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The Campbell Coat of Arms - Ne Obliviscaris (Forget Not)
The Campbell Coat of Arms - Ne Obliviscaris (Forget Not)

Writing, Writing, Writing

This post is especially for the many of you who are also writers, or aspiring writers, sermon writers, devotional writers, academic writers, bloggers, and journal-keepers.

This week I took steps to solidify one of my most central habits. I have a habit of writing. It has been slow coming. I’ve been in school most of my life, and so I’ve been writing for class and for my teachers for more decades than I care to count. I started keeping a journal consistently more than twenty years ago. I’ve been writing for the church (curriculum for every age, devotional thoughts, sermons, reports, newsletters, a few short books)  also for about twenty years. For the last ten years I’ve been learning to write for the academy (fancy way to say for a very small group of specialists who share  interests similar to my own: book reviews, chapters, dissertations, papers to read at meetings). For about a year now, I’ve been trying to practice writing for a slightly wider public (blogging, essays, a book which is still taking shape).

I’m honestly not that good at it. I flounder. Put it off. Start again. Make mistakes. Give up. Try one more time. To my great relief this week, I’ve found some solace in this thought: Turns out maybe writing is harder work than I have been able to admit. Maybe I’m not so good, because it is hard. Like some of  other  important things in life (exercise, eating well, saving money, working for justice, being a life-long learner or a really great friend), writing is hard for human beings. These things sound kind of easy, but everyone who’s tried them knows they are not. They are not practically impossible like scratching your left elbow with your left hand or quoting the entire Bible backwards from memory. But they are hard.

Here is what I learned from my own efforts this week:

I came home from the American Academy of Religion (and a meeting with my editor at Baylor Press) and determined to up my production of pages. For about six months I’ve averaged adding between two and seven double-spaced pages a week to my manuscript. To finish the book before I retire (sigh), I need to produce more than that each week.

So, I set a new goal for writing every day at a certain time for a set number of hours. I met my goal of hours this week and added twenty pages. A dramatic improvement. This is not binge writing, but expanding my habit of regular writing to a more set time each day, and not allowing interruptions. I’ll have to manage this change for two more weeks if I want the habit to stick. (I heard the twenty-one-day or three-week rule long ago. If you want a new habit to last, you have to do it consistently for three weeks or twenty-one days. Generally this has proven the case for me.)

A Happy Coincidence

A friend let me know that Thursday of this week, Psychologist, Paul Silvia would give a talk entitled, “Motivation, Creativity, and (Not) Writing.” Here is what I learned from him:

* Writing is hard.

* To write and make any headway, you have to write every day.

* Because all the books and experts about writing say this, everyone skeptically and summarily dismisses the idea of writing everyday. Surely there is another way!?

* No. There is not. To be a writer, you pretty much have to write every day.

* To be creative, you are always going to be at the edge of expertise. This means the risk of failure is huge.

* Writing is extremely hard, especially if you want to write about a difficult topic, and get others to read it.

* In the humanities we insist on writing about the biggest, baddest problems and unsolvable puzzles (war, poverty, racism, sexism, religion, etc.) so the difficulty and risk of failure is built into our very subject matter.

* Silvia is a psychologist of motivation, so he can say with authority, that writing creatively is as hard as dieting, quitting smoking, learning a new language as an adult, or taking up a new sport. It requires some failure to reach success.

* Even if we commit ourselves to the really big goals, we still often find ourselves suffering from procrastination (which he defined eloquently as a push and pull at the same time), perfectionism (the more perfectionistic you are, the less production and impact your writing will have, proven by a study of 1000 academic psychologists), and rumination or intrusive thoughts (daydreaming about what needs to be done without actually doing any work).

* Will power is only good for restraining impulses. It is not good for long term goals (this was really helpful to think about). It might keep you away from the dessert table once, but won’t keep you on a healthy eating and daily exercise program.

* What is the antidote – or as Silvia put it – the counterweight to all these delay tactics? HABIT and RITUAL.

* Forming a habit of writing works like a shield, a coat of arms, against all these other distractions and diversions.

* Forming any new habit is hard in the beginning, but once it is formed is lasting and durable and guards against procrastination, perfectionism and other distracting thoughts and avoidances.

* The rituals of time, place, instruments (pens, computers, paper, journals) are all part of keying the brain to what we are doing, and if we think by habit it is time to write, we will probably write.

* Finally, and this was really interesting, those who write one really perfect book and two perfect articles in 10 years are not as influential as those who write more stuff less perfectly (same research with 1000 psychologists bore this out). In fact the most influential writers (measured by how many times they are quoted and foot-noted) also are the ones who write and publish a lot.

So if you made it this far, as a delay tactic to your own writing, let me urge you to ponder your own rituals and habits of writing. If they are lacking, maybe you’ll consider starting just one. What’s to lose? Maybe your very best ideas. Let’s not let them get away!