my patreon, becoming a paid (or free!) subscriber to this newsletter, or following my advice column. your donations help give me more time to write and otherwise make art in this world. sharing is also caring! if you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, please send it to friends or post it to your socials. either way, thank you for reading & i appreciate you being here!

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so you didn’t ask to be born right when we experience all the consequences of the past 2000 years? sucks to be you! luckily for you, in between now and the water wars, there are plenty of ways to stay sane, help our planet, blow up oil pipelines, and most importantly, stay cute.

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joelle schumacher

joelle schumacher

author of ask jojo & the manic pixie dream girl’s guide to existential angst. https://linktr.ee/joellewritesthings

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