|We’ve reached the hard part of the creative process: STARTING. This is the moment of commitment. You’ve made your choice, you have an idea – now you must start writing. This is when the demons come out to play and procrastination takes over your life. Suddenly there’s a million other things you need to do and the writing fades into the background. You need to find a way to navigate the moment of starting otherwise your inspirations will shrivel and limp away, never to return.
This stage of the process arrives as soon as you commit to working on a particular story. Starting isn’t just the point when you begin to write the prose of the novel. It’s the point when you begin to wrestle the story into shape – with outlines and index cards and plot breakdowns and character arcs.
This is the stage when the work ahead can seem so overwhelming that you’d rather not think about it at all. You’d rather clean the oven. Or watch Jeremy Kyle.
The worst thing you can do now is give in to your fears and doubts. But then you look at the scale of the task and go weak at the knees. You’ve entered the realm of the cowardly lion and Weakened Mind anxiety. Instead of feeling excited by the story you’re planning to write, you feel listless, bored and distractible. You begin to lie to yourself. You tell yourself that you need to do more research, or that you’re still germinating ideas and percolating possibilities, or that you’ll start later after you’ve repainted the entire house.
You might also start to doubt whether you can write at all. You convince yourself that it’s too hard, the project is too big, you’re not the right person to tell this story and you couldn’t do it justice if you tried. Thinking about your story makes you feel tired, or you suddenly feel disinterested – the idea you were so excited about before, now seems a little flat and dull. The ennui, fatigue and negative self-talk are all manifestations of anxiety and fear.
You can still make yourself write under these conditions but it’s not much fun. Every word feels as if it’s being carved into your flesh – like the magic quill used by Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Finding your Heart
Weakened Mind anxiety can be dealt with using ‘appropriate strength’ or courage. Here are eight things you can do which will help you to overcome your fears and approach your writing with more courage:
Say No, and mean it: For this to work you must be honest with yourself. If you really have no intention of writing on a particular day, or in a particular moment, then admit it. Say No to your writing – and say it out loud. Don’t kid yourself. Deep down, you know when you’re not going to write, so just admit it. Say “NO!”, then drop it. Don’t spend the rest of the day beating yourself up because you’re not writing. You said no, remember.
Learn to enjoy being alone: If you’re serious about creating anything you need to come to terms with the amount of time you’ll be spending on your own. If you really can’t take that much isolation, consider getting a writing partner. If your ego can’t stretch to sharing, and being alone for long periods sends you doolally, do something else – you’re not a writer. To write well you need space and time, and unless you’re some kind of zen master or capable of ignoring everyone around you, solitude should become your best friend.
Boldly commit to starting: Starting isn’t something that happens once. You have to start every time you sit down to write, and every time your mind wanders in the midst of working and you have to bring it back. [Practise the Puppy Technique to conquer this problem!] To maintain the energy you need to complete even one draft of a novel, you’ll need to renew your commitment to the work over and over and over. The words ‘motivation’ or ‘discipline’ seem inadequate. You need oomph. Take yourself by the scruff of the neck and WRITE!
Manifest the qualities of an artist: If you embody certain qualities you are much less likely to get thrown off course, discouraged by setbacks, or defeated by failure. This comes down to needing to write as much as you need to eat and sleep. No matter what happens in your life, no matter how many people think you’re crazy and are wasting your time, you will write. In his book Fearless Creating Eric Maisel lists 15 qualities of an artist. To discover what they are, see my series: Living Creatively in a Mad World.
Recognise the pivotal moment of your day: The pivotal moment is the most important split second of your day. It’s the moment when you say either YES! or NO! to your writing. The future of your novel hangs in the balance until this moment – locked in a box like Schrodinger’s Cat, awaiting the moment of revelation. Will the book live or die? You decide. If you can catch this moment and see it coming, you can sail through effortlessly and start to write. When you say Yes! (and you will 😀 ), say it out loud. It helps.
Negotiate the walk to work: Learn to manage how you approach the walk to your writing space. This may only be a few steps from the sofa to the desk, or it may be the drive from your home to your office. However long it takes, you can use this time to prepare. You’ve said Yes! to the work and you’re going to write. If on the way to your writing desk, kitchen table, or wherever, you get sidetracked, the Yes! is lost. You must learn to stay focused on your commitment to write. Hold the story in your mind and…
Encounter the first minutes at your desk: This is crucial. The first few minutes after you sit down to work can make or break your whole day. Once you arrive at your desk, the danger of losing the Yes! hasn’t gone. You need to continue to focus on your story and maintain your commitment to write while you wait for the computer to boot up, or find your pen. You must resist the urge to check your email, or rearrange your files.
My routine goes like this: I say Yes! and head for my desk in the corner of the living room. I switch on the computer, and while I’m waiting for it to boot up, make a cup of tea and think about the story I’m writing. I check my notes, open the correct file and jump to the end. I may briefly re-read the last page to get back into the voice and rhythm of the story, and then I begin.
Well, that’s the theory. There’s usually some uming and ahing, some window gazing, and the urge to get up and go and do something else. But all these distractions must be resisted – push them aside, reassert your commitment to write, and focus. The trick is to enter the trance of working as quickly as you can.
Keep doing all of this: All of the above must be repeated over and over until you’ve finished the novel or whatever it is you’re working on.
If all goes to plan, every time you sit down to write, you will start well. You’ll leave your demons and doubts standing in the corner looking sheepish, and perhaps they’ll decide to leave you in peace so you can work. Then you can enter the trance of WORKING, which we’ll look at in part 4.