I want to share with you the process from one of my writing sessions this past week.
As regular readers will know, I plan my writing time weekly and aim for 2-4 sessions per week of what I call Long Time — 45 minutes or longer.
I do two of those sessions with The Writer’s Flow Studio. These aren’t always my most productive sessions, because I’m also leading those sessions for others and need to stay attentive to what’s happening with them, but still I do get some writing done myself as well.
The other 1-2 sessions in the week are usually on the weekends when I tend to have more free time.
I love writing. I have set up my writing ritual now to be a source of pleasure and joy for me, so going to my writing desk feels like a treat to me — a kind of sanctuary and escape from whatever’s going on in the rest of my life or in the wider world.
I tell you this so you know that I’m not someone who fears writing and generally has trouble getting to the page. I used to have that issue, many moons ago now, but I worked hard to overcome it and so now see my writing sessions as a source of deep meaning in my life.
This past week however, one of my sessions went a little wonky on me and I want to share with you what happened.
I had the time set aside in my calendar to write. At the appointed time, I went to my desk and started my writing ritual. I’m a huge proponent of having a personalized writing ritual and mine looks like this:
- I was wearing comfy clothes and had my fluffy socks on, because it’s starting to get a bit chilly here in Ottawa now.
- I made a hot cup of Earl Grey tea with a splash of almond milk, in my “Votes for Women” tea mug. (“Votes for Women” is relevant to my current work-in-progress.)
- I lit my candle and turned on Yo Yo Ma’s Bach cello concertos.
- I set out my large notebook where I am hand-writing the first draft of my novel and grabbed a nice easy-flowing pen.
- I did a few minutes of deep breathing to keep my Reticular Activating System (RAS) in the “off” position and calm my sympathetic nervous system.
- I set my timer for 25 minutes (I often write using Pomodoro sessions these days: 25 minutes of writing, then a 5 minute break) and started writing…
This is where things went off the rails, i.e. immediately.
I re-read the last half-page I’d written. A scene had ended and I didn’t yet have the next scene figured out. Normally, this isn’t a problem — years of experience have taught me that the next scene comes if I just sit down to write it.
But somehow, I forgot this hard-earned experience.
As I stared at the page, I felt a moment of anxiety because I didn’t know what the next scene should be.
I re-read the last half-page again. BIG mistake. Suddenly the previous scene felt terrible. I fully embrace what Anne Lamott calls “the shitty first draft” but this scene now felt like the untreated sewage of a thousand generations.
Ya feel me?
Dear Reader, I panicked.
I felt a well of anxiety rise up in me and I wanted nothing more than to run away….
- To the fridge.
- To walk the dog.
- To put away the clean set of towels sitting on my bed.
- To make the bed on which the clean set of towels were sitting.
Anywhere but sitting at my writing desk, facing the stench of a truly horrific first draft of my novel.
Despite literally decades of writing experience, I felt deeply inadequate and not up to the task. And my Inner Critic (total asshole that she is!) had inadvertently been let loose and was fine-tuning her insults.
And my Inner Critic knows just how to get to me. She has this one question that gets to the pulsating heart of my inadequacies and that question is…
“Who do you think you are?”
When she says that, what she means is:
“Who do you think you are to think for a moment that you have what it takes to write a novel?”
“Who do you think you are to even attempt writing in a new genre that you haven’t published in before?”
“Who do you think you are to write anything PERIOD, when there are already so many truly great writers in the world, writers far better than you’ll ever be?”
Told you she’s an asshole.
And I’ve learned over the years how to shut her down with the answer to her question, which is:
“I’m me. I’m a writer and I’m learning as I go.”
That response shuts her up pretty quickly.
It shut her up this time too, though I also had to take a minute and return to my deep breathing. I had to tell myself to JUST SIT THERE and wait for the anxiety to pass.
I’ve given birth and lost loved ones, so I won’t pretend it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I did have to remind myself to do it.
Take a deep breath. Take another one….in through the nose, out through the mouth. For another full minute. And just sit there.
Then I made myself write down any old word. And as I was writing I was still thinking that these were shitty words: shitty words for a shitty first draft. (Chamber pots emptying down into the streets of a Dickensian slum, y’all.)
BUT THEY WERE WORDS. I’m a writer, someone who writes, and words are essential to that process.
I took a breath, I continued to sit, and I wrote down some not-very-good words.
I did that for a while: probably 5-10 minutes.
It emphatically did not feel good.
But then, eventually, the words on the page were slightly better words and coalesced into a scene that I think will be useful for the final novel. My writing session recovered and I made some progress.
Progress that I would not have made if I hadn’t trained myself over the years to JUST SIT when I want to flee. I can do that because I know that chemically-speaking, an emotion is only present in the body for 90 seconds. I’ve learned to wait out that 90 seconds and just keep going.
The scene I wrote will still need to be revised, but that’s a writerly problem for another day. Scenes that aren’t written in the first place can never be revised, so I’ve done my basic duty: I sat in my chair and wrote down words on a page.
And I’ve been thinking about that session ever since, reminded of something a very good friend once said to me when I was going through a hard time:
No one ever said it would be pretty.
3 Steps to Releasing Writing Session Expectations
I realized this week that I still have the expectation that most of my writing sessions should be good ones. Even after years of knowing better, that sneaky little thought is still in there. Somehow, I still believe that a “Real Writer” — by which I mean a talented writer, someone for whom words come easily and naturally — sits down at her desk and the words just FLOW.
Every. Single. Time. Without. Fail.
Logically, I know that to be utter B.S. But the expectation is still there.
Without that expectation, my writing session is just another writing session. I sat down and wrote some words. It was what it was and I did my writerly duty.
With that expectation, I will beat myself up about not being good enough.
And I’ve learned the hard way over the years that beating myself up about not being good enough, or talented enough, or naturally gifted enough, or diligent enough, productive enough…ET-EFFING-CETERA… is the surest way to ensure that I will skip my next writing session.
And possibly the one after that.
Because who wants to feel bad about themselves around something they consider to be so essential to their self-image and their well-being in the world? Not me. And that’s a healthy response. So in the past, I’d begin to feel bad about my draft, bad about myself as a writer — and soon as a human being — and then I’d be surprised at why I suddenly wasn’t writing.
If you can relate at all to any of this, here’s what I want you to do:
- Release all expectations about the quality of your writing sessions. There will be good ones, there will be bad ones…all that matters is that they happen.
- Practice your sitting. When you most want to flee your desk because the writing feels hard, just sit. Breathe deeply for a few minutes and start again.
- Write down some words. Any words. Let them be the shittiest words in the entire history of language. Just write down words.
Make this a regular practice and eventually your deeper (unconscious) creative self will kick in and the moment will pass. You’ll find yourself writing with ease again soon and surprising yourself. The more you train yourself to have this experience, the easier it gets. (To be clear: it doesn't stop happening, but you know what to do to get back on track.)
Try this process for yourself and let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear from you! (You can find me every Friday at 5pm Eastern on my Facebook page.)