Today I read over some my favorite quotes and pieces of advice from writers on writing, and decided to put them all together in a list of the things I’m learning from writing this blog, to refer to whenever I start going off track. Blogging is teaching me how to …
- Be more honest with myself. And then with others. I want to stop hiding and pretending. I want to be more myself, less ashamed, less desiring of approval. As I write, I get a tiny bit closer to what is true. Not what I want to be true because it is less painful to admit or sounds more impressive. As blogger and podcaster James Altucher advises:
Tell people the stuff they all think but nobody ever says. Some people will be angry that you let out the secret. But most people will be grateful. If you aren’t being honest, you aren’t delivering value.
- Say what I really think and feel. This relates to the above, which is especially hard to do when writing in public. Some things are scary to say. What will people think? As I write, I can hear their critical voices, see their eyes rolling. Have I said too much? I don’t think any writer ever loses this fear. In this interview with Krista Tippet, writer and blogger Seth Godin says:
What every artist wrestles with all day long is that voice in the back of the head saying, “Uh-oh, you’ve gone too far. Better not show this to anyone. … Every time we get face to face with the notion that we have to put ourselves out there, we want to hide.”
- Trust myself. No matter what anyone else says about my writing, I can feel it in my gut when I’ve written something that is not quite true – something exaggerated or altered for effect, something self-conscious or with an agenda. Validation from others provides instant gratification, but it doesn’t compare to the feeling I get when I know I have been as honest and clear as I can. Whenever I’ve sought others’ approval, I’ve found myself a little less able to trust my own opinion the next time I’ve sat down to write. I wanted to write what I thought would please them. Support and feedback is valuable, of course, but I need to be careful not to become dependent on it. I am making mistakes, but I am learning as I go along, and I know I have to write for myself first, otherwise what I write will be of no real value to anyone else.
- Write for the love of it. This might be the most important point of all. My lifelong dream has been to spend at least part of each day writing. It took me until a year ago, but I’m finally doing it. Even if no one reads another word of what I write and I never earn a cent from it, nothing can take it away.
And the more I write the more I see and notice around me – small gestures in strangers that mimic my own, lines read in books that resonate and connect, sounds and smells that bring up memories and spark my imagination. I want to write because I love the process of writing. I love expressing and discovering. This is how I want to live my life, “exploring and collaborating with forces of inspiration”, as Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic. As my favorite fiction writer Elizabeth Bowen once said:
The importance to the writer of first writing must be out of all proportion to the actual value of what is written.
I think if you write for any other reason, it shows.
- Listen. Everyone has a voice and most people have access to an abundance of platforms on which to share it. We all want to be heard and understood. And if we’re writers, to be read. And yet more than ever before, people feel ignored, misunderstood and alone. It is easy to forget to turn outwards sometimes. To stop scrambling for attention and trying to be heard, and to listen instead. This recent experience has reminded me again to try harder to really listen to what people are saying, to look beneath their words and read beyond what they choose to write about. To put my self aside entirely as I read or listen – no thoughts of what I might gain from the interaction. It can be a relief to do this. So much of the time we are saying and seeking the same things, if only we’d stop talking at each other. I was able to start this blog because of podcasts and books that encouraged and inspired me to take the scary step of putting myself out there. And the more I listen and read, the more I learn and am able to share. As soon as I stop listening, I feel my inspiration fade.
- Share and connect. In So You Want to Write Brenda Ueland describes writing as “an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had. Not to preach to them, but to give it to them if they cared to hear it.” My hope with this blog is to connect with others, to share inspiration and to experience that wonderful feeling of hearing your own fears, longings and passions in someone else’s words. I love this quote from writer Yiyun Li:
What a long way it is from one life to another: yet why write if not for that distance; if things can be let go, every before replaced by an after.
It reminds me of the amazing connections I have made thanks to this blog, like this weekend when another blogger wrote this beautiful post in response to one of mine.
Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.
- Take risks and be braver. I have spent most of my life avoiding things that scare me. One of my fears is sharing my thoughts and feelings. I have always been a private person and voicing myself in public does not come naturally. This fear is never going to go away. I have often heard quoted the example of Henry Fonda who would throw up every time before going onstage. He never lost his fear but he kept doing it anyway. Many times in the past year I have wanted to go back to hiding and avoiding, or to choose a safer option that would mean more security but less freedom. I frequently remind myself of another Elizabeth Gilbert quote:
Keep gambling everything for creativity and an exploratory life of the mind.
- Accept rejection. In his wonderfully encouraging and inspirational book The War Of Art Steven Pressfield describes the different kinds of resistance that keep us from writing or creating. One of these is fear of rejection. He writes about how evolution has programmed us to feel rejection in our guts. No one is immune – whether you are a first-time blogger or a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer.
Fear of rejection is biological, in our cells. Resistance knows this and uses it against us. It uses our fear of rejection to paralyse us and prevent us, if not from doing our work then from exposing it to public evaluation.
I have seen this fear affect my writing. I have omitted and deleted, rewritten things to make them less personal, taken down some posts and avoided writing others. I have to battle this fear constantly. And remind myself of the next point.
- Take things less personally. I often struggle not to take criticism or non- reaction to my writing personally. I try to remember that although it is personal (in the case of this blog, literally) it is still not me. Just like a doctor is more than the work she or he does. What I make or create is a part but not all of who I am. Someone can hate what I do and still like me. Or not. I have to accept that, too, and let go of trying to control how others see me, or wanting their understanding. It’s everyone’s right to think and feel as they do; what someone thinks of me is not my business, and the more I worry about other’s perceptions the less I am able to be honest and fully myself. As Alain de Botton says in an interview with Tim Ferris (recorded in Tools of Titans):
To blame someone for not understanding you fully is deeply unfair, because, first of all, we don’t understand ourselves, and even if we do understand ourselves, we have such a hard time communicating ourselves to other people. Therefore, to be enraged and bitter that people don’t get all of who we are is really a cruel piece of immaturity.
- Take myself less seriously. Life is so short. As James Altucher advises in his book Reinvent Yourself:
Learn how to laugh every day. Children laugh an average of 300 times a day. Adults on average … five times a day. What else is there?
- Make mistakes and fail. No writing is wasted. Every sentence I write, I learn something. Failure is new to me, because I have made very sure until now not to do anything I would fail at. There are a lot of things I’ve never done … As Theodore Roosevelt famously said:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
- Be patient. I often bring to mind these quotes when I’m feeling impatient.
Anything worthwhile takes time. (Debbie Millman)
You can do anything if you just do it slowly. (Lauren Groff)
No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anyone but oneself. (Virginia Woolf)
If day after day, week after week, you leave this trail behind you of thoughtful examinations of your world, you can’t help but get better at whatever it is you do. (Seth Godin)
- Be kinder. Firstly to myself. I am trying to use a kinder tone and gentler words when talking to myself, in general and about my writing. I imagine I’m addressing someone I care about, or my younger self. I’m trying to be less hard on myself about my limitations and failures, less judgmental. The kinder I am to myself, the kinder and more tolerant I am with others.
- Find out what I don’t know. Or didn’t know I knew. In a conversation with Paul Holdengraber, Dani Shapiro talks about the “unthought known”, the truths that emerge especially in fiction writing, which is a more subconscious process. Many writers agree that fiction can be more revealing than memoir, as the writer is less consciously in control, not explicitly trying to express thoughts and opinions. I have found this to be true, and also want to remember not to neglect my fiction writing — it can be easy to get caught up with blogging, to the detriment of other writing projects. Still, all writing is about discovering. I write because I want to know more and to understand. And to find out the things I don’t want to know, but need to know.
When you’re writing you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway. (James Baldwin)
- Live a life of purpose. Humans are unique in their ability to make stories, and to create for the sake of creating. We are here to express ourselves. As a wise friend put it, life’s greatest lesson is sharing and learning from others. I might not always act on what I’ve learned. I forget things, have to relearn them, contradict myself and make mistakes. Then I can share what I learned from these mistakes and keep on learning.
I highly recommend these books for advice on writing and life in general.