Writing Post: The Power of Habit

I have written this before, and I’ll write it again: the biggest thing that will stop you writing is fear. The very first post I wrote for my online writing group was called The Fear. That’s how important it is. How you deal with it will make or break your writing life. 

The good news is that you can learn to identify The Fear, to defy The Fear, and to stymie The Fear. (I will be giving you many, many ways to do this, as our time together goes on.) I wrote, in that first post, about giving yourself permission to think of yourself as a writer. The bad news is: you can’t just say it one morning and make it true. You have to say it every morning. And there will be some mornings when you don’t believe it, because The Fear has got you. And maybe on those mornings you are going to have to fake it. 

You might have to swear and shout. You may have to make a conscious act of defiance. The voice of the Fear can feel like the voice of authority, and if you refuse to listen you can, oddly, feel like a recalcitrant schoolchild. The Fear is no authority at all, but it’s such a con-artist and a play-actor that it can fool you into thinking it is. This is why you have to stay vigilant. This is why you have to give yourself permission every single morning, until it’s as automatic as breathing. 

This bashing back of The Fear is not a single item that you can tick off your list. It is not a discrete act of will. It is a daily habit. The giving of permission, the allowing yourself to believe in yourself, the act of daring and willingness – all have to be done every day. They sometimes have to be done several times a day. 

At the beginning, the forces of sabotage will be out to get you. A careless remark, a sliding note in a voice, a sly look: all can send you running back under your bush. 

One of the best ways to get out from under that bush is to promise yourself that you will write every day. This is going to be secret writing. No human eye is every going to see it. It is vital to make that promise to yourself, because it’s the first step in circumnavigating The Fear.

The voices of terror in your head are afraid, one way or another, of being judged. If nobody is going to see this writing, nobody can judge it. You are just having fun, building your writing muscles, letting your imagination rip. At the same time, you are embedding the writing habit. If the habit gets strong enough, it will trump The Fear. So then you’ve beaten the terror voices twice, on their own ground.

Set your timer for ten minutes – or even five minutes – and write. You can write anything – thoughts, dreams, stories, memories. You may think you can’t get much done in a few minutes, but it’s not a bad idea to start small. (The Fear will tell you that you do not have the time. But everyone can find five minutes.) Because humans are creatures of routine, it’s a terrific idea to do your daily writing at the same time every day. You might want to wake at six, and write to the dawn chorus. You may adore the idea of scribbling in the silent midnight hours. Whichever time you choose, make it sacred. This time belongs to you, and you deserve it.

The other important habit to teach yourself is to think of this as serious stuff. A lot of people fall into the error of believing that any writing which does not end up in the window of Waterstone’s is not real writing. This is nonsense. You may have to tell yourself extremely sternly that this is nonsense. The Fear will say something like, ‘Well, it’s just stupid scribbling in a stupid notebook.’ The Fear will scoff and mock and try to persuade you to do anything else. However, your ten private minutes a day are the vital foundation to writing with pleasure and confidence. You would not try to run the the marathon without training first. These are your training runs.

Writing can be learnt. If you learn it well, you will give yourself years of delight. If you skip the basics, you will always be struggling. You will refuse to write, because you won’t enjoy it. And then you will end up only with regret. 

All good writing begins with habit. You are going to build mental habits, emotional habits, logistical habits. This will re-shape your mind. The gloriously plastic brain will develop new neuronal pathways. Think how thrilling that is. You have your own brain in your own hands. What pathways would you like to start today?

If you get into the good habits, you will start producing good writing. Not just one fine piece on one terrific day, so it feels like it might be a fluke, but fine stuff every day. There will still be the crappy days, because even Nabokov and George Eliot had crappy days, but the quality will be steady. The good writing will give you pleasure, perhaps even pride. Then you will want to do it more, and you will build more good habits, and The Fear will bugger off because it’s found another, better party to go to.

Habit sounds so ordinary, even boring. Habit can move mountains. 

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