Sometimes I have these moments where writing suddenly feels like total bullshit
And I sort of “forget how to write” — or rather, have to re-decide how I want to do it.
There are two high-level ways to write:
Second person, i.e., “you, the reader.” This is the way most top writers in the most popular tags write (not excluding me.)
First person, i.e., “I” — and not even “I, the writer,” ideally, but rather “I, a person.” Some writers do a better job of this than others, while others don’t seem to realize they have a voice at all, writing like they’re some amorphous “person behind the curtain” willing you to accept them as a face projected on a screen.
And yes, there is also technically “third person,” but you’ll just have to believe me when I say: beneath the surface, it’s still really one of the two above.
All third-person writing is either for the reader’s knowledge (second person) — including most nonfiction — or for the writer’s own amusement and intrinsic joy (first person) — including most (good) fiction.
“Content” writing, written simply to get information across, is second person. “Craft” writing, which is actually written beautifully regardless of information, is intrinsic and first person.
And maybe you want to argue that there are nonfiction or informative writers out there doing it “intrinsically” or for the sheer craft of it, and sometimes that is true. But for the most part, I find it hard to believe that someone could be writing intrinsically while simultaneously neglecting to include their own voice. If they’re so “authentically” charged, where are they? And I don’t mean the inclusion of their marital status or the phrase “my kids” in their posts — get out of here with that simple shit. I mean their actual voice — their fears, aspirations, failures, etc. Their living and breathing experience.
I write a lot of content. And by that I mean “content” writing. I get all “insight” on that shit and churn it out, and sometimes I prioritize the articulation of these “universal truths” like it’s the thing, but the irony is that it’s not. Insights aren’t stand-alone, and insight are not craft. Craft is craft.
Experience is craft. And creating something is definitely craft, but only if it’s a unique expression, not a summary or insight. Art — and creative writing — is craft. But only if you’re actually in it. (And no, not a story “about you,” ffs. Again, voice. Experience. Emotion.)
And either way, writing is simply a tool. That’s all it ever is, all it ever will be, and all it should be regarded as — and I say this as someone who’s loved writing since I was like 7.
Writing is a medium.
And it’s either a medium for sharing information (marketing, even) or it’s a creative medium in the same sense that a canvas and paintbrush are. Writing is a tool — for transporting (external) information around, or for expressing our (internal) selves. That’s it.
And only one of those should even be regarded as true craft.
Writing is not stand-alone
Even the “craft” kind.
Recently a reader emailed me and asked if my goal was to eventually drop out of software. My answer was no — one, because I enjoy it, and two, because:
Writing is nothing in a vacuum.
I’m not sure I’d ever want a life where I sit down and write in a void. From where would this writing come? And based on what? My writing is based on my life, which means: I need to actually have one.
Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote some of her earliest essays based on her day jobs at the time — a ranch hand in Wyoming (The Last American Man); a bartender at a rowdy dive bar (Coyote Ugly.) Clearly, these “day jobs” were much more than income. And not only do I understand her approach to her work (and do it myself), but I have like a million times more respect for it than treating the work as something preciously to be coddled and fawned over.
That being said: does that mean I end up with more “insight” than “craft?” How do you blend the two? How do you decide which “person” (first or second) to take? Because sometimes I’m perched on a stool facing the reader; other times I’m talking to/for myself, only to look up 1,000 words in, like “oh shit, does that even make sense to someone else?” (This post, in case it’s not clear, is more the latter — but even then you can see where I make efforts at insight all the same.)
And best I can do is offer a bit of both, maybe because “my experience” is, to be honest, one in the same as “my insight.” I do the latter so naturally, it’s hard for me to draw the line. And when it comes to writing, it’s hard not to let the thing solidify as I get it down.
And maybe that’s where I hold my work — at least for now.
But the point is: it’s never about the writing. Writing is never the thing. The thing is either how you feel, or how you make the reader feel.
Just like “love” being an and a successful relationship hinging on always “feeling” like it. Lol, it doesn’t.
We all get irritated with our partners sometimes. We all fade in and out in the intensity of our feelings. And some days, we don’t feel like it.
And the point is: it doesn’t matter.
I didn’t feel like writing today.
It took me an hour to decide what to write because I didn’t want to write bullshit that didn’t reflect where I was mentally, but I also didn’t have anything more revealing to say, so I was sort of stuck, because all I’m really experiencing is a kind of mild okayness and not a ton of conviction about anything in any one way. I just want to sit and be still.
“Some days, you don’t have anything. Some days, you don’t knock it out of the park.”
And as Leo Babauta writes of one of his “not great” days,
“On a day like this, I sat still. It was all I could do. I looked inward… I stayed with it, just giving it my attention. It wasn’t so bad. Everything was OK. Not brilliant, but not so bad.”
And what he realized — what we all realize on days like these — is:
“Some days, you have nothing, but that’s OK.”
Doing things isn’t based on waiting for feelings.
And the answer, on any day like this, is twofold:
With regard to the things you must do, you must do them. In fact, on days like these more than any other, it is imperative that you get out of bed, leave the apartment, and write the blog post — anything to keep you moving forward, however slowly.
Go gently, however, and honor yourself even while moving. You don’t have to be cruel or dismissive; you don’t have to silence. You have to move, but you can do so gently. You can face it, sit with it, stay, and say it by name. You can write it down and say the words, “I didn’t feel like writing.” But you still should.
To analyze, to dig deeper, to relive, to repackage, to rebind.
So, to be a writer is to live in at least two places: the reality as it is in front of you, and then everything else that exists in the abstract — inside your head, in the future, in the past, in emotions and thoughts and logical (and illogical) extractions, extrapolations, hypotheticals, and illuminations. To write is to funnel, to sift, to search. It is to mentally exit the door only to walk back in again, over and over, and then stand outside staring in through the window just to see Was it really like that? Could it be this way? What if it was — or was not? And if that’s true, then what else? like some silent, motionless psychological disorder with no physical manifestations beyond that glazed-over, distant look in the eye.
To write is to step away from the current moment. Or to step much deeper into it than you need. Either way, it is always to be one foot askew.
And to date a writer is to live alongside someone who exists like this, always slightly akimbo from where you are.
Writing means quiet time
And quiet time means no talking.
Not all writers are assholes — most of us aren’t — but it can come off like this.
Because — and you may not realize this; it seems many people are wholly unaware — but writing is actually a pretty introverted process by nature and, far more importantly, a highly precarious one, with “the work” often suspended in a delicate and fragile state.
(Does that sound self-important? That’s just the “asshole” talking.)
I know it looks easy to interrupt us. I know this thing we’re doing looks a whole lot like things that are easy to step in and out of — like, “ah, yes, I’ve used a pen before!” or “oh, I type all the time!” — but writing is much different than “other things that look exactly the same,” and when you interrupt writing, it’s much harder to come back to it than, say, a grocery list. And sometimes “writing” doesn’t even look like writing — because sometimes writing is really thinking, which looks a lot like “zoning out” or doing “nothing” and only makes it harder.
But when it’s interrupted, sometimes it can take hours to salvage. Sometimes it’s lost and gone forever. I don’t mean to get melodramatic about it —but that is how it often goes.
I once dated a dude who was so bad at interrupting me while writing that I’d slip out of bed early on weekends and hide in the coffee shop below us to steal some quiet time. His response to this, as an extrovert and real fanatical doer, was of course to come on down and interrupt me anyway, trotting up smiling like, “so whadya wanna do today??” Sweet guy, but as you can imagine, that whole thing didn’t last.
“Dating a writer means having to quell the jealousies and irrational fears that arise when they disappear for hours on end. Resist the urge to send out a search team. All writers possess the rare ability to vanish for hours in a coffee shop or bookstore. Forgive them for not answering your text messages, BBM pings, phone calls and carrier pigeons. They were just in the middle of unloading an epiphany into their Moleskin.”
You can laugh at that concept — “epiphany!” ha! — and that’s cool; whatever. Just so long as you do it out of earshot. Or at least wait until we’re done.
Because regardless of how important or “good” you find their writing, understand that:
Interrupting someone while they are writing is as rude as interrupting someone while they’re talking.
How anyone could fail to realize this is remarkable, and yet so many people do.
When it comes to “emotions,” there are only two types of writers
We either emote All Of The Emotions, or we emote next to none.
Some writers write to “get their feelings down on paper;” to “work through them.” Others use emotions only as a keyhole for thoughts.
Some of us are feelings-forward, and use writing as means of self-expression and authenticity.
Others are observation-forward, and use writing as a vessel for universal truths outside ourselves.
These, as you can imagine, are two wildly different types of writers, both outwardly and in their work.
Writers repeat themselves
Like, verbally. Like, with you.
Like we’ll come back to an idea or a thread or a storyline or a thought or a theory or whatever the hell it is that we’re hung up on and we’ll say what sounds a hell of a lot like the same exact thing more times than you ever thought could possibly be reasonable for someone who had even half of our intelligence, so like how?
Because we’re working on it. And because we often date people we like, so we end up bouncing ideas off of them.
We chew on an idea or a feeling over and over and over, turning it around, coming at it from a different angle, sometimes saying the exact same thing with different emphasis, or with more or less degrees of certainty.
On the upside: unlike the actual writing, this is a time when we’re often looking for input — either validation (usually the feelings-forward writers) or other ideas — so feel free to jump in accordingly. It’ll make it stop faster. (At least until the next one.)
No, fuck that for a second, because we all misremember. Human beings are notoriously terrible at remembering anything, and writers’ major sin is not that we misremember, but rather that we have the nerve to put that shit on paper.
But that aside, we do also misremember. Because see item #1 — we were probably only half there to begin with.
“Dating a writer means having to repeat yourself often. Writers are bad listeners and you will always be competing with the background noise of their thoughts, which are wild, rampant, and prone to racing at high velocities.”
Most of us, anyway.
Do with that what you will.
You won’t want to read their work
That, or you’ll lie and say you don’t want to read their work even though you’ll secretly be dying to, which — all things considered — seems highly unlikely.
I know this because every partner I’ve ever dated has not wanted to read my work.
Like when I asked one if he ever read my many notebooks lying around, and he looked at me baffled and then asked, “why would I want to?”
And like just now, when I told my current partner, on the couch next to me, that I had just finished a piece on “what it’s like to date a writer” and asked if he wanted to read it, and he shook his head no and said, dead serious: “I already know.”
(Which made me laugh so much I said, “I’m adding that.” And then I did.)
You’ll always wonder if you’ll end up in their work.
You’ll secretly hope you end up in their work.
And then you will either never, ever end up in their work, or you’ll end up in their work in all the wrong and worst ways.
“Every moment, every seemingly insignificant milestone becomes imbued with meaning. There is no one better to watch a sunset with. While a less literary-inclined person might observe the sun setting and simply remark upon its beauty or the color of the sky, a writer will describe the scene with adjectives you’ve never heard spoken aloud, causing your heart to beat a little faster and your skull to open just a little bit wider. You will remember this sunset forever…
Life’s ups and downs becomes subtle undulations, every seemingly meaningless twist of fate becomes narrated and illustrated, a plot point of a story that is always unfolding, and you are one of its most colorful characters. The mundanity of everyday life regularly becomes illuminated and infused with with substance and unexpected passion.”
It’s not about what you feel — it’s how you make THEM feel
For the last two Mondays, I’ve dropped into a local, weekly storytelling workshop.
I did it in the way I do many things: with a plan; a goal; an endgame in mind — I want to be better at storytelling. (Because we all could.) I want to be better at identifying and naming and validating my own emotions and experience (ditto.) And then I want to be better at channeling those, and storytelling is an okay place to start.
The first week was great. The group was friendly, we all did this queer “check in; check out” structure for introducing ourselves — which was… fine — and most of the stories were good. Which was great.
By the second week, though, I realized something: after every story, a few people would always give feedback, but we could’ve pretty much skipped it, because after the words “I really liked it” (which they always said), there was only one reason they gave for why, which was:
“This really resonated with me.”
(Or “I could relate to this” or “this represented me” or “[let me share this personal anecdote about how I’ve had a similar experience]” or whatever.)
And I realized:
“Relatedness” is the number one reason people like any writing. Or any writer.
In the words of Heidi Priebe, who wrote every day for two years:
“People don’t want to see you in your writing. They want to see themselves in it.
People don’t really want to read biographies. They don’t want to read personal essays. They don’t even want to read think pieces about other people’s heartbreaks or triumphs.
They want to read something — anything — that they see themselves inside of. They want to feel smug reading your biography, because they didn’t make the same mistakes you made. They want to feel validated reading about your heartbreak because they’re feeling the same pain that you’re feeling. They want to feel moved by your inspirational essays, because they see how the lessons you’re preaching can apply to their everyday lives.
Readers need to find themselves inside of every single piece that they read — whether it’s as straightforward as adopting the ‘independent woman’ identity or as far-fetched as believing that if they were in Harry Potter, they’d have defeated Lord Voldemort as well.
But a piece of writing that neglects its reader is a piece of writing that will not succeed. No matter how eloquently it’s written.”
And it’s absolutely true.
The funny thing about this, of course, is that when I say “people want to see themselves in writing,” this obviously includes the author. Most writers — and especially most good writers — want to see themselves in their work.
So even as audience members told the storytellers how much their story “resonated” with them, the storytellers were just sitting there thinking about how, more importantly, it reflected themselves. And it was this hilarious, adorable standoff of personal emotions all tossed into the center of the room like some kind of “feelings” puppy play time.
And we call this thing “connection,” but really it’s just all of us doing what humans do best, which is bringing it all right back to ourselves.
And it’s fine. It’s fine.
But it might be worth considering how you tie the two together — your feelings, and whether others can relate to them. Because the story that people liked best weren’t the ones where the storytellers were the most passionate, or entertaining, or emotional, or authentic.
It was the ones that were most mundane, and most easily relatable.
Like the one about a dude losing someone he barely dated. The one about a woman on the phone with her mom. The one about a dude hating a school class. The one about siblings and family holidays.
They’re something to which everyone in the room could relate. And while he may have been the one who told it, we all repackaged it tidily as our own, and then thanked him for putting our own feelings into words.
Writers should write their experiences, sure. But beloved writers let the readers feel them as their own.
Because you focus on “Writing” like it’s the actual thing
Every so often people reach out to me — with varying degrees of self-assuredness and aggression — wanting to “know” or “talk to me about” my writing, my “process,” and, above all else, what “secret” I’m using that they can lift and duplicate in their own work.
Well, here’s the biggest secret of them all:
Good writers don’t focus on “The Writing” as some standalone thing.
Good writers read — a lot — but they don’t dump those hours into reading books “on writing.” (I’ve been reading about 50 books a year since my mid-20s, and the only book “on writing” I ever read during that time was Stephen King’s.) Good writers don’t watch endless videos on “writing.” Good writers don’t pore over Medium articles with the tag “writing.” Most good writers don’t have MFAs.
And that’s not to say they don’t learn grammar, spelling, or sentence structure, or occasionally research best practices if they have a question, because they do.
It’s just not their primary focus.
Good writers don’t define their domain as “writing.” Deep down, they define their domain as: the subject on which they write. Writing is merely a medium; a means to an end. Their real focus is on the thing behind it.
I am not every writer. I can’t say what every writer is focused on, and I don’t know what every writer is writing about. But I can tell you that I do not care about “Writing” as a standalone thing. I do not write “to write.” I don’t get hung up on whether I am or am not a “Writer,” and my aspiration was never “To Be One.” I write because I have thoughts, and I just needed a place to put them. Most of my thoughts are on “people,” and I am far more interested in “how humans human” than I am in “how to ‘writing’.” I don’t care.
If you’re focusing on the medium (“the writing”) instead of the message, and treating “Writing” like it’s the solution to “good writing,” of course your writing is going to be weak.
It’s the same with anything.
I’m not a professional athlete, but I’d be willing to bet the great ones spend more time actually doing their sport than reading what other athletes have to say about it.
I no longer do a ton of visual art, but I have taken many drawing classes and I can tell you: we spent 99% of our time creating art from real life, and zero time asking other artists what tools, technique, or sleep schedule they use. In turn, I have an acquaintance who works as an illustrator / comic book artist, and his work improved immeasurably when he stopped seeing his work as “drawings” and instead studied the human form.
I don’t personally know any of the “great” entrepreneurs, but I hear they spend more time experimenting and selling and making and building their business than they do reading how others built theirs.
In the words of Gary Vaynerchuk, who admits to reading almost nothing:
“How many books from these ‘experts’ do you need to read before you can actually do something? You can only read so much and at some point, you just have to do. Stop being a student.”
“But I still need the tools / technique / whatever TF”
No, you don’t.
Get your head straight, prioritize the right things, and the rest will reveal itself. Worry about optimization once you actually have something to optimize. If you’re not churning out content, you don’t have anything to optimize yet. Don’t worry about the perfect headline or the perfect writing “tool” if you haven’t even mastered the basic craft of “putting words.”
If you keep throwing yourself at it and experimenting, you’ll figure out for yourself what works and what doesn’t.
What to focus on instead?
Just like entrepreneurs are far more successful when they focus on a domain rather than just “being an entrepreneur,” writers have to have something they’re actually saying, not just focus on “saying something.”
It doesn’t matter what the thing is, but there has to be a thing.
Psychology, astronomy, happiness, friendship, relationships, molecular biology, cooking, a story, human beings,… your own feelings — it doesn’t matter. But I can tell you: it’s not “the writing.”
You keep treating this medium like it’s really about the tools or time or technique, like the secret is somehow in some “framework” or process, then empty frameworks and lifeless words are exactly what you’re going to end up with.
Like, the word “process” doesn’t even make sense to me when it comes to writing. People might as well be asking about my “writing contingency plan” or “writing ultimatum” or “writing carpool.” Like, I understand the word “process” in and of itself, but not within the context of my writing. At all.
So when people reach out to ask this, I am thoroughly baffled.
What makes matters worse is that I appreciate everyone who takes the time to reach out and have a special spot in my heart for other writers, and this adoration only aggravates my confusion, because I want so badly to give them an answer but I fundamentally don’t understand the question.
Are they asking when I write? Where? For how long? Are they asking how many edits I make, whether I have “first” and “final” drafts, and how long I sit in between? Are they asking what kind of music I listen to, or whether I drink coffee or tea?
Sometimes I ask people to please clarify what, exactly, they’re asking, but even once we’re down to more specific questions (like those above), I’m still pretty baffled because I’m like, “I can totally answer that for you… but I still don’t understand why any of that matters.”
There’s no “process” for insight or creativity
Just like there’s no “process” for thought or play or humor or love or sex.
“You have to approach writing like sex: It’s supposed to be enjoyable, not stressful. If you’re trying too hard, everything will turn out awful and your partner (the reader) won’t be satisfied.”
Here are the ways I DO think about my writing
Rule #1: Just… do the writing
Like, do the work. Sit down, put pen or pencil to paper or your fingers onto your keyboard, and make words.
This is the number one “secret” of writing, and the only real thing that matters. You can listen to any music, use any tools, wake up at any time of day, and sit at any desk in the world, but the only thing that actually matters is whether you actually put words down.
“I start with the first word of the first sentence and then write the second word. I continue with words until the sentence is done and then I move on to the next sentence… It’s just hard to take questions like this too seriously as I don’t think there is anything magical in any writer’s process. You have to do the work and as you do the work you figure out which process works best for you.”
Agreed. Just do the work. Write.
I post almost every single day. I write even more than I post. I’m not saying this is the amount you need to produce; I’m only saying it’s what I do. I write when I feel like writing, but most importantly I write even when I don’t.
I just can’t stress enough: there is no secret. 99% of it is: just write.
Rule #2: Know who you’re writing for
(Or, for the grammar-pious: for whom you’re writing)
I don’t write for “everyone” and I don’t write for “anyone.” I write first and foremost “for me,” but after that I have very specific people for whom each piece is written. The vast majority of the time it’s two friends in particular — the same friends, unsurprisingly, I often reference in my pieces — who share a lot of the most common relationship questions.
Rule #3: A matter of making it “good”
Content: is this valuable? Does this address an issue/problem/question that readers have? And does it do so clearly, truthfully, and/or in a way that’s new? Craft: does it have rhythm? is it a pleasure to read?
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a beautiful book on “flow:”
“The mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”
An ex-boyfriend once asked me if I get into flow while writing, and I was like “bro, lol… of course.”
Like, yeah — hell yeah — I do. And it’s pretty much the best feeling ever. And when it happens, I know with absolute certainty that the piece is gonna be good.
But that being said: it’s relatively rare. A lot of my pieces go out the door with me having just focused but not having hit flow. I certainly don’t wait around for it. (Though you never get into flow first and then write; you get into flow only after starting.)
And on that note…
A word on “Inspiration”
One of the biggest crocks of the universe is “inspiration” (or its ugly bastard cousin, “motivation.”)
Sometimes people ask me where I get “inspiration” and this, too, baffles me, because I’m like “uhhh… life?”
Writing, for writers, is like breathing or eating. Like, guys: it’s literallythinking, but then you just put your thinking down on paper.
So, inspiration is: Everything. Anything. We can’t not. We always are.
Going back to the sex metaphor, asking about a writer’s inspiration is like asking: “where do you get the ‘inspiration’ to fuck?” I mean… wat.
And sure, there’s a degree of “better idea” filtering or brainstorming or outlining or coercing ourselves to churn through the work, but for the most part “inspiration” just is.
That’s the long and short of it
Sorry not sorry there is no “secret sauce.” Not for me, anyway.
But to answer some specifics anyway…
Because I know sometimes people still want to know.
For whatever reason, writers always feel compelled to share what time they wake up, so I’ll tell you: 6:30 Monday through Friday, and maybe an hour or so later on the weekends. And I write pretty much first thing each morning.
I get into the office around 8 am and I try to publish something beforehand. If I don’t, however, I’ll get to it in the evening.
Timing and Edits
“You post, like, an article nearly every day… they must at least take you…hours.”
I mean, they do and they don’t. Some pieces take 30 minutes; others I edit for days. But at some point I stop.
“Once you write… do you feel like you’ve done the subject justice? or do you sit on some articles for a while til you get them write, er, right?”
Well, “my work” / “subject” is not each piece — it’s the overarching “block of thought.” I never feel like I’ve done the subject justice, but it’s bigger than that. “My work” is, by nature, always in progress, and no article is “precious.”
They’re all imperfect, partial thought pieces.
Drafts and an “editorial calendar”
“I’d be curious to know if you keep a list of subjects/titles or an editorial calendar. or just a bunch of starts.”
Lol, no I don’t have an editorial calendar. I’m not even sure I know what that is. (But if a calendar works for you, then damn, do it. See “Rule #1”)
I have drafts, sure (at the time of this posting, I have 31 drafts in Medium, including one behemoth draft titled “Ideas,” which is exactly what it sounds like.) And yeah, sometimes I start writing and decide I’m not really feeling that piece that day, so I table it. I just ship what I want to ship most each day.
But like, HOW do you write?
“Do you outline, or do you wing it? Are you a speedy first-drafter, or do you take days to perfect? How long do you let sit in between drafts? Do you work with critique partners, and how many, and when do they see it?”
I don’t outline, I don’t perfect, I don’t sit between drafts, and my readers are the absolute best critique partners I could ever hope for.
In terms of getting it down: it varies. Sometimes I start with a couple of bullet points and then build them out, sometimes I stream of consciousness; sometimes I start with a block quote and build off of that.
In short: whatever gets it done. See “Rule #1.”
“Images…how long does that take you? do you have a special secret source?”
Lol, Google. My “special secret source” is literally Google images and I shamelessly steal (until someone stops me.)
Not usually in the first “go-round” of a piece, no — it’s hard to find music that matches my mental “rhythm.” (Though that being said, it’s a real delight when I do. One month I rode Angus and Julia Stone and Bon Ivor through 50,000 words worth of love and heartbreak.)
Edits, though? Hell yeah — bring it. My faves are usually gritty, guttural stuff like the Whilk and Misky Pandora station. But anything will do — I don’t care.
But honestly, my best writing happens during my second beer.
And you could’ve guessed that, too.
When it comes to “process”
It doesn’t matter what works for me. It only matters what works for you, as measured by “whatever gets you to write” — again, it’s Rule #1.
If you think you’re struggling with “process,” it’s because you’re really struggling with just sitting down and writing. If you focus on that, the rest of what does and doesn’t work will become apparent.
Sit down and write. Take note of what situation or stimuli compels you to write more (or better) and/or what holds you back from it. Do more of the former and/or less of the latter. And sure, research what others do, if that helps. But mostly, just write.
Give yourself what you need, then get out of your own way.