The perfect cup of coffee sits on a table sparsely populated with my notebook, pencil and a closed laptop. The morning light from the sun starts to sneak through the trees landing on the edge of the table near the window. Even the birds are barely stirring with only the most animated singers beginning their gentle cues to signal the rest of the orchestra. It is time to write. I’ve learned to be aware of the voices that often visit during these quiet moments. One voice finds it hard to begin with its counterpoint poised to take whatever is written immediately to the high court of potential scenarios resulting from projected external perception. Another voice questions the definition of a writer as well as the likelihood of my qualifications matching the moniker. A third element introduces fear and anxiety that increase in intensity as the pencil rambles from left to right in search of something to say. While they may all speak with their own tone and cadence, these voices are all one character that has successfully silenced the unknown brilliant writers-to-be and ferociously battled the best creators in the history of the world. It is a force of nature that is not open to reasoning or negotiation. This clever monster that blurs the lines between urgency and importance serves up tall tales of less-fulfilling and artificially prioritized tasks. It presents thousands of options to save yourself from the humiliation of reaching into the soul of your being to craft thoughts into meaningful story. This mystic enabler of excuses embodies the easy way out, and it can be hard to resist.
Image credit: TSG @ MIT Physics
Steven Pressfield’s The War Of Art presents the facts. Writing is not easy and its arch-enemy is Resistance. It takes the form of easier tasks that are really distractions from your work. According to Pressfield, Resistance is “an energy field radiating from a work in potential”. The field is omnipresent like any other field in the realm of physics, and like any force of nature, operating outside the confines of a natural system can be a futile endeavor. Gravity cannot be thwarted, thermodynamics cannot be coaxed into submission, and Resistance cannot be completely removed from the creative ecosystem. We need to acknowledge its presence and learn to dance with it. A more timeless reference involves the Buddha’s ongoing battle with the evil spirit Mara, who weaponized fear, doubt, anger, lust and greed during continued visits wrought with temptation. Instead of ignoring Mara, the Buddha would set two places at the table, pour tea and sit comfortably in the presence of the persistent spirit. Like acknowledging Mara’s presence, we can equally reduce the influence of Resistance by bringing it out of the shadows and into the light.
Here are a few ways that I’ve learned to host this formidable opponent.
Be a master of your 1440. The most creative people in history are acutely aware of the math of our existence. Time cannot be stored, saved or repurposed as its mechanical units stay in motion like the orbit of our planet. Each day, there are only 86,400 mechanical units at our disposal carefully organized into 1,440 segments of 60. Be intentional with your personal allocation.
Use the Principle of Priority. Pressfield presents this principle as a tool to truly question the difference between what is urgent and what is important. You have to know yourself really well to answer this question. Only after writing for years, was I able to understand the distinct difference between urgency and importance. Importance is tagged to the work you want to accomplish, and urgency is the distraction that presents itself as the safe, quantifiable task with a short completion cycle. Do you really need to refresh and immediately respond to email? Has that text about weekend plans earned the honor of our real-time creative attention? Our brain rewards the accomplishing of tasks no matter their categorization. Astute attention to email is like giving someone else unauthorized access to your 1440. Defend the important and question the urgent.
Waiting for inspiration will just leave you waiting. Pressfield talks of the Muse not as a required prerequisite for creation but as a reward that emerges from the combined energy of perseverance, dedication and action. She witnesses our work and sends us a nugget just when we need it. Don’t dare expect it though. Write something everyday. I didn’t say write something good everyday. Take fifteen minutes and move the pencil without judgement. You will eventually surprise yourself.
“O Divine Poesy, goddess, daughter of Zeus, sustain for me this song of the various-minded man who, after he had plundered the innermost citadel of hallowed Troy, was made to stay grievously about the coasts of men, the sport of their customs, good and bad, while his heart, through all the sea-faring, ached with an agony to redeem himself and bring his company safe home. Vain hope – for them. The fools! Their own witlessness cast them aside. To destroy for meat the oxen of the most exalted Sun, wherefore the Sun-god blotted out the day of their return. Make this tale live for us in all its many bearings, O Muse.”
– from Homer’s Odyssey, translation by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)”
Remove drama. We gravitate toward gossip and drama because it’s easier to fill our brains with other people’s stuff. The action of processing drama taxes our personal capacity for important endeavors. It also feeds a machine that oscillates and amplifies the negative signal to other unsuspecting neighbors. It’s not easy to purge external drama for internal discovery, but it is essential for creating something intentional and meaningful.
Embrace exploration without expectation. Having a mission and purpose is noble and even in some cases required, but I’ve found immense joy in diving into something led by the pangs of pure curiosity. Chasing something down merely for the game of it can lead to something that you couldn’t possibly have planned to discover.
There’s no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock then blasting it out with charges.
Hemingway (to Charles Poore, 1953, Selected Letters)