Can I call myself a writer if all I do is “journalling”? Or morning pages? Writing in a writing class but not on my own?
I say yes, you can. If you write, you’re a writer. Maybe not a “Writer” (who Writes for a living) or an “Author” (who gets books published and everything). Maybe not yet, maybe not ever. But you do some kind of writing and you want to do more. You want to write, love to write, yearn to write. Or even the exact opposite. Maybe you’d rather poke your sharpened pencil in your eye than put it to the page. But you have to write, even when it’s painful.
Welcome to the club.
I heard Margaret Atwood say in an interview that wanna-be writers would approach her at readings and ask her about how to know what to write about. She said she tells them if they didn’t know what to write about they might want to find a less painful hobby. She pointed out that she has ideas all the time, more than she could possibly follow up in one lifetime no matter how prolific she is. The implication (not to put words in her mouth) was that if that’s not the same for you, you’re not a “writer” and you may as well not even try.
I respectfully disagree.
So many of us yearn to write but every idea that comes to us gets rejected immediately by a judgemental inner voice that says, that’s no good. Who would want to read about that? I’ll tell you who. Nobody, that’s who.
So we think, what’s the point? Every time I come up with an idea for an article that I could maybe put out into the world, it turns out to be a dumb idea. Clearly I’m not meant to be a writer.
Even if we do have ideas, even lots of ideas, many of us still can’t write. Maybe we can’t figure out how to squeeze writing into our already-overwhelming day. We’ve heard the stories about “real writers” who get up an hour or two early to get some real writing time in before the household begins to stir. And we think, yeah, right. That will absolutely never happen. Not in my household. And by the end of the day, when it’s also quiet, I’m so tapped out I really can’t think.
So we think, I’m not dedicated enough. Clearly I’m not meant to be a writer.
Or we yearn to write, we finally find a time (okay, kids are in bed, spousal unit is otherwise occupied, finally—finally—I have an hour to myself!), and sit down, pen in hand or fingers on keyboard, ready, set, WRITE! And … nothing.
So we think, where did my inspiration go? I used to be inspired when I wrote all that poetry when I was 16. I guess I’m not inspired enough anymore. Clearly I’m not meant to be a writer.
It never occurs to us that maybe we just don’t know how to get our pen moving reliably. That maybe moving the pen is a skill, like a sport or a musical instrument. That writing can be learned, and it helps if you practise regularly, like it does for sports and musical instruments.
So we conclude that maybe we’ll just keep writing flawless emails and boring reports, and forget about wanting more.
Or we do want more but have no idea where to start.
So, right here, right now, I will tell you exactly where to start. And what to write about.
Get some paper and a pen. (No, not your computer/tablet/phone. Trust me and at least try this with pen and paper.) Get your timer of choice—phone, watch, tablet, computer, kitchen timer, whatever—and set it for five minutes. That’s right. I said five minutes.
Now, close your eyes and take three conscious breaths. You’re not doing anything special, just breathing.
After three breaths, open your eyes, pick up your pen, start the timer.
Look at whatever is right in front of you and write what you see. Green pen. Empty white cereal bowl with a spoon in it, sitting in a little splash of milk, blue from the blueberries I had with the cereal. Clear glass, hexagonal, from Ikea. Water in it from the tap, because I don’t believe in bottled water. Tangled phone earbuds. Turquoise coffee mug, with the cold dregs of this morning’s coffee because I never get to finish a cup while it’s still hot. The turquoise coffee mug sits on a round white ceramic coaster with a painting of a conch shell in blues, greens and sand colours. It’s part of a beach-themed set I got at Bed, Bath and Beyond seven years ago in Florida. I remember that day …
Keep your pen moving for the full five minutes. Don’t stop to think, filter, edit, reread, just don’t stop for anything. You don’t have to scribble furiously just because time is short. Just keep the pen moving steadily, gently, quietly uncovering the content of your mind.
Don’t stop until the timer goes off. When it does, put your pen down and stop.
There. You’ve done it. You’ve written something today.
Do it again tomorrow and you have the beginnings of a writing practice.
Do it for a few more tomorrows. They don’t have to be consecutive.
There. Now you’re a writer.
And what you’ve just done is the kind of exercise I’ll be leading in my weekly online class starting September 23, 2021, through the Ottawa Shambhala Centre. Come and learn more about how to set up and maintain a regular writing practice anchored in meditation and self-compassion. See what it’s like to hear your inner critic ranting but to keep writing anyway. Find out what to do when you get stuck. Experience what it’s like to be gentle with yourself while you make writing part of your daily life.
This post was first published by the Ottawa Shambhala Centre, August 25, 2021.