On Writing

Writer’s Block. . . The Inner Editor. . . Not having enough time or the right space to write. . . The Zone. . . these are all terms I’ve heard but do not buy into for myself.  Well, maybe the Zone.  I kind of get that.  If you’re a writer, you must write.  Right?  And I believe everyone can write if they want to.  I know this to be true because I have taught students who could barely read to be prolific writers.  Anyone can write.  It is there for you if you will but pick up the pen.  Or pencil. It doesn’t matter.  Use a computer if it pleases you.  But write!

I know about those ideas that sit in the back of the brain, sometimes for years, decades even, waiting to be given birth to with the brave and often painful stroke of a pen.  But those untold stories and brilliant, unformed treatises shouldn’t keep you from writing. With a little practice, writing can feel almost as natural as breathing.

I write every day, first thing in the morning.  I call it a journal, for lack of a better word.  But really it’s just the early morning ramblings of my just awakened brain spilling out onto the page through my pen, scribbled as quickly as I can chase them down.  It is stream-of-consciousness writing, or free-writing – call it what you will. But is it really writing?  I would say, “Yes, it is.”  Is it something I would want to publish and share with the world?  Hell no!  I do date and keep these morning ravings in a bound notebook, which is why I feel I can call them a journal.

What I love about this morning ritual, this free-writing, is that there is no judgment, therefore, no Inner Editor or Writer’s Block can interfere.  This is just the pure act of putting words onto a blank page, a kind of exercise or calisthenics, if you will.  You don’t need to be in any kind of ‘zone,’ and the only space you need is a desk.  You do need to make time in your morning routine, maybe about fifteen to twenty minutes.  Just do it.  If you want to be a writer, it can start here.  This I can easily promise you.

I speak not only from my own experience, but also as a teacher of writing.  It almost pains me to make such a claim because it really is as simple as that.  It’s the way I begin, as a teacher in the public schools of seven and eight year-olds, as well as a private writing workshop facilitator for children of all ages.  I’ve been doing this for years.  It really works.  It really is just that easy.  It all starts with the morning journal.  I tell the kids, “Just let whatever thought is in your head travel down your arm, out through your pencil, and onto the page.”

“But I don’t have anything to write about,” is the lament I hear, but don’t accept, ever.  Because we all have many thoughts going through our heads at any given time.  I tell the children there are thousands (I don’t know if this is true – but you get the point).  Have you ever tried not to think?  It’s impossible.  I accept any and all meanderings on the page, as long as there is a date at the top that I can read.  There is no penalty for misspelling or missing or wrong punctuation.  And voila!  By the middle of the year I have authentic, prolific writers, every one of them.  It never fails, and I have been doing this for twenty years.  My students go on to third and fourth and fifth grade, leaving me behind, but with a stamp on them as writers that their subsequent teachers recognize and appreciate.

Of course, this is not all there is to it.  There is the formal writing that you want to publish, share with the world, which must be revised and edited.  This is where you may fall into those ugly traps of Writer’s Block with that hateful, Inner Editor hovering over your shoulder, inhibiting every word that would come through your pen.  This is where you might find yourself asking forlornly, “What is this Zone they all talk about?”

Do not give in to despair.  Just keep writing.  You may not have the time or space for it, but keep writing anyway.  I wrote all of my papers for my Masters’ degree while at the beck and call of a newborn baby, frequently typing one-handed as I held that baby at my breast.

“How do you concentrate?” I have frequently have been asked. “How could you keep a train of thought going, much less a sentence, under such circumstances?  Forget about the Zone.”

I can and I do.  I can write almost anywhere, I truly know it.  The Zone you’ve heard of?  Yes, I believe in The Zone.  But it isn’t a magical, impossibly rare place.  It’s just in your head – that space between your ears – and you can get there with a little discipline and determination.   No one can follow you into that place if you don’t let them.  You may leave a thought hanging there to answer the phone or change the baby’s diaper.  It will be waiting for you when you return.

In fact, it may be even better for the waiting.  I carefully park my thoughts in the zone like a neatly parked car when the world demands my attention.  They wait for me much like a car in a parking lot, none the worse for the wait.  Frequently, I find that such thoughts have grown into something even better, richer, because they’ve been left alone to evolve into who or what they were meant to be, kind of the way a good parent will leave a child alone at the right times to explore and find out who they are.

When I want to introduce a topic for my students to write about, I tell them that I am going to put the idea of it into their heads. “There,” I say “it will bake, like the Gingerbread Boy.”  There’s nothing they can do about it at that point.  It is there, and it will bake.  We don’t want it jumping out of the oven that is their brain too soon, scampering off and leading us on a merry chase, half-cooked, like the Gingerbread Boy, and that won’t happen if I have introduced the topic with enough time for them to at least sleep on it.  My point is that a thought won’t disappear just because you have to leave it parked for a while.  And it might even bake into something better.  Sorry for the mixed metaphor…or not!

These are just a few of my thoughts on writing and the writing process.  I, myself, simply do not suffer from Writer’s Block, but I would never invalidate another writer’s experience.  My suggestion as a treatment, if not a cure, for Writer’s Block, for the Inner Editor, or whatever form your barrier to the creative process takes, is to free-write.  If you do it as a morning routine I think you will find it to be enormously helpful.  It would warm you up for the “real writing” that you may attempt, rather the way an athlete warms him/herself up with stretching exercises before the main event.

For all the magic there is involved with the creative process, there is also work, plain and simple.  Writing is work to a large extent. But what is work?  Gibran tells us in The Prophet, “When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music. . . And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God. . . Work is love made visible.”  This is what writing is for me.  It is, indeed, love made visible.  It would flow through me, like a physical thing, from my brain and heart, through my arm, and out through my pen – an invisible presence, like love, but like the Invisibles, all the more powerful for its invisibility.

Do not be afraid to write.  Go forth with pen and paper in hand, and bravely put words to the page.  Do not judge yourself, for there is no bad writing.  There are words that do not contain the ring of truth to them, but even such words cannot be considered bad writing if they would ultimately lead you to the truth.   Remember: we always must rewrite, revise, and edit.  Writing is a path on an unending journey, and as with every journey, you never know if you will reach your destination, or even what that destination may be.  Go with the flow and swim in the river of words.  Be brave, if not fearless.  You must write.  It is your right.