The summer I turned twelve, my parents enrolled me in an early morning swim class. Like the simple creature that I am, my eyes typically shoot open when the sun rises and droop when it sets, so I didn’t mind the early hour so much. The problem was, the swim class was on the north shore of Massachusetts, and the pool was supplied by oceanwater. So to say there was some hesitation in our group when we stood at 8 o’clock in the morning in the gloom of a New England summer morning in our thin eighties bathing suits and thinner rubber swim caps, shivering as the ocean wind whipped through our prepubescent bodies, looking into pool water that was the very color of our iciest nightmares, is sort of like saying feral cats prefer not to be bathed.
Here’s a dirty little secret from the writer’s world: no matter how long you’ve been a writer, you will almost always feel this way when you sit down to write. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Pulitzer Prize winner and/or been sitting down to write every day for the last several decades; in fact, feeling like an “expert” can sometimes make the trepidation about diving in even worse. I, for instance, after several years of a regular writing practice, found those days when I walked in all bright-eyed and bushy tailed and full of myself sometimes translated into the worst writing days of all. (As I’ve said before, there are few things more effective than high expectations at obliterating an otherwise great opportunity to get a little writing done.)
I know this might not make much sense. In most normal human endeavors, the more time we spend doing something, the easier it usually is to do it. But the more time I put in as a writer, the more likely I am to be hard on myself when I can’t dive in right away. I should know better by now, right? Have all the other gazillion times I’ve sat in front of a keyboard meant nothing? The trouble is, this punishing pressure only infests my icy waters with man-eating sharks.
After over a decade of this push-and-pull kind of exchange between my perceptions of what writing should look like and what it actually looks like, I began to realize that diving in doesn’t care how much skill or talent or experience you have to offer. In fact, those things can make diving in that much harder, simply because you expect to start swimming the moment you hit that water. But the more you care about what you’re writing and how well you’ll rise to the challenge it presents, the more likely you’ll be to fear looking at what you wrote the day before, or what you didn’t write the day before, or launching into that new chapter you lay awake all last night imagining into excellence, only to wake in the cruel light of the morning to realize the pesky thing still needs to be actually written.
Fortunately, I have three surprisingly simple tricks for getting over my fear of diving.
One, I expect the fear; welcome it, even, as a sign that I’m not phoning it in. That somersault in my gut is actually a good sign that I haven’t gone soft or failed to challenge myself or, worse yet, stopped caring enough to risk putting the best I have to offer down on paper.
Two, I literally trick myself. I tell myself that instead of writing this morning, I’m just going to read. I have a stock of books I’ve identified as triggers; works that I never tire of reading, and which never fail to inspire me. I pick one of those up, and sit down guilelessly in the nearest reading chair. Fortunately, I’m really an extraordinarily simple creature, and this trick works almost every time. The releasing of myself into a land of beloved words almost always winds up with me typing busily away within an hour or so. Or I set a timer. I tell myself I only need to look at my novel for five minutes, and I promise myself I can watch ten minutes of Long Island Medium afterward. Sometimes, this results in five episodes of LIM watched for every 1,000 words produced, but I’m happy with that ratio, as I am with any ratio that involves putting any number of words down on paper. Novels are composed of words, after all, so even one more is a step in the right direction.
Three, I remind myself that diving in is always the worst part. Once you’re in and used to the initial shock of cold – aka rereading that paragraph of purple prose you wrote yesterday, or that wooden dialogue you still have yet to turn into a Real Boy – you start swimming. You find some other colors in the purple, and you gently coax them into the light. You see how that dialogue has a line in it that rings true, and you see if you can match it with another.
You will almost certainly find your own tricks and techniques, but the idea is to put simple, kind, and extremely workable solutions in the path of your regularly bad habits and attitudes. You can try to eradicate those bad habits and attitudes, but I find that kind of demanding perfectionism around your own character a real buzz kill, creatively speaking. Instead, it helps to realize that you can work really well with your imperfect self, especially if you stop worrying over where you think you should be and remember that where you actually are – even if it’s standing resentfully over an ocean of risk and possibility — is the only place where the work you most want to do can actually get done.