Tell me if this sounds familiar.
You have an hour to yourself, and you’ve promised to spend every last minute of it writing. In fact, you’ve even removed yourself from the house, so distractions like those dirty dishes can’t call to you.
You sequester yourself in the corner of your favorite coffee shop, plug in your headphones, and open your word processor.
Let’s do this thing.
Except the words don’t come. Every sentence is like pulling teeth. The urge to pull up Pinterest grows stronger and stronger as you force yourself to plug away at sentences you just don’t like.
You would almost, sort of, maybe be making progress, except everything you write you immediately delete because you’re sure it couldn’t possibly be right.
At the end of your hour, you head home with 500 cold, uninspired words, and you’re left wondering why you ever bothered in the first place.
I feel you, friend. I do. Which is why I can confidently say:
It’s time you learn to trust.
How traditional writing coursework fails writers
How much of your time spent improving your craft has been dedicated to learning rules? Rules on how to plot a novel. How to structure a scene. The best ways to write dialogue and build tension.
Writers spend hours studying grammar and syntax rules. Formatting rules. Rules for shaping the perfect opening sentence.
We have literally been trained to analyze every word we put on the page. And while it’s true that you have to learn the rules before you can break them, it’s also true that creatives have to learn to break the rules.
Look, I’m a big believer in rules. Ask anyone. I’m incapable of breaking them. But rules have a time and place, and creation is not one of them.
During the early stages of writing, your focus should be on instinct, not craft. Which is why I’m going to ask you to set aside that craft book for a minute or two and take a moment to study a different art form:
Don’t worry, I promise I’m not going to make you get up on a stage. Unless you want to. Then you totally should.
What writers can learn from improv
Improv, at its very core, is an exercise in trust. In her handbook Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation, Charna Halpern states:
“A player knows that anything he says on stage will be immediately accepted by his fellow player, and treated as if it were the most scintillating idea ever offered to mankind. His partner then adds on to his idea, and moment by moment, the two of them have created a scene that neither of them had planned.” 1
Many people shrink in terror when they feel they might be forced to improvise. It’s hard to trust, especially when on public display.
The basic tenant of improv is “yes, and…” Yes, we are in the desert. Yes, that red fruit punch really does contain the water of life. Yes, I do love you, and please stop hugging me.
This does not mean there cannot be conflict. Disagreeing with your improv partner is perfectly all right, but if your improv partner has introduced a new reality to the scene, you cannot reject it.
Improvising with a partner who has not learned to trust is not only frustrating, but also painful. The real kicker: the person who puts up walls in the scene is almost never the person who comes out looking like an idiot.
A personal example of the utter humiliation that is a failed improv scene…
Picture, if you will, a mousy little nineteen-year-old girl forcing herself through a J-term’s worth of improv classes in the name of impressing a certain older boy. (Hint: the girl is me.)
One day, my class and I warmed up for our daily lesson with a couple of three-line scenes. The premise of the exercise is simple: two people per scene, and the scene ends with the third line.
I initiated the scene, dragging my body onto the stage, clearly exhausted beyond belief.
My partner (let’s call her Debbie) took the first line, “I don’t think we’ll ever get out of this desert.”
“Me neither, and I’m so thirsty.”
Debbie stopped, stared at me, and delivered the third and final line, “Wait, what? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Everybody laughed, and I blushed my way back to the end of the line. I never could figure out what was so confusing about a person experiencing thirst in a desert, and for the remainder of the term I avoided Debbie like the plague. I went so far as to count lineups for exercises to make sure my position could in no way pair me with her “by chance.”
Debbie and I were great friends, but I no longer trusted her to support me in creation.
Cool. What does this have to do with writing?
Here’s the thing: All writing is improvised. The problem is we are too inclined to say “no” to whatever idea we intuitively want to place on the page.
The human mind is capable of insane amounts of association and will naturally find patterns, games, and links. These associations are a goldmine for artists, but we often don’t recognize the gift until we’ve already passed it by.
Our minds will make the story connections for us long before we ever find their relevance, but if we don’t trust our writer’s mind to let those connections happen, we’ll lose those strands before we ever get to see the whole picture.
Improv teaches the writer to value those out of shape lines and scenes that just don’t seem to fit. Improv gives writers permission to keep writing with those lines and scenes in tact until part or all of them fit into the story. Chances are, our brains knew their necessity before we did.
“There is a part of the human brain that is very skilled at improvisation, and it is usually setting up a player’s scenes for him (however subconsciously). So, he has to be careful not to get in the way of his own ideas!” 2
When we plot out scenes too heavily or force a scene to go in a previously plotted direction instead of the new direction our gut suddenly feels it must, we risk damaging the integrity of our story.
This is how false and stunted moments occur in our writing. We will spend days of revision forcing our pieces back to where they’re suppose to be, to where they would have been had we just said, “yes, and…”
So how can we train ourselves to get out of our own ways? The answer, my friend, is free writing.
Learning to trust your instincts
Improvised writing, or free writing, is not a new concept. Many of Natalie Goldberg’s books and workshops teach Zen tenants, but at its core, her methodology is very similar to that of improvisation.
Goldberg’s method starts where any good improv class should start—with association. In her book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Goldberg states:
“First thoughts have tremendous energy. It is the way the mind first flashes on something. The internal censor usually squelches them, so we live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thought, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first fresh flash.” 3
(To get a better feel for Natalie Goldberg and the tenants that shape her writing practice, check out this brilliant interview she did with The Sun Magazine.)
Training your instincts to trust you
Trust goes both ways not only in life, but also in the creative process. So while we must learn to trust our instincts, we also must train our instincts to trust us.
Getting a little too woo-woo for you? Stay with me. I promise, it will all make sense.
Think back to that embarrassing little improv moment I detailed above. What happened when my partner didn’t trust me?
I stopped trusting her. In fact, I completely manipulated my entire class experience to never be forced to trust her again.
Now reflect on one of your hardest writing sessions. One where the words just wouldn’t come, and the ones that did you deleted over and over again. How did you end up feeling?
Totally and utterly blocked.
The more we tell our subconscious “no,” the less it wants to work with us. Every time we shoot down an idea, our brain becomes just a little more resistant to offering up the next. And why should it? You’re just going to reject the idea anyway.
It’s time we start saying “yes, and…” to the flashes of inspiration our minds offer up, even the ones that don’t immediately make sense.
Alright, writer friend. It’s time to put down your phone (iPad, laptop, digital reader of choice), and pick up your pen. It’s practice time.
Goldberg has a handful of simple rules for a successful writing practice. For a complete list, pick up Writing Down the Bones. For now, we’ll just focus on three.
Rule #1: Use a pen and paper. Why? For starters, the physical act of writing actually accesses a different part of your brain than typing at a computer. More importantly, it’s harder to edit yourself when you don’t have a “delete” button.
Rule #2: Keep your hand moving. Don’t cross out, don’t erase, don’t scribble over your writing. Don’t stop until the timer runs out.
Rule #3: Ignore all the rules (except for these ones). Don’t worry about spelling, margins, grammatical correctness. Forget about what society says is good or bad or normal. Just write.
Got it? Good.
Now set a timer for ten minutes, and pick a prompt. Goldberg typically starts with prompts like “I remember” or “I forgot.” One of my personal favorites is “I have lost.”
That’s it. That’s the entire practice. If you find yourself unsure of what to write next, simply keep writing “I remember I remember I remember” over and over and over until the next thought comes to you. Just keep that pen moving straight up to minute ten.
Practice means daily
Goldberg is my bread and butter. I tell all of my clients that the number one thing they can do to transform their writing is to embrace the ten-minute exercise and practice it daily.
What do you gain from this daily practice?
You prepare your mind to associate, freely and readily. You turn yourself over to your intuition. And, most importantly, you learn to trust your creative process.
Practice free writing. Practice daily. And the next time you sit down to craft your story, get out of your own way.
Allow yourself to trust. Trust yourself to write.