The scariest thing in the world is a blank page. That’s not actually true, off the top of my head, I find child soldiers and bone cancer to be much, much scarier. But it’s one of those things people who write for a living – like Hemingway, who, according to internet lore came up with this adage – say to express how absolutely horrible beginning to write anything can be. Whenever I begin to write after a hiatus, or rather begin not to write and panic instead, a little pop-culture Nietzsche wisecracks in my head that “if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you”… What it sees is another bloody abyss inside of me, some kind of void out of which nothing can come but doubt and self-abasement. The blank page makes you aware of how little you have to fill it with and that really is bloody scary.
But of course, once you have somehow managed to get yourself writing, you realize there is something to say after all. I don’t think I’ve ever not exceeded the word limit, even though I’m usually scared I don’t have enough in my head to write even half the necessary amount. Like most things, writing is impossible, until you do it. So here is my simple trick to finally write whatever it is you need to write: Just write!
I got this same advice years ago from a friend and productivity aficionado and I was furious. It seemed like telling a depressed person to stop being so bloody miserable all the time. Only, it isn’t. Not writing is not a mental illness; it’s a habit. All you have to do to fix not writing it is to make writing a habit instead. Habits are easy. Once you have them, not doing the habitual thing requires more willpower than doing it. If you ever lay in bed super tired considering not to brush your teeth, only to realize that the sheer mental anguish of making the decision to not do what you do every night is actually much more difficult than just getting up and brushing your teeth, you know what I mean. The great thing about good habits – like writing, or exercising, or eating healthy – is that they make you feel like you accomplished something without requiring much willpower or hard work. Habits make happy but they have two small disadvantages: For one thing, they are tricky to get into. At the same time, you can easily trick yourself out of them by accident.
So how does one start a habit. Well habit starting is also a habit. Something that some people do all the time and others have incredible difficulty with. I’ve been getting better at it in recent years by doing one simple thing: rather than thinking about the aim, I actively engage with the challenge of habit formation. So rather than saying “I’m going to write my Master’s thesis” – and realizing that there is an abyss inside of me – I started by thinking “I’m going to form the habit to write 500 words every day”. Just 500 words every day. About whatever I want. The first day, all I did was write 500 words about why I couldn’t possibly start writing my thesis yet and all the problems that I would face. I put all my anxieties on the page and by day three I ran out of anxieties. I had also already written sentences like “if I write about poem x, I also need to say something about y first and think about z”, which were incredibly useful instructions for writing the actual thesis. By day four writing had become really easy. By day six not writing my 500 words a day became an actual challenge. Unfortunately, there were a couple of days when I accepted that challenge accidentally. While consciously breaking a habit requires willpower, it is quite easy to slip out of them by accident. I wouldn’t make the decision not to brush my teeth before bed but that does not mean I couldn’t fall asleep in front of the telly. Actually, sleep is the one thing that usually intervenes with my writing habit. (Note to self: Just taking a quick nap before you write your 500 rarely works). Usually, the habit slips when I get too certain I’ll do it and rather than doing it right away, I take a nap first or play a quick game of settlers. Then, suddenly, it’s midnight and my writing habit is at war with my early nights habit. If that happens once, it’s not the end of the world. Yes, apostate smokers will tell you that it only takes one cigarette to become a smoker once again but it’s not helpful to tell yourself that not writing once ruins your habit of writing. Just don’t let not writing become a habit, otherwise you’ll have to rehabituate writing and we all now how exhausting that is. I actually slipped for three days during my Master’s thesis because I had to fly to Germany. Day number four, when I finally took up writing again, was entirely unpleasant.
This might be the simple trick that it all boils down to: Don’t break the habit. Write at least 500 words (or however many you think fit your life-style, task and shoe size) every day. Rather than writing only when you actually have something to write, say a paper or thesis, write every day, this way, when the actual paper comes along, you don’t have to form a new habit, you can just keep doing what you do anyway with a slight change in direction. Beginning today, I will give this a try. I will write 500 words a day, not starting after I finished researching but starting today. It doesn’t matter if what I write is academic, or a blog post, or fiction, the only thing that matters is that I make writing as habitual as brushing my teeth before bed.
Anyone interested in joining me? Or are there other habits you want to adopt?
That this is where I do my writing at the moment almost feels like cheating.