The Pragmatic Hybrid

Writing is hard. I try some things.

This writing business isn’t for sissies. Sometimes it totally blows. I would stop, except I don’t seem to be capable of leaving it alone.

So I try things. I am always with the trying of the things. Today I bring you an update on the recent learnings from my tryings.

First: I’m trying a new approach these days for my n-o-v-e-l in progress. (I spell it out so that I don’t wake up any tricksy faeries that might interfere with my humble efforts.)

The loosely-held goal is to write for five minutes, three times a week. More is always okay, but the idea is to set a teeny-tiny expectation, so that it’s almost impossible to wiggle out of.

I’m being very influenced right now by Eric Maisel’s Fearless Creating. One of his big things is that artists who succeed in creating consistently do so because they find ways to manage the anxiety that attends the creative process.

My current way of doing this is to write “even though” sentences.

Like this: “Even though I feel massive anxiety at the thought of writing the actual n-o-v-e-l instead of just writing about it,  and thinking about it makes me want to take an immediate nap, I am allowed to not know where to start today.”

And so on. I write these for as long as I need to – until the knot of anxiety loosens and I’m able to imagine myself picking up a thread in my growing story and following where it leads.

So I’ve been going along for a couple weeks now, practicing managing my starting-anxiety, setting a timer and seeing how far I get, with permission to keep going after the timer dings if I feel like it. I won’t lie: sometimes it flows. And sometimes it’s really, really hard.

This weekend I had one stellar writing session in which I wrote about 1,000 words in 25 minutes. This is probably some kind of land speed typing record for me. It was so shocking a number that I had to go back again to make sure I’d done the word count right (yes, there is a bit of sub-clinical OCD in my family, why do you ask?).

And then there was one bleh session. It started with my inner writer bitching: “But we wrote yesterday! Whaddaya mean we have to write again today? Writing is hard! We deserve a reward! We deserve to skip writing today!”

Which stopped me up short.

Because writing is what we do, my inner writer and me. Not writing as a reward for writing? Maybe not the most productive thing.

I get the utility of rewarding myself for doing difficult, virtuous things. But the writing thing is not a chore I can do once and be done with. To write all the stuff that wants me to write it, I need to work consistently over a lifetime. Two, maybe.

The reward thing is fine. It just needs to be something other than not having to do it next time.

So: what are possible rewards of Having Written? Outside of things that exist in material reality, I mean. Because I don’t want to bust the budget bribing myself to write.

The biggest non-material reward for me is how I feel. I feel good after writing. Really good after writing well, but plenty good enough even after writing badly. I feel like my day is spent well, no matter what else I do with it.

And when I haven’t written at all, there’s a free-floating crappiness that affects everything. Even when the crappy feeling isn’t at the forefront of my brain, it’s in there somewhere, making me despairy.

This movement away from pain is less interesting to me than the move toward feeling good. So that’s the thing, I think – to deepen my appreciation and noticing for how I feel after I’ve put in my writing time. Like a professional! Like part of the community, of the society of writers.

To remember the many, many people all over the earth who are – right at that very moment – writing too. In the words of Jane Smiley, “to be someone who has volunteered to be a representative of literature and move it forward a generation. That is all.”

The inner rebellion also made me see that I wasn’t making it as safe as necessary for me to start.

I believe deeply in the power and necessity of the shitty first draft, as described by Anne Lamott. Out of this permission to write badly comes safety, and safety is what makes it possible to begin. Permission is the tonic that gives you courage and power, and that makes it possible to play and lighten the eff up.

But, as I discovered, there is a difference between saying it’s okay to write really badly and for only five minutes, and actually meaning and believing that it’s okay.

And I was saying it to myself, but not meaning it. The quality obsession was always there, lurking just out of sight, even in the shitty first draft phase.

This is the thing – when you say this to yourself, mean it. Make it really, truly okay to write badly and little. It has to be meant, and it has to be a blanket for as long as something is in the SFD stage. When it’s time to revise, it’s okay to start appraising.

Until then – give yourself honest, sincere permission to write badly. Mean it. It’s okay – no, it’s required – to let it come the way it comes.

P.S. – Probably my top-favorite trick for making it safe to start is to write with others. You’re together, you’re enjoying and cheering each other, and suddenly it’s possible. I am running a writing workshop in January that is all about this safety and support to let writers find their own voices. I haven’t gotten around to polishing up the official page yet, so if you want to hear the details first, get on the Happenings list.

Oh – and if you have any bright ideas for a name for the workshop, leave them in the comments! If I use your name or something based on it, you’ll win free registration for the 10-week session.

Comment Fu

This space is like a Quaker meeting that is happening in my living room. Honored guests, please speak as you are moved to. And let’s be awesome to each other, because graciousness among friends is why we hang out together.


  1. Kim

    Hi Amna, I followed this link from Twitter, and I’m so glad I did. Though you are writing about writing, this is just the kind of thing I teach to visual artists, including a specific workshop in Daily Practices. Basic principles: bite-sized, permission to play (and fail!), regularity and frequency (which are enabled by the first two). Thanks so much for your thoughts on the topic – we artists (of all kinds) can’t hear or read this kind of thing too often! (ie we need to hear it as often as possible.)

  2. Elana

    Really enjoyed this post. Really useful and can totally totally relate. 2 things that jumped out for me: ‘free-floating crappiness’ (love that Amna) and ‘Permission is the tonic…’

    This is just what I needed. Permission to write badly. Yay! Thank you.

  3. @TheGirlPie

    My favorite line, which I will no doubt adopt and revise freely to suit without ever remembering where I read it (!) is:

    “The reward thing is fine. It just needs to be something other than not having to do it next time.”

    Oh honey, what a brilliant reminder — thank you~!