Because words shape reality, I started to listen to how I talk about my writing. I often think and talk about my writing in the language of warfare and trauma: struggle, shame, fight, fear. I write long blog posts that expose my arduous process. I complain about how inadequate I feel as a writer. Sometimes I cry out of sheer frustration over my writing. More often, I simply refuse to write because the very act of writing seems impossible.
I actually like writing and yet I have days in which I cannot stand to write a single word. Some days, I try to convince myself that even I can write for ten minutes. And then I find I can’t even stomach that tiny effort. When I do find the resolve to write, I fight to find words. Half-formed thoughts spill out on the screen in language so ugly that I cringe. I start to feel inadequate as a writer and a person, so I resort to bad academic writing habits to make myself sound smarter than I feel. I employ the biggest words possible to express small ideas, writing ‘conceputalizations’ when I mean ‘ideas.’ I struggle to turn abstract ideas into real words with meaning. I lose what William Zinsser would call my humanity, putting on a mask of nearly inhuman professional expertise and producing passionless and boring writing.
And then sometimes through chance, my writing consumes me to the point that I don’t even notice time. Writing feels like a supernatural miracle. I solve problems of language and lexicon. I write and rewrite, swapping mediocre words for those with panache and power. I find ideas that don’t connect, so I write bridges between them. I rewrite sentences to achieve greater precision with the fewest possible words. I read my writing out loud, like a novice pianist learning to play by ear. I listen for words that make clunking sounds and for those that sing. I read until my writing sounds like who I am, complete with blemishes and the occasional beauty mark.
I started thinking about how I could create more space for those random moments when writing feels like magic. I thought about what might happen if I changed how I thought about my writing, viewing my writing as something to love rather than something to hate.
The idea of loving my writing felt daunting. I decided that I’d try to love creating the smallest possible unit of my writing. Loving a chapter seemed like too much, so I tried to love a section of my writing. Loving several paragraphs felt impossible, so I aimed to love a paragraph, or a sentence. I still felt too overwhelmed, so I focused on loving just a single words at a time.
Picking single words as the smallest possible unit to fall in love with felt like something even I could accomplish. Treating single words as absolutely precious helped me remember what I loved about them and why I write. I love a lot of words. I love words in English and in other languages. I love putting words together in new orders and creating a new idea where none existed before.
Loving bigger collections of words in sentences and paragraphs and sections gets trickier, because I don’t really want to love anything as ugly and as homely as a shitty first draft. I love my pretty drafts after I’ve had time to revise and fix them, but the first draft almost always seems embarrassingly awful. I’m often angry at my first drafts, because they’re so unlovely and don’t reflect my ideas, thinking, or voice. I feel frustrated at my failures to turn ideas into words.
It’s hard to love ugly writing, but ugly writing is exactly the thing that needs to be loved the most. I think out ugly writing represents the parts of us that we don’t love. It’s easy to love our beautiful writing once we’ve done some revision, but it’s those early drafts, the homely and ungainly ones, that most urgently need our love and care. Applying as much love and care as possible to not only our ugly writing but also the parts of ourselves that we find ugly and unlovely transforms our relationships with ourselves. The tiny parts of ourselves and our writing need our love: a word, a feeling, an age spot, an idea, a memory.
When I can’t convince myself to love the shitty first draft, I think about what I love about the ideas I’m trying to produce. If I can’t think of an idea that I love, sometimes I’ll brainstorm with pen and paper for one. If I can’t find a single idea that I love through brainstorming, sometimes I’ll call a trusted writing buddy and talk through my thoughts.
Just like love in real life, love for one’s writing is an act of faith. Love is also a practice as much as an attitude. The writing process is an act of faith, a conviction that I can transform this hideous tangle of words into something beautiful and meaningful. Love is not just some vague word. It is both a practice, an idea, and an action.
I can’t draw any firm conclusions about trying to create a more loving relationship with my writing, but I know that I feel better when I don’t approach writing as an adversary. Writing in love isn’t always possible. We write in the middle of emotional storms all the time. The writing process works whether we’re writing with love or anger, but if we have to choose, isn’t it just better to choose to write from a position of love?
Either God or the devil is in the details. I think we get to pick which.