Writing can be personal.
Even if it's just our marketing copy going out every week, we can't help but feel a tinge of exposure, vulnerability, defenselessness, susceptibility, insecurity; we think our writing is crude, immature, insufficient, inadequate, unorganized, incomplete, nonconversational; we are unskilled, inexperienced, unqualified, inexpert, incompetent, unfamiliar.
But here's another word that belongs in that same mix:
That was the word that came up several times during this past weekend's seminar. But the funny thing is that, even though this word—"raw"—is synonymous with all of the other words above, this word was used with a positive connotation. We all wanted our writing to be, and admired others' writing that was, raw.
So what's the difference?
Nothing. Everything. That's why we've given it a different word!
This is the joy, pleasance—and labor—of writing and words.
So earlier this week, when I was doing some (these days) rare journaling, the word "embarrassment" popped up, and I couldn't get it out of my head. And I thought about it. And yes, I looked it up. And then I sat with it for about a day. And I thought about how we too often let the embarrassment of writing stop us from writing.
It came to me after I remembered a moment almost two years ago, at a (non-writing) workshop. We had been asked to introduce ourselves with our name and a gesture. I rose my hand. And then broke down and cried.
Because I realized that I used to be a person who raised her hand and volunteered for just about everything. To read, to answer the question, to sing the solo lit up as the Christmas tree in the Holiday Bazaar. I jumped on opportunities. Okay, so sometimes my volunteering got me into embarrassing situations, but I didn't care. Embarrassment be damned.
But somewhere, this tiny, fearless girl, who could never be seen above anyone else in a crowd, was picked out every time because her hand could reach high.
That girl got lost in the crowd again.
Because I turned the embarrassment of writing into shame.
Brené Brown talks about the differences between shame, humiliation, embarrassment, and guilt. (This is why I love this woman, aside from her brilliant findings—her willingness and ability to reimagine, redefine, and dive into words.) In the dictionary or thesaurus, some of these words might be given in relation to one another, they are synonyms even, but that's not because they're the same, it's because they have slight nuances that might make one word better, more accurate, more fitting than another.
I've always been one to laugh at myself. In fact, I'm so good at laughing at myself I've had to be careful to not instinctively laugh at someone else in a similar situation. (I really do care—it's just that my reflex is often laughter.)
But I stopped being able to laugh at myself when it came to my writing. I took it very seriously, which was a good thing and a bad thing. But I was afraid of what would happen if anyone read it or critiqued it or judged it. I turned my own laughable embarrassment into shame. I was, even, embarrassed by my talent. I didn't want anyone to see it. I didn't want anyone to judge it, or me, for having it.
But such can happen with writing. It is, after all, at times very personal. So when we share it, whatever the reaction to our writing we see as a reaction to ourselves.
This weekend I went to the informal gathering of fellows of the 2017/18 Atheneum writing program, where I met one of my poetry faculty members—who turned out to be an attorney who at some point realized she had seen me in a video from a series of legal writing lunch and learns I did for the Oregon State Bar a few years ago.
I laughed. At the time, I had been humiliated by the experience because, despite my months of preparation and the fact that I did say some things that I thought they needed to hear, I was nervous, even ridiculed for using poetry in one of the seminars, and completely thrown off by the majority of registrants who were in theory on the other side of the camera listening at their desks (but in all reality probably were not).
But now, I'm just embarrassed by the whole thing. So I laugh. I laugh that someone might have seen me so nerve-racked. Or maybe they didn't see it at all.
I learned a lot about myself and what I wanted to do with my talents after that. And so now it's just funny that someone who knows me from that time is now going to get to know me during my rebirth into poetry.
And so it's funny, that we let this embarrassment of writing halt us, if even for just a moment. Because in all honesty, that's exactly what we want to do: We want to raise our hands and be seen and put ourselves out there. We want our writing to be honest, raw, vulnerable, sincere. In fact, writing is such a practice in being raw there's even a reading event in Portland, and I think nationwide, called Mortified.
But here's the rub: This kind of writing is some of the hardest writing to do. It takes time, patience, and work to get to that level of writing. Because when we sit down to write, it is common to write the way we think we're "supposed" to write. You know, the way we've been taught. With the voices of hundreds of others speaking to and for us instead of clearing all the muck to get to the real treasure: your voice, and your true experiences.
But here's another overlooked aspect of "embarrassment": in the context of the "embarrassment of riches" (which is a phrase my husband loves and we agree isn't used enough). In this sense, "embarrassment" is an excessive quantity from which to select. And in that sense also, we all have an embarrassment of experiences and resources and ideas to pull from. The secret is to give ourselves the time to find our voice, and our lessons in the embarrassment.
I have an embarrassment of writing. I have almost an excessive quantity from which to choose—and so, shouldn't I share that? Of course! It is what I have to offer this world. Embarrassment be damned!
NOTE: There's an embarrassment of amusing words that are related to and synonymous with "embarrassment" that I wasn't able to squeeze into this blog (entanglement, imbroglio, exigency, pickle, rub, knotty point, hobble, etc.). I urge you when you have the time to look it up and explore it yourself.
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When it comes to writing, getting started is just about one of the hardest things to do. But that's true for anything, isn't it? What—even with our best intentions and in our highest elation—keeps us from writing? And writing our best?
In my last post I talked a bit about expectations and commitment. [By the way, the last three times I've tried to type "commitment" this week, I've spelled it wrong. And I'm an editor. Lesson: Don't set your expectations that you'll write perfectly every time. There will be mistakes. They don't matter at this point.]
Expectations and commitment are the groundwork for getting started writing. But what do they look like? And what do they look like to you?
One of the biggest obstacles I see people get themselves into is this idea that they have to write every single day, and for hours at a time. This may work for some people, and if it works for you, keep doing it. But I have found that this kind of writing can sometimes lead to, and is best suited for, formulaic writing. Yes, these are often the "professional" writers, but not always. There are plenty of professional writers—and very good ones—who don't spend half a day every single day writing. And you shouldn't have to either. There are also plenty of people writing every day for hours but aren't getting anywhere. I tend to be a binge writer—I'm perfectly happy scribbling down ideas and thoughts here and there, letting my thoughts wander, writing a little in the mornings, but then (now that I'm attuned) I feel a strong need to just write, and I plan for that extended time of writing.
So decide: How much time writing can you—and do you want to—fit in? And in what form?
Is it 10 minutes? Great. Only one day a week? Even better. When your toddler's napping? This is how a lot of people do it. Perhaps your writing goal is simple: Carry a notebook around everywhere and put ideas in it. Start small and don't force it. For some, "starting small" looks a lot bigger. Maybe it is every day, but only 30 minutes. Or maybe you want to plan a weekend or week of writing, and get away from the Internet and your fast-paced world. It could also be in how much you write. You may be the type of person that writes better with small or incomplete chunks of thoughts or a jumble of words. (I've done that. A lot of my journals start with one-word descriptors about my day before turning into sentences.) And then you can expand on those smaller pieces. Others like to set word-count goals or number of chapters.
Any of these is a perfect start—as long as it's right for you and fits your writing goals and needs. Choose something that feels right for you, and commit to it. At least for a little while. You can always adjust it later.
Now, here's the next stumbling block: What happens when that small space isn't enough, or isn't working well? Or maybe in reality it just doesn't look like what you imagined it would. Sometimes we fully commit to a writing practice that looks like something very specific, and even works out well, for the most part.
But what if you schedule 10 minutes of writing every day, and you find that (1) you keep going over 10 minutes because at 9 minutes your creative ideas just start flooding the page and you can't stop, or (2) you find yourself staring at the page, monitor, sky for 8 minutes and then finally, around minute 9, you finally have an idea or a thought enters your mind?
This is where you get to create space around your writing. I've started to incorporate morning pre-writing routines into my writing space. This could include coffee/tea (for me, more likely breakfast and then second breakfast these days); staring out into the garden or out the window; time to just think and let my thoughts roll all over themselves, sometimes with a notebook handy, sometimes not; listening to birds, watching the squirrels, waiting for hummingbirds. Just about anything can fill this space, so long as it encourages creativity and inspiration. The point is stillness and space. Again, this looks different for everyone. But it depends very much on you and what you're writing. I won't even tell you that this space doesn't include the Internet, because for some people, their writing revolves around what's online, or they simply have a blog or email that they love to read and gets them thinking. I keep the Internet up when I write on my computer so I have easy access to the online dictionary. I sometimes have my phone nearby for the same reason. But if you're doing more introspective work, you might want to take these things out of your creative space.
Create space for post-writing also. So if you find that your 10-minute writing keeps going over, plan for that. You don't have to change your goal or expectation—your goal can still be to write 10 minutes—but the space you create for your writing may be 30 minutes. Factor that in when scheduling. Your post-writing could also be end-of-day scribbling, either after work, or before bed. I basically block out my entire morning, plus an hour or so into the afternoon. That's because I know it can take awhile for me to really get writing, and on some of my best days, there is a build-up (or even standstill) until inspiration strikes around 11 or noon and I can't stop until 1 p.m. I also take the entire day to "write" because when I'm in the writing mode, it's next to impossible to switch back to anything else. Again, my actual writing may only be the last hour of that time block or the morning hours, but the space I've created for my writing is much bigger. These are the "luxuries" I afford myself, because I am a writer and writing is very important to me. For some of you, this simply is not possible, nor does it interest you. Start from where you are.
If you have a writing practice already, perhaps it's not the starting small but how to grow that's stopping you. Maybe your writing space is not inspiring, or what you're writing about needs to grow. You might want to increase the amount of time you're writing. Perhaps the framework around your writing practice is fine--it's the stagnation of your writing abilities that you want to evolve. If it's focus and intentionality you want to bring to your writing, you may want to add "mastering of craft" to your writing goals: expand your vocabulary, understand how rhythm affects a sentence, learn rhetorical devices for a stronger argument. This will look different for everybody depending on where you are, and where you want to go. Remember, working on the craft of writing is still very much writing.
Write about writing.
If you're just starting out (and you've not taken my seminar, ahem), try writing about what you want to write and why. This could look like a concentrated brainstorming session or brain dump of every writing idea you have. And then pull a few out that you feel strongest about. This is a great way to not only commit to writing (and actually start writing) but also set expectations around it. Spend a few minutes every day, or schedule one day or morning or evening, to think about what writing means to you. When did you stop doing it? Was there a reason for it? When did the urge to write start to come back? Have you been trying to write recently, but not getting far with it? What part of the writing doesn't feel good to you? Get very curious about your role as a writer and write honestly. Is this something you can do on your own anymore? Or do you need help, collaboration, a group? (We see writing as a work of solitude, and often it is, but plenty of great writers had their cohort, some even their muses.)
Prompts and exercises.
Get back to the basics. I did some of my best writing when I was educating myself about poetry and focusing on my craft. Sometimes we are stilted by our own grand visionings. (I mean, we're entrepreneurs/writers/revolutionaries, right? We have big ideas. But those big ideas aren't going away; they'll be there.) What we have to do is turn those visions of possibility into words that people will read. And so, when writing, we have to put our faith in the words, but also work at using them well. This could be an aspect of starting small, so latch it onto there, if you wish.
Find inspiring prompts, beautiful sentences, or new words to get you started. Explore them and see where they take you. If you're writing a book, brainstorm chapter titles or themes, and then use that as a starting point. Some days, I would wake up and just dive into the "Word of the Day" and my poetry dictionary. I would learn or relearn the definition of a word, discover its origins, contemplate its connotations, nerd out on its history, and find new words and synonyms. Then I'd switch over to my poetry and learn about poetic devices, write different types of poems, and read other poets.
Explore the origins and emotions around a certain word. Surprise yourself with a word you've always misunderstood or maybe dismissed too soon. These exercises not only get you writing, but they will make you a better, more fluid writer, when it comes time to just write. When you're in the flow, these words and lessons will come back to you and lessen the interruptions in your writing.
Give it a name.
It's been said, when we name something, we give it importance. And since writing is a word game, why not give your writing or space a name that calls to you or inspires you or motivates you? Make it your own. If you can't leave your office to write or you write best in your office, try going into your writing space by calling it something different from your "office." If "writing" seems too stressful, perhaps time-block for "creativity" or "expression" and set expectations around that. This is also a great practice in the craft of writing. Look up words. Brainstorm. Imagine your most amazing writing space and experience, and then describe it in as much detail as possible in writing. And remember, just as with writing, you can edit this whenever it's not working for you.
Know yourself (and write what you know).
I know. I say this all the time. But it's sooooo true. In all of these tips, I tend to mention something along the lines of "depending on you." Writing will always be difficult (tell me running your business of X-plus years is easy every single day)—but even more so when you're writing according to other people. This is part of my "Free Your Voice" mantra. Not only in finding your voice in writing, but also finding your voice to write. You know yourself better than anybody, or at least, have the potential to. (Sometimes we have blinders we need other people to help us see. However, I do also believe writing can be that other person for you in a lot of ways. But even the most reclusive writers have their confidante, their "other" to help them in areas where they don't excel.)
What are your typical stumbling blocks in life and business? What are your strengths? What is your work, purpose? What are other things you enjoy in life? Are there any of these that you can bring into your writing space? Knowing all of these things can help you in your writing, because instead of writing what everyone is telling you to write or what is already out there, knowing yourself helps you write what is uniquely yours to write, and helps you create the framework to write it.
Start at the...beginning?
Do you start at the beginning? The end? Every story starts in the middle, in medias res. But where you actually start writing can be the beginning, middle, or end. If you've been writing for a while, you may know where that is for you. I tend to start writing at the first sentence. By the time my writing and editing are finished and I have my last draft, what I started with may not always be the first sentence, but it certainly helps get me started.
But again, writing looks different from the outside. For one, even though I start writing at the first sentence, I may have actually been thinking several paragraphs prior. In other words, my "first" sentence was never written, just thought about, and it either disappears, pops up somewhere else in the piece, or becomes the first sentence in something else I write. Then it evolves until my thoughts get me to the "first" written sentence, where I began. Finally, by the time it's ready to go out, that "first" sentence may have been tweaked, moved, or taken out completely.
So if you've been writing, pay attention to where you started and what the final product looks like. (NOTE: This is also a really great time to have an editor, because an editor can help you get to that first sentence—which in your final draft might have actually been buried several sentences down or buried in the middle.) Is it the same first sentence? Then you might be the type of writer who starts at the beginning. The questions to ask yourself are: Is it working? And do I want to try something different? Answer the first question first.
If you haven't started a writing practice, now is a great time to play around with this option. Try starting in the middle. This could be good if you're a details person—you want to get to the facts and research, and that decides how you begin and end. If you want to start at the end (and plenty of good writers do this), think of a clincher last sentence, or the end result in mind. What is the feeling or reaction you want to ignite at the end, when people can take action (or contemplate or simply take it all in)? Also know that starting at the "end" could mean writing the whole piece, finishing, and then writing the first sentence.
Do you have any of your own tricks for getting started? Or did you try these—and what were your results?
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This is the part when we have to be honest with ourselves. And your words don't have to be perfect.
This week was a struggle for me, and for others, no doubt. I had planned my week around a deadline, which meant that Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning were blocked out completely. There was not much time for writing, except a few minutes of journaling maybe in the morning. But certainly not enough time to process the events of the weekend, and the ensuing reactions.
As I watched it all unfold, I was struck by two thoughts:
I should be writing. Writing is what I do.
But I also knew, and two things I talk about in my seminars, that I had to be honest with myself:
And sometimes this is what writing looks like. It's why writers and artists often get made fun of for being daydreamers. It's why we get laughed at for getting lost staring out the window. Sometimes writing doesn't look like writing from the outside. Sometimes writing is getting lost in another world to understand this one.
But I also knew that every time I sat down to write, if I had tried, it would have been impossible, because I thought, when I sat down to write, what came out had to be perfect. It had to be the answer to every argument out there. It had to solve and explain everything. It had to be a masterpiece worthy of being written....
I had to get real. I know better than that. The art comes in the editing.
And that's why you have to know yourself first and distinguish between your voices and others'.
I had to know why I was writing at all. Was I really writing for a readership? Or was I writing for myself, to process things? Was this pressure to write coming from me, or some outside voices that I had internalized: You're a writer. They're all looking to you for the truth. You need to write something incredible. Be the writer you claim to be. (Emphasis on the "claim" and with an eye roll.)
As a writer, I knew I wanted to write. But I was creating the pressure on myself to do it. As a writer, though, I also knew that time is usually needed to produce my best work. Not so much time to write, but time to not write.
But I also knew that part of my need to write was my need to understand. To understand why these people were so angry, to understand them. I started to get down on myself because I thought I was being too easy on these people. Because I wanted to write something and have them actually listen. (Putting the reader, first, right?) And so I stumbled. But I also knew that it wasn't just about them. The potential reader. It was me. And I didn't need to be apologetic about it. It wasn't that I didn't want to offend anyone or that I wanted to increase some imaginary readership. It was that I truly wanted to understand so I could write something that meant something. That didn't ignore the realities—on all sides, if you will.
Because, I'll be honest: I've been there. Not the pitchfork/tiki/racist/hate part. But I've lived in the South, and I've lived in the darkness. There was a time when I blamed everyone else for all of my problems too. And I also knew that these people have been fed hate and racism their entire lives, and they've normalized it. They still live in the Civil War past and believe their freedoms have been taken away. They believe the government told them how to live their lives. And then they took their jobs. But they also were never taught to do anything about it. They have been taught to be so incredibly dependent on others that they don't even know how to think for themselves anymore. And most of them have never had the distance many of us have had. The opportunity to leave, to meet new people. They are stuck, and they have no way out.
Please, do not read this as my making excuses for them. They've had every opportunity. And by "they," we know I'm not talking about every single individual in the South. But I also know I've gotten to where I am because I was not deeply rooted in that life and those beliefs, I could see it for what it was, it bothered me, and I got out. And I get to talk with people every day who are making real changes in their own lives and others.
But in a culture steeped in tradition, it's easy to believe you're helpless. And maybe they are. How many of us are told to surround yourself by successful people? What's the difference that has made in your life? What if you have no access to successful people, except maybe those on TV, and one of them sounds a lot like you?
I am talking about writing and empathy, and how the two are linked.
And so, this is why writing can be sloppy, ugly even. You can't just say you have empathy and not be ready to go where that empathy will take you. Because sometimes you have to be comfortable with the discomfort of going somewhere no one wants to go. As I write this, I feel like I am making excuses for them, and that people will judge and critique me because they think I'm doing just that. It's also uncomfortable, because in my entire body, I feel and know that this hate is disgusting and despicable, and I think there is no room for it, and it amazes me these words and rhetoric still abound.
But that's why I spend so much time with words and rhetoric. We sometimes treat words with not enough respect, because it is a tool we all use. And because it's how we see and understand the world, it has the double-sided dilemma of being underappreciated and overused. (All cliches start as truth.)
How can you help someone when you're simply spewing rhetoric? Repeating empty words? Not fully connected with the words you are writing or speaking? It's like using your computer to tell a person shipwrecked and without Internet connection to watch the YouTube video on how to sail a boat. Seems laughable for the weight of the topic, but that's what it is.
A bunch of people giving their versions of the truth, but no one is listening. (Of course, another aspect of this is that many people's version of the truth is not their own, and that can make it hard to argue.) We're using the same words but giving them different meanings, and no one seems willing to take the time and care these sorts of words require.
If you noticed, a lot of the problem was caused by a lot of people saying a lot of things, or not enough things, or the wrong things. We have developed this need to say something immediately. The really thoughtful things I saw or heard said came days after the news broke. But there were still plenty of other platforms on which people just felt the need to fill space.
It's one of the other things I talk about a lot: this need to always be saying something. But you don't. One of the best ways to be heard over all the noise is to not talk all the time. For example, we all rejoiced when Obama finally tweeted something (and, he even quoted someone else).
And so another thing we're seeing, that writers should be meticulous about, are the use of words. Words that are being thrown around without much care. One of the things I've been wanting to do when I finally had the time was to look up the words everyone was using. Were they using them correctly? What were the connotations behind these words? Is it fair to use them? What are the emotions these words strike in the hearts of others? Am I prepared to embrace the power in that word?
Words are powerful. The words we use are important.
This is a care I don't see taken very often. But it also shouldn't keep us from writing. Using words and writing them are a wonderful way to explore your connection to them and the rest of the world. It even gives you a chance to question your own opinions or beliefs. Do I really believe this? Or am I just using words that I'm hearing everyone else use? What do these words mean to me? Are there other words that are more honest?
Another important detail to remember is to be aware of where you are right now. There was a piece of me that still felt like the journalist I was (and yes, might honestly always be a part of me). I thought, I needed to be the voice, the reporter on the front lines. I should be the byline people are reading. I'm the person people should be going to for answers.
But that's not me anymore. On several levels. I don't have an automatic platform with built-in readership. I'm not writing on deadline every day. And those might be good things. Or they might just be.
And so, for many of you, you have to look at what you are in the position to do, right now.
Some of you are healers. Some of you are coaches. Some of you can help us breathe and be present.
And each of these skills and services are so very much needed right now.
I am a writer. So I want to write. It's the thing I feel like I can do in this world. Others may organize. Some may speak. We have to understand our purpose and our strengths.
And right now, perhaps our distance is our strength. And yet, in fact, I almost felt guilt for my distance, but I also knew that it is that distance that benefits me right now. I do have time to stop, breathe, and think. I don't have to react. And I think those in the midst of Charlottesville right now could use some distance. I'm sure some of the people are wishing for a pause. A chance to breathe and think about what to do next. But they are caught up in the emotions. Trapped by the crowd.
Our strength lies in our not having to act right now. I know it's hard with the constant information and group think, but really, right now is a perfect time to stop, think, and wonder: What can I do? We don't have to act immediately.
And so, in my distance, I took the time to be honest with myself, and I reached in to explore the words. And it wasn't pretty at first. Far from it. (This post should show you that.) I wanted to show you that it's okay to write anything, or not write anything, and be okay with the ugliness of it, if that's what comes out. But I went from feeling helpless to feeling inspired. From "What can I do?" to "What I can do." Period. A change in the order of the same words, and different punctuation, and all of a sudden, it was clear again. It made more sense. And as you can see: I'm writing.