This is my year of writing experimentation. While I have specific goals I’m working toward (finishing a book or two, writing 1 million words before December 31, you know, the usual), I’m also trying this new thing where I sit down and write whatever the heck I want to write in that moment.
This practice has changed the way I approach writing. Basically, it’s changed the whole game for me. And it could have the same effect on you, if you’re willing to give it a chance.
Last year, I really struggled not only to focus on my writing goals, but also in actually sitting down to write and enjoy that time. A lot changed in my life, and despite all these changes (all of them good), I continued on writing the way I had been for several years: Always working on something that someone else was going to see. Never working on anything for the pure enjoyment or freedom of creative expression.
At one point this year, feeling stuck and bored yet determined not to stop writing because of that, I sat down and started writing a short story. It didn’t have anything to do with what I was currently working on, and I really wasn’t interested in the idea of showing it to anyone, ever.
I’ve been making time for writing like that almost every day now, and I still can’t believe how much I’ve been able to create on top of my “actually getting paid to do this” writing. The words just keep coming, because I’ve opened myself up to letting them come.
Let me ask you this: Can you remember the last time you wrote something you knew you were never going to show anyone else? You can’t? I’m not surprised.
Writing is a legitimate profession regardless of what your specific goals and ambitions are. But the population of people who write and want to make writing their job is filled with so many individuals at different stages of the game using different strategies to try to get ahead (both good and bad) that for many, it has become a competition — and not the good kind.
If you write more, write better, get more offers, more eyes see your work — if you are somehow more “out there” than everyone around you — yes, statistically, your chances of catching whatever your big break might be are significantly higher than if you just sat there writing for yourself and never showed it to anyone else.
But there’s this thing called balance. And many writers don’t even know how much they’re lacking it — and how deeply that is affecting their productivity and their happiness.
We’re so obsessed with making sure we “get published” and that our voices are heard and that we’re “standing out” that we actually forget that’s not really why we started writing in the first place. Not really. When I was about eight, I started writing “books.” Did I imagine how cool it would be if my book became a real one like the ones on my shelf? Of course. But that’s not why I kept writing. I kept writing because it made me feel good. It inspired me, and it gave me a purpose. It was fun.
I’m now convinced that most writers who feel stuck, discouraged, or otherwise unsatisfied with their writing really just need to take a step back from it all (as much as you can, depending on deadlines, etc.) and spend some time writing things that “don’t matter.”
When I say you should write things that don’t matter, I don’t mean you should write just to be able to say you wrote, or that you should write things that aren’t important to you. I mean you should write with the sole purpose of telling a story, getting something off your mind, and/or just because you enjoy writing and it’s a worthwhile experience for you. Don’t worry about cliches or typos or something “sounding too similar” to something else. Just write. Write whatever you want, because it’s your brain and your space and there are no rules.
The day I started doing this, my stress and anxiety levels plummeted. I had spent so much time writing for other people and trying to do everything perfectly that I forgot how freeing and fulfilling it could be to write for myself. I’ve also found that I now enjoy my work — writing for my employer and clients — so much more because, in a way, I’m spending my mornings/evenings just messing around and having fun.
I don’t think a lot of us do that nearly enough. It may be time to change that.
You could argue that writing “just for you” is pointless. Why write if you’re not going to do anything with it? I want you to imagine, for a second, that you have a dream of playing the violin in front of millions of people. Obviously, you are going to do everything you can to make sure people hear you playing. You want your music to reach as many people as possible. That’s a logical and practical step toward success.
But you’re not going to ONLY play your violin when people are watching. There are going to be hours upon hours spent playing that violin in which you are alone in your studio, playing different songs, hitting a dozen wrong notes, not doing the best you’ve ever done the whole time, practicing, but also having fun.
Writing should work the exact same way. You don’t think of needing to “practice” as a writer, but I’m pretty sure that if you allotted yourself enough of this “no one’s ever going to read this” time, something will change, and for the better.
It did for me. Maybe it won’t for you, and that’s okay. But it might be worth a try.
Write when you know it’s never going to leave your notebook. Give yourself that freedom to make mistakes and try new things and gradually become a better writer because of it.
Just try it. You might find it’s the best experiment you’ve ever dared to attempt.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.