Writing doesn’t have to hurt
As a longtime writer who finds the process excruciating much of the time, I’m always on the lookout for ways to make writing less of a battle. (So far, I’m finding blogging to be more engaging and less painful than writing for others for pay, but I still need strategies to manage longstanding habits of anxiety around writing.)
So it’s encouraging to come across the work of Robert Boice,* a professor emeritus of psychology at Stony Brook University. In How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency, Boice claims that good writing doesn’t have to hurt—that, in fact, “mild happiness” is the most productive state for writing and for the problem-solving that goes with it. I believe his approach could work for other creative endeavors too.
Many writers, including me, are quick to seize on the pain of writing as a badge of honor, a sign that you’re serious and thoughtful about your work. So Boice’s point of view is refreshing, even revolutionary, for me.
The book came out in 1994, and it costs a bundle online, but you may be able to get hold of a copy through interlibrary loan, as I did. It’s not a how-to book, exactly, although there are plenty of suggestions in it. It’s more a slow, deliberate narrative of the process Boice leads his clients through, during the year or so that they gradually learn to write more productively and with greater pleasure. Boice is an academic, writing for an academic audience, and his tone is professorial yet warmhearted. An earlier and much shorter book, Professors as Writers, might be a more straightforward introduction to his approach.
There’s fodder for many a blog post in the book, so I’ll start with a couple of points that I’m attempting to put to use.
Don’t go on a bender
Writing for hours on end (because you’re afraid you won’t be able to recapture the momentum after you stop, or because—ahem—the deadline is tomorrow) works against momentum, says Boice. Binge-writing, with its rushing and overfocus, makes that ideal working state of mild pleasure close to impossible. It also reinforces the aversiveness of writing, keeping the avoidance cycle going. (Has he been watching me work?)
As an alternative to bingeing, Boice recommends taking “comfort pauses” every 5 to 20 minutes. You need to set a timer for this—it goes against habit, and you’ll need the prompt. When the timer goes off, stop writing, check your sitting position (are you comfortable? if not, change position), check whether you’re rushing (if so, slow down), notice your level of tension, and do something simple to relax (Boice suggests letting your tongue drop to the bottom of your mouth). I’ve been working on using computer hang times as rest opportunities; Boice says to make frequent breaks an official part of the writing process.
Write early and often
Another basic practice is scheduling brief daily writing sessions, “BDS” for short. This isn’t a new idea, but I like his take on it. He really means brief—as short as 15 minutes a day. The 15 minutes (or 20, or 30, or 60) doesn’t have to be spent coming up with words. It can include taking notes, planning, reviewing notes and ideas, comparing ideas to other ideas, even playing with file categories—anything that’s in service of writing/creating.
And at the end of the scheduled session: Stop. Set a timer and stop when it goes off. (I use two timers, one as a reminder to pause, one to mark the end of the session. Simpler than it sounds.) The first time I tried the enforced stopping, it felt very strange, so strange that after a few sessions, I drifted away from the whole program. For a binge writer, stopping before you’re ready “is an ultimate exercise in patience,” writes Boice, “an exercise in building confidence and trust.”
So now I’m going back to it: the brief daily sessions, the comfort pauses, the stopping. I’ve made a couple of adjustments, most notably not setting a specific time slot for the brief sessions. For me, scheduling a nonnegotiable time of day for creating just generates resistance and guilt. Instead of a specific start time, I’ve committed to a sequence of actions I do after getting up: BDS happens after breakfast, before email. (Thanks to my brainstorming buddies for this tweak.) And if I have a morning appointment scheduled, I can skip the session.
I expect this process to be bumpy for a while. I’m also optimistic, and I’ll be writing more about Boice.
*I found out about Boice’s work through a discussion thread on Mark Forster’s site. Forster’s Autofocus system is a low-tech way of getting through your to-do list with less angst. It’s worked only sporadically for me, but I like it in principle, and YMMV; check it out.