“I’ve always wanted to write.” If I had a nickel for every person who’s said that to me, I’d be a wealthy woman. When the people who make that comment are strangers, I don’t have a chance to inquire further about their literary aspirations. But if friends and acquaintances express an interest in writing, each time I see them I ask whether they’ve made any progress. Of that group, only three people have started and finished writing projects. The sad truth, I’ve concluded, is that few of those who say they want to write actually follow through. There are valid reasons for this, some of which I’ll explore below. On the other hand, research has supplied some surprising reasons to persevere.
Finding time to write is the most daunting obstacle for many of us. We tend to see writers as people who somehow manage to carve out big blocks of time to work, and few of us are able to do that. But that picture is less than true than ever before. Writers I know work on airplanes, in hotel rooms, in doctor’s waiting rooms. Accepting that it’s a matter of making time to write, whenever and wherever, is the first step in the journey. I’m not suggesting this is easy, but, as novelist Margaret Atwood says: “If you’re waiting for the perfect moment you’ll never write a thing because it will never arrive.”
The second obstacle is as much cultural as it is personal. We live in a world that offers unlimited distraction. The Internet beckons twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Our phones and tablets play music and movies and provide entire libraries at the swipe of a fingertip. Yet creative endeavors require a certain amount of quiet and mental, if not physical, privacy. There are still places we can find quiet and privacy even in a noisy, distracting world, but I am concerned that our capacity for relative silence, with no company save our own thoughts, is diminishing. And to the extent that we allow that trend to continue, artistic pursuits of every stripe will suffer.
Let’s assume—and it’s a big assumption, I know—that you find time and mental space to begin a writing project. Then, one day early in the undertaking, you stare at what you’ve written, and you realize your sentences are flat, your words forced. You find absolutely nothing redeeming in the work you’ve done. Meet obstacle number three: the bestseller complex.
The New York Times bestseller list has long been the Holy Grail for writers. We all want to drink from that cup, and there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to greatness—unless it keeps you from writing. Like the fledgling painter who gives up because she’s never going to rival Monet or Van Gogh, many of us stop writing because our work will never equal that of our favorite authors. It’s a lousy excuse, but—and here I speak from personal experience—it can be the toughest to overcome.
By now you’re probably thinking it would be easier to scale Mt. Everest than take on a writing project. But before you abandon the idea, consider what Dr. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas has discovered about writing. For nearly 20 years, Pennebaker, a psychology professor, has studied the beneficial effects of expressive writing. Pennebaker used writing as a vehicle for students, and later for patients, to articulate thoughts and feelings about stressful events or emotional upheavals. Pennebaker’s work, and that of researchers in New Zealand, has shown that writing can improve the function of the immune system, help physical injuries heal faster, boost mood, and reduce the severity of asthma attacks.
But you don’t need to be stressed out or dealing with a traumatic event to benefit from writing—even blogging has been shown to produce positive psychological and physiological effects. Researchers are currently exploring the neurobiology of the writing process, and at this point, the leading theory is that it triggers dopamine release in the brain, as do activities such as listening to music and running.
So forget the Great American Novel. Find fifteen minutes, shut down your browser, and silence your phone. Write a paragraph about the latest run-in you had with your crusty neighbor or blog a few hundred words about a movie or book you loved (or hated). Put aside any preconceived notions you may have about quality and quantity and just write. Because the act of writing itself is therapeutic—good for your brain and good for your body.
The essay above appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of the Austin College Magazine. My novel, Yard Sale, is (still) available on Amazon.