Just Write Shit
Weeks ago I was holy-shit!-wowed by a marketing lecture in which one of my new writing heroes, Beth Dunn, repeated the mantra, Write shit every day, but write every day. As she’d return to this refreshing refrain (it kicks out the devilish inner editor – that asshole who says your writing is shit – by conceding his point), a cute three-layer icon of digital doo-doo appeared on the slide to represent that pile of rough drafting we do daily. I felt the air clear hearing this. My little writerly lungs took in more life-force. And briefly I thought, “Is ‘doo-doo’ hyphenated? If not, when did it become a hyphenless compound?”
The session sent a steady stream of chills through me. And my own overcoming-writer’s-block metaphors arose to mind: like the construction of a cathedral. You can’t get your writing to be a cathedral overnight because you’re afraid of breaking down walls or putting up scaffolding. Christ’s sake, you’re gonna have to have some shitty starts and views to get to the gorgeous finale.
I also thought, I’ve heard this before! … Anne Lamott!, whose first chapter of her seminal writing book Bird by Bird is “Shitty First Drafts.” Dunn was tapping that same energy but riffing in her own humorous-and-vulnerable-at-once way. She was absolutely right: I was holding myself back from producing a larger – and BETTER – quantity of work because I was, like many of us, paralyzed by the desire to produce the highest grade stuff.
The Practice of Writing Is Like Meditation
Sometimes I think that self-imposed writers paralysis is like a meditator deciding not to meditate “cuz the last time I sat, I was a mess,” or “I didn’t reach” a deep state of peace, or couldn’t stop thinking about the grocery needs or the ex-boyfriend, etc. I don’t know how many meditation sittings I’ve attended where someone is lamenting about his “quality of meditation” and “getting to” a certain where subject and object slough aside. I also don’t know the last time I meditated, to be honest.
It’s kind of silly, really. I mean, we are buzzing around all day in the city and we come to this little meditation hall at a Unitarian church on a weekday evening and we expect peace beyond peace? Why do we impose these “get enlightened quick” schemes on our poor brains? Why do we place so much pressure on the quality of our sitting session or writing session? Enlightenment is okayness with imperfection. Being at ease with a shitty first draft.
It’s a nasty state of cognitive dissonance to keep thinking you’re sitting down to reach a state of bliss only to realize you’ve pretty much rehearsed a spousal argument in your head for 30 minutes of zazen. Pat yourself on the back for just sitting in the first place. That itself is the greatest work.
It’s equally sucky to think you’re gonna write a damn-fine sonorous sonnet and end up with a handful of forced rhymes that remind you of your teenage days. You just wrote maybe a couple lines you think are worth keeping. Fucking hell, love yourself for that.
Why not lower your standards? Why not abandon hope? Chin up and let it all go.
What the Teachers Said
One of my favorite teachers in this lifetime, my brother, a jazz guitarist, once gave me this important life lesson when I told him I worried I wasn’t writing unique guitar riffs.
“No one’s been unique since Bach,” he said. His tone said that this was truth cast in stone.
“Not even Metallica?”
“Not even Metallica.”
My favorite college philosophy professor said the gist of the same thing to me when I told him my anxieties about getting at unique, never-before-read-genius-shit in my philosophy thesis: “Those ‘unique moments’ hit you late at night in the middle of your writing, maybe at 4 a.m. But you don’t see it coming.”
Fair enough. But why were these enlightened teachers of mine the ones who were also the most “practical sounding”? Why did they sound nearly cynical?
Because they knew that the key to my creative opening was not to impose a standard but to open me up to producing the work. The desire to create a unique work is a great roadblock to creativity.
Here’s my beginner’s wisdom as my final thoughts. First: Write today, edit tomorrow. Fine, go back and fix a sentence here and there – but only after you’ve completed some subsection at least – but in general ignore your delete button.
Second, here’s what I think of my meditation: “I sit just to observe my [crazy-ass] mind.” When I sit down to write, I sit down to write my shitty first drafts. “But they’re mine.” Take ownership of your however-unoriginal vision. The point is to get going. You’re not supposed to have the answers; if you had the answers, that’d be a shitty book no one really wants to read. Or, as Rainer Maria Rilke more poetically put it, “Live the question.” Down the road the answer will perhaps arise.
“Attainment thinking” stops us from moving at all. It’s creative paralysis. Nonattainment thinking opens us up, gets us moving, at least pauses the internal editor or philosopher and gets us digging. Less prefrontal cortex, more cerebellum. Less thinking about writing, more brain-at-your-fingertips. (This is how I think: I jump between metaphors. I hope some of these help. Maybe they don’t. Fuck it, it’s my first draft.)
Meditation advice from the Dalai Lama down has always been just this: JUST SIT. Show up and sit. Daily. 5 minutes, 50 minutes, doesn’t matter. Just sit. Nothing else. Your cushion under your ass. Try to get your knees to touch the ground. Be comfortable, spine straight, shoulders relaxed. Eyes open or shut or just half-open. But just sit. Doesn’t matter if the mind is boiling off the lid of your head. Sit please.
Just sit: The enlightened masters will coach you along. Just write: The enlightened writers will tell you the same.
Behind all this advice is a warning against the self: self-loathing, self-defeat. Behind everything your great teachers have said to you, they said, “Love yourself. Now go do it.”
You figure out what it is.