Picture a writer. Any writer. Close your eyes and let the first writer, or the first stereotype of a writer, appear before you. And? What? Who do you see? Me, I imagine someone with a permanently furrowed brow, deep in important thought, smoking a pipe with severe concentration, looking over wire-rimmed glasses at a typewriter’s clean white page.
I know. It’s Ernest Hemingway, give or take the mustache. It’s not who I mean to imagine, but nonetheless it’s always who shows up, clearing his throat as if I’ve disturbed him from something he finds far more significant than dropping by my imagination. Not a particular Hemingway fan, per se, though also not not a fan, I am always surprised to see him there, pensive and moody, trying to rewrite the ending to a book he’d already finished and lost. No wonder he’s annoyed that I’ve summoned him yet again.
There’s a reason why I think of him, of course, even if I have to dig a little bit to find it. When I think of writing, the habit of it, the need for it, I think of diligence. Of deciding to sit down, while no one is making you, and facing the thing you have to do: write, whatever it is. A story, a stab at poetry, just a single sentence. Sometimes it’s easier to imagine pulling out my own tooth. A graphic comparison, sure, but the idiom was obviously developed by someone who was uselessly attempting to apply some self-discipline to their daily routine of creating: often fruitless (after all, what would you do with the tooth once you got it out?) and pretty painful.
"Everyone lies about writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it it. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea. They talk about their 'morning ritual' and how they 'dress for writing' and the cabin in Big Sur where they go to 'be alone'--blah blah blah. No one tells the truth about writing a book. Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver." - Amy Poehler, Yes PleaseTweet It!
Hemingway, among other writers, dealt with the tragedy of a lost manuscript. We’ve all been there at one point or another, whether it was a computer freeze-out before you saved your work or a hard drive gone bad (personally, twice). This is devastating no matter the circumstances, but it is particularly hard to overcome when you finally felt that the work you were doing (or hacking away at) was actually going somewhere. You can try to piece together the sentences as you remember them or reform the story from a thousand different directions, but usually, unless you’re really, really lucky, you’ll end up with only a fragmented version of your original idea.
Creative flow, whatever it looks like for you, is sometimes about being interrupted, violently so, and starting over. And while plenty of famed individuals in creative fields and not have passed down their advice, shared their daily rituals and offered their opinions on the best way to approach your assignments, it’s all useless unless it actually works for you.
This need for diligence, for commitment, applies to plenty of other self-induced creative crafts, of course. So if writing is not your defined bit, just replace “write” with whatever it is you are here to do. Replace Hemingway with one of the leaders of your trade or industry. It will all lead to the same thing in the end, which is this: you have to find your own way to do the work. By all means, borrow from the great minds when you’re feeling stuck. If you’re a writer, should you write every day? Probably. You should at least try it until it doesn’t work for you anymore, until you find a wall wider and taller than you can scale at that particular moment. And then? You should pull up a chair and think it over. You should borrow a routine from someone else, whether it be working in the early morning or into the darkest part of the night, you should write standing up (thank you, Ernest) or in a quiet, distractionless hotel room (thank you, Dr. Angelou). Whatever it is you decide to try, you should always find these routines to be flexible, bendable, adaptable.
I write every day. That part of it defines my habit. But the way that I write often fluxes based on where I find myself in the process. Am I still sifting through a character’s qualities? Am I trying to rewrite a piece of disastrous dialogue? Have I reached a point where I feel there is nothing left to say (I have, often, reached this point but am glad to know there is always a way beyond it)? Sometimes I sit for an hour. Sometimes it’s only a few minutes. Sometimes it’s an immeasurable length of time that feels like years, stretched on for miles, agonizing and relentlessly ticking away. It is a flame versus a flicker, a drop against a deluge. I write until the fire dies away, until the water runs dry, however long that takes.
“The more we are willing to separate from distraction and step into the open arms of boredom, the most writing will get on the page. If you want to write but you can’t figure out how to do it, try picking an amount of time to sit at your desk every day. Start with twenty minutes, say, and work up as quickly as possible to as much time as you can spare. Do you really want to write? Sit for two hours a day. During that time, you don’t have to write, but you must stay at your desk without distraction: no phone, no Internet, no books. Sit still quietly. Do this for a week, for two weeks. Do not nap or check your e-mail. Keep on sitting for as long as you remain interested in writing. Sooner or later you will write because you will no longer be able to stand not writing, or you’ll get up and turn the television on because you will no longer be able to stand all the sitting. Either way, you’ll have your answer.” - Ann Patchett, The Getaway CarTweet It!
When all else fails, I write a letter to a friend. I invent a way around the roadblock. But this counts only because I’ve deliberately freed myself from believing that routine always has to remain the same. In this, I have found my own way to get there even when I can’t. It’s like paving a road before me as I go along. I lay a brick or two and then stand back to examine my progress. Does it make sense? Is it going in the direction I intended? Is it revealing something completely unprecedented? When I’ve decided how to move on, I lay another brick or two and then wait some more. It is a practice in patience, in learning yourself, in knowing how to meet your work and wait for your work and work for your work.
"...If you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us." - Mary OliverTweet It!
The point is we must no longer assume that finding flow doesn’t include encountering enormous, overbearing, seemingly impossible hurdles. In fact, that’s mostly what it will be. It’s built-in to the journey; it’s how we learn to overcome. The flow comes in finding how to navigate these unexpected monsters, the beasts of distraction and self-doubt that will loom up out of the otherwise still waters, making waves and noise and demanding our attention. Sit still, if you can. Let them roar it out; eventually, they will tire. Or, through the noise, they will teach you something. If nothing more, a lesson in endurance.
It is often out of these moments that our best work is brought to life.
Want to be more creative every day? Sign up for our workshop on Creativity As A Lifestyle.
- How Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and Maria Popova Get More Creative (via Fast Company)
- The Agony of the Artist with a Capital A (via Explore)
- Daily Rituals: A Guided Tour of Writers’ and Artists’ Creative Habits (via Brain Pickings)
Helen Williams is the Community Love Director at Holstee. She is passionate about cooking and writing which pair well together on her vegetarian food blog, green girl eats. She strives, every day, to be less sorry.
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