A little bit of Practical Inspiration… for all who struggle to write

A guest post by Grace Marshall

“Writing doesn’t always look like writing. It looks like pondering, staring out of windows, ruminating, running down rabbit holes, reading, researching, talking, gesturing, laughing, crying, wandering and wondering, getting lost and being found.”

The words “I’m struggling” are familiar to every author. So it’s no surprise, and probably annoyingly fitting, that writing a book about Struggle was — you guessed it — a struggle.

Knowing that at the time gave me a little comfort — it’s all material, as they say — but here are a few lessons I learned along the way, which I hope will be helpful to you when you find yourself struggling with your writing.

An unconventional plan

Conventional advice for writing a business book is to create the structure first. Get your Table of Contents clear, then take it one chapter or section at a time. It’s good advice, but it doesn’t always work out that way! Indeed my first two book were written that way, because I was writing what I already knew and had a clear plan of what I wanted the finished product to contain.

This book, however, was more of an exploration. I had an idea of where I wanted to start, but I didn’t know where it would take me. I could either wait, until that revelation came to me (and we all know I’d still be waiting), or I could write it the only way it would come out — guts first, then build the skeleton to hang it on, and skin to hold it all together.

All the wrong sizes

At the beginning what you come up with often looks wrong. Too wordy, too brief. Too academic, not enough research. If we put our editor’s hat on too soon, we can discount so much of our raw material. The need to get it right can stop us from getting anywhere.

Instead, chuck it all in the sandpit. Everything that you feel is too much or not enough. Bring it all. It’s all material we can work with later, and it’s surprising how often an idea or phrase that doesn’t work here becomes pivotal when combined with something else over there.

The shitty first draft doesn’t just look like shit — it can also feel shit!

My friend and fellow author Graham Allcott often says that writing a book is 1% writing and 99% lizard brain management. Who am I to write this? What do I know? There’s a high chance that much of your writing journey will be plagued by wrangling, wrestling and doubt. Know that this is all completely normal. And that you’re not alone.

Hello lizard brain!

Our lizard brain, otherwise known as the limbic system, is the primitive part of our brain that’s responsible for keeping us alive. It does that largely by telling us to stay safe and don’t change anything. It sees all uncertainty as threat. It also treats social and reputational threats the same way as a physical threat. Because in the tribal days of old, social rejection — being exiled from the tribe — was indeed a life-threatening situation.

Writing involves all of those ingredients. The uncertainty of creating something new (do I have what it takes? do I know what I’m doing here?), the vulnerability of putting yourself and your thoughts out there (what will people think?), and inviting social judgement (will it be good enough?).

No wonder the pull of procrastination is so high when we’re writing. It’s our brain’s way of keeping us safe. Drawing our attention to our growing to-do lists, inboxes and ironing piles because frankly that’s safer, more certain work. Where you know what you’re doing and how to do it. Work that gives your brain a dopamine hit when you can tick it off as done.

We’ve been reading the signs all wrong

Maybe struggle isn’t a sign of being wrong at all. Maybe it’s a sign that we’re in absolutely the right place. The place of creativity, discovery, learning and growth.

Nerves are a sign that we care. Resistance is a sign that says: this is the work that really matters. We’ve been reading the signs all wrong.

Where fear says “Danger, keep out” curiosity says “That’s interesting! Let’s take a closer look” and courage says “This is sacred ground. Enter.”

The art of letting your work breathe

By the way, writing doesn’t always look like writing. It looks like pondering, staring out of windows, ruminating, running down rabbit holes, reading, researching, talking, gesturing, laughing, crying, wandering and wondering, getting lost and being found.

Productivity is knowing when to work, and when to let the work breathe. Breathing is an act of trust.

It’s sitting with something patiently until it clicks.

It’s walking away to let it skulk in your subconscious, until it’s ready to surface.

And yes, it’s starting your work early enough that you have time to do that.

Grace Marshall

Author of the award-winning How to be Really Productive, Grace Marshall is known for her “refreshingly human” approach to productivity. Her work as a Productivity Ninja has taken her from Norway to New York, helping thousands of people — from startup founders to corporate managers, artists to engineers, students and CEOs — to replace stress, overwhelm and frustration with success, sanity and satisfaction.

Her new book Struggle: the surprising truth, beauty and opportunity hidden in life’s sh*ttier moments is published by Practical Inspiration Publishing.

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