An exercise to help you start writing

An exercise to help you start writing

Why you're not writing

Writers tend to struggle against three main sources of stress: 1) a disinterest in learning how or continuing to write on a regular basis, 2) a lack of time or energy, and 3) worry.

These stressors aren't mutually exclusive. You might have based your disinterest in worry, or you can feel so overwhelmed by the process of learning how to write that you feel completely drained of creativity. Maybe you're having a particularly hard time at work, or you're trying to build your own business and can't find time to blog among all the bootstrapping. Maybe, like me, you're often finding yourself a little lost among life's many transitions, like trying to claw creative time back after having a kid.

For those who find themselves unwilling to mark up an empty page, or have found themselves circling the same piece of writing—whether it be a chapter, a blog post, or an email—this exercise might prove invigorating.

An exercise to help you write, write regularly, and write without worrying about production

I have my mentor at the University of Arizona, the remarkable Professor Kate Bernheimer, to thank for this exercise. She "assigned" it to me in a time of creative crisis, just before my kid was born.

To begin, you need a few items, many of which you should be able to find around your home or workspace:

  1. A bound and lined notebook. No loose sheets, as they're more likely to make you a cheater, accidental or not.
  2. Something to write with.
  3. Roughly 30 minutes of your time, every day. How you find these minutes is up to you.

The exercise itself is quite simple:

  1. Write in your notebook by hand.
  2. Write about anything you'd like—a fictional story, a to-do list, a wishlist of presents you'd like for your next birthday, or journal about what's going on in your life. There are no limits, requirements, or expectations.
  3. Write until you have filled up three complete pages.
  4. Close the notebook and get on with your day.
  5. Repeat the following day.
  6. And, most importantly, never re-read what you have written on previous days.

The entire exercise hinges on this final step. Disregard it, and you'll probably find that the exercise is a complete failure. It's why I recommend a bound notebook over loose pages, and why I give you the freedom to write about whatever you'd like. It's best to narrow our temptations.

Every day, when it's time to write your pages, open up to the next clean page and start. The exercise is simple, but...

It's not always easy going

The first few days will feel quite challenging, both mentally and physically. You probably haven't written long-hand extensively in years, which means those muscles will be sorely out of practice. They'll tire easily. You might spend more time flexing and massaging them that you'd expect. But use those small breaks to your benefit, as the mental/creative challenge might be even tougher.

It's difficult, at first, and maybe always, to fill three entire pages. At first, you don't know what you can and should write about—learning those boundaries takes time and a growing comfort in your practice. Just remember that you can write about anything. Don't feel that you have to be immediately "productive" with this exercise, drafting out stories, blog posts, or anything other writing you'd like to use in your personal or work life eventually.

Setting specific goals with this exercise goes against its purpose and most tangible benefits.

This writing exercise works because it cuts away sources of worry

Writers, both beginner and experienced, and tend to worry. Or, to put it another way, the act of writing inevitably creates worry within us, no matter how experienced we are.

Same goes for a lot of creative habits. I've dabbled in a lot of musical instruments throughout my life: piano, cello, guitar, mandolin, harmonica. With each new instrument came terrible anxiety over simply being watched or heard playing. I used to wait until my college dorm mate left for class before closing and locking the door, turning on the TV to a quiet-but-masking level, and picking away at the mandolin. He didn't even know I owned a mandolin the first semester we lived together.

Beginning writers might have this exact anxiety. Having someone read your work, particularly for the first time, is daunting. Beyond that, many worry about the quality of their work or whether they're making themselves clear. They might wonder if their grammar is correct and if their word choice is diverse enough.

The only difference with experienced writers is that the architecture of worries changes. Experienced writers also worry about the quality of work, but add to that concerns over whether their work is creative enough, unique enough, whether it's suitable for publication, and how it compares to others.

By forcing you to write only by hand, and giving you no opportunities to either compare yourself to others or think about the precise end product, this exercise should help you settle into productive writing sessions that aren't weighed down by worry. You deserve an opportunity to practice your writing, not only project it.

Goals don't cause us to fail. Worry about those goals does. Let's cut the worry and get back to work.