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ON WRITING, RACE, AND RANDOM REFLECTIONS

What Keeps You From Writing?

Did you plan to start on that new writing project yesterday, but then discover that your oven needed cleaning—urgently? You simply couldn’t stand the flaky grime one more day. Or the phone rang just as you sat down to begin and two hours later you realized you allowed yourself to get caught up in your friend Shonda’s troubles with her husband, and never got to the writing. Or maybe your daughter called from her first month at college, needing advice about how to handle a drunken roommate. You were so grateful she asked, you completely forgot about your own plans. Life, like a river, never stops.

Women have so long been trained as handmaidens to other lives that it can be extremely challenging to put ourselves first and continue with our own plans, no matter what dilemma life is throwing at us. Finding the strength to say “No” to others’ needs—which will always exist--takes determination. And practice. It’s not easy but you need to find a way. Disconnect your phone. Don’t check email. Set a timer for your allotted writing time, and don’t get up until it goes off. You can’t wait for that peaceful, empty day. You have to make it.

I often suggest to writing clients who have trouble “finding time to write” that they schedule writing hours in their calendars the same way they’d record a doctor’s appointment or a business meeting. Regard it as equally sacrosanct. You’ve made an appointment with yourself: aren’t you as worthy as anyone else to keep an appointment with?
At first, this takes practice. And grit. We are so conditioned to feel “selfish” if we put our needs first that when we do say “No” we may feel guilt-ridden we can hardly concentrate. Our minds keep wandering. Schooled in deference, it can feel strange to assert our own desires over others’. But the world will not collapse if you sit at your computer for two hours, and at the end of that time—with your promise to return tomorrow—you will feel fantastic. You did it.

Besides the interruptions that intrude on the best-made plans, another thing that keeps many women from writing is the belief that we might fail. Who am I to think I can write a book anyone will want to read? Or an essay for The Nation? A book review? It’s easier never to begin than possibly discover we can’t complete the job.

There is only one way to confront this terror: feel the fear and do it anyway. Every writer, without exception, has experienced moments like this. If you don’t expect your first draft to be perfect--or your second or third--you will develop writing skills that will carry you through. Once you allow yourself to make mistakes, facing the blank page is easier. And of course, after you have completed the project, you will need to rewrite it again. But you will be on your way. Franz Kafka once observed, “From a certain point onward, there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”
If you can hold onto your urge to write as a priority, the rewards are bigger than you can imagine. Think about writing as a way to stay aligned (for me it is). A saving grace. When the world is falling apart around you, you have a sacred space where you can go to center yourself, stay focused, and accomplish your goal.

So when you find yourself procrastinating from the writing you swore you’d do, ask: Am I afraid to put myself first, claim my desires as important? Or afraid I can’t pull off this project? Whatever the fear that’s keeping you distracted, give it a swift kick, and run for your writing space. Getting there is the first step. Then getting words onto the page is the next. Keep putting the words down; they don’t have to be great. Later you’ll be surprised, though, to find a sentence or two that makes you beam.

Many writers avoid distractions by creating routines. Making writing a habit is a way to put yourself “in the mood” to write rather than waiting for a muse. Any regularity to your writing schedule will be helpful. Maya Angelou rose at five-thirty every morning and had her coffee at six, so by seven she could be writing. As creatures of habit, once we have established a writing practice, it’s easier to return to it the next day. My routine is a morning hike in the woods after breakfast. Then I sit at the computer, ready to write for several hours. It may be challenging to find the routine that works best for you, but once you do, you’ll find that the habit makes those first moments of settling into the writing easier. And the next time you have a plan to write, it will be just a bit easier to get there. Momentum will carry you forward.

But first, you have to begin. Happy writing!
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