Why Write? Get Lost and Give Birth
“I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good at it.” That’s Anne Lamott in her bestselling Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, a book I savor to this day. Its first chapter is “Shitty First Drafts”—a heart-opening first act for a work that inspires you to dig into the muck of life and start planting. Lamott’s statement cuts through the negative ego and implores, Keep going, don’t look back.
I don’t see the same kind of self-doubt in music as I do in writing. I’ve rarely seen anyone pick up an acoustic guitar, start playing, and then stop mid-song to realize that they’re “really not that talented anyhow” and stop. But I don’t play music enough to make an accurate assessment. Usually I’ve witnessed people keep going, keep in tune with whatever they’re playing no matter how “out of tune” they might be. I wish I could say the same of my writing process.
I have stopped mid-writing—in a story or poem—letting that insidious inner voice kick in with doubt, calling itself the editor when in fact it was just the negative ego halting creative flow. Why do that to myself, especially when I may end up with a line, paragraph, or chapter that I wouldn’t otherwise reach unless I let that current of creativity sweep me downstream, the way you might find yourself soloing over a few chords and get lost in a timelessness of a few minutes?
Why stop? You have no idea what idea you might be missing.
I am speaking of course of early drafts. Surely there are times when you have already put in your time/timelessness into a draft—you’ve got the skeleton of a word temple set up, and you realize it’s on sandy ground and probably deserves razing or major fixing up, despite how pretty the ceiling beams look. That’s fine. That takes discernment and awareness to realize that you’ll maybe keep the couplet, but scrap the sonnet.
But you wouldn’t have gotten those two “good lines” until you had put that work into that first draft. And that first draft is likely going to be shitty, or at least somewhat off. Even as you touch up something, it’s going to have scaffolding around the outside; it’s gonna look ugly to you and maybe others.
Even if it is a Notre-Dame of a novel. That’s part of the progress.
Your ego is not the beginning or end of your writing. (By “ego” I mean: either the inflated OR the deflated ego, especially the inner voice of “not good enough, so stop now.”) At least, I don’t believe it should be. You are writing to give birth to something you can’t otherwise express, no matter how small or great a creation. You are getting usefully lost in perspectives and narratives the way you get lost jamming over a few chords. You are harnessing a creative energy that is so necessary to you that without that channeling instrument—be it pen, piano, or paintbrush—you would feel trapped, maybe self-destructive. That energy takes on its own life and you listen to it and nurture it, incubate it, disclose its early development only to the closest confidants.
My friend who ghostwrote a cookbook once told me that she was able to complete it simply because “I was pregnant with it.” Years after the publication, when friends who asked her why she hadn’t yet produced another book, she simply declared, “I’m not pregnant.” She knew that she couldn’t stop when she was pregnant with the thoughts, awareness, imagination, and writing mission. She knew herself well enough as a channel for creativity. Engulfing thoughts of inflated/deflated ego were not present when she spoke of writing.
I’m not so enlightened and objective with my creativity. My basic advice to myself actually comes from a grant writing teacher years ago: “Today you write. No editing. Editing is for tomorrow.” That was enough to silence any voice of doubt and keep me flowing.
How do you capture your flow? Feel free to leave a comment below.