How do you feel about writing? Is it pleasurable or painful? Or something more complex? When it comes to a difficult project, your attitude and expectations shape your approach. If you expect pleasure and get pain, you might try refining your approach. If you expect pain and you get pain, well, your expectations are met, and you might just keep pushing through. Writing can be frustrating and difficult—I can’t deny it—but it’s not all pain and suffering. If you expect suffering, I want to point out that there’s another way: you can shift your approach, shift your expectations, develop a better approach, and have a better experience of writing.
Recently I read the book Born to Run (Christopher McDougall) about ultramarathoners and long-distance running. It suggested a number of ideas, one of which arose from a set of observations about running and attitude. In one part of the book, the author is talking abut running with an ultramarathoner who instructs him to try running “light and easy.” Another part of the book speaks of a group of racers in an ultramarathon who were observed laughing while running up a hill where most of the runners grimaced in pain.
I was thinking about this while I was out for a run, and thinking about the parallel with developing a writing practice.
Once, I worked with a writer who was using the following epigraph for her work: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead” (attributed to journalist Gene Fowler). That creates a very powerful set of expectations, even when taking into account the obvious jest. No one really believes that writing involves bleeding foreheads, but one can dismiss the ridiculous bleeding forehead and simultaneously accept the premise that writing is painful.
Is writing painful? Well, it depends on how you approach it. Again, one group of runners in the ultramarathon ran up the hill laughing instead of grimacing. Were they just so much more physically prepared and suited to the race? Or was the attitude part of the success?
Expectation, attitude, approach, and effort are related. One can approach tasks with a variety of attitudes and still put in equal effort. A writer can say, “this is painful, but I’m going to force myself through the pain until I get it right, ” and then work hard for five hours. Or they can say, “this is going to be an exploration, maybe I’ll even have fun and come out of it with some good writing,” and then work hard for five hours.
Writing requires effort. Sometimes it’s difficult, and even painfully frustrating. But sometimes the difficulties are rewarded by an exhilaration and a sense of accomplishment. The same could be said for running and other exercise. As both runner and writer, I can experience the pleasure of accomplishment and the pain of frustrated effort within the same work session. Having a sense that both possibilities exist changes how I approach both activities.
If you’re sure that the process is going to be painful, you don’t do anything to reduce the pain that you may feel, because you tell yourself that’s what should be happening.
My experience is different, both as a runner and as a writer. I’m no hero at either one—my ten-minute miles will never compete in a high-level race, and my writings are not likely to earn me Shakespearean immortality. In my experience, running can be painful, especially on a bad day, but it can also be exhilarating. Writing, too, can sometimes be painful and sometimes exhilarating. The outcomes may not be objectively great—I may run slowly, and my prose may also be halting and overburdened. But in the process, I often feel a certain excitement—a potential for a better future combined with an immediate sense of personal ability—that I can run or write—that I have ability that I can use for my own benefit.
It seems to me that there is a similarity between what I’m suggesting here and the lessons of many spiritual traditions: the value of attention on the immediate moment, on the process, and on a sense of potential in self and future, without becoming attached to or focused on the long-term outcomes.
How you feel about your outcomes is up to you (e.g., for me person a ten-minute mile is just fine, while for you it might be terrible), but part of a good attitude, in terms of effective action, is to focus your attention on the process and not on the later outcome. This can help the outcome if it allows you to work more and more effectively.
Trying to work “light and easy” does not mean abdicating responsibility to strive for the highest quality. One can do good work and try to do good work while also maintaining a “light and easy” attitude. Such an attitude helps me run differently: when I’m forcing myself through a run, my posture becomes more hunched, and when I remember to be light and easy I stand up straighter. I don’t think it makes any real difference to my pace—not that I care about how fast I run—but it feels better, right then, in the moment as I run. By remembering to run light and easy, I run differently and my experience of running improves. My experience of writing is similar: when I’m intent on pursuing an idea, there is a certain excitement in learning, in working out the questions, and in feeling a sense of my ability to answer questions. When I’m forcing myself to write (especially when trying to finalize a document), the process is not as exciting or enjoyable. There is a time for painstaking attention to detail (with emphasis on the work “painstaking”), but there is a time for "light and easy" writing, too.
It is important to seek to maintain the highest possible quality for your writing, but during the process, you need not focus on that outcome, only on going through the process with integrity and with an eye to the possible enjoyment in the process. That will leave room for thinking about what your writing is really about—whatever story or argument or idea you want to present to your audience--and for thinking about things that interest and excite you.
Writing is a challenge, and it has difficult moments, but it’s not torture. Expect better and you will have a better approach and a better experience. And you might have better outcomes, too.