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  • Writer's pictureWinona Rajamohan

What are the hardest things about writing?

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

In a 2004 interview for The Paris Review, Haruki Murakami — my favorite author — said that "writing a long novel is like survival training."

And it really is.

Survival training teaches you how to make it in the wild with the bare necessities and a strong mastery of basic skills. It instills discipline, caution, and a sense of urgency to always be prepared for what’s ahead. There are rarely any shortcuts to help you hide. You’re pushed into a sharp corner, staring straight out into the truth of what you can and cannot do.

It’s scary and uncomfortable, but you learn how to find an oasis in the discomfort. In the wild, that oasis guides your instincts to find basic needs, defend yourself against threats, treat wounds, and regulate your body temperature.

Ultimately, it’s not about how strong or gifted you are when you begin the program. It’s about how you end, how you make it out with the basic elements that make up the world around you — breathing in life from the air, your feet rooted on the earth, heart set aflame, and the mind fluid, both calm and dangerous like water.

Writing works the same way.

It doesn’t matter how gifted of a writer you are or how great your past works have been. Without discipline, caution, and a sense of urgency, nothing new makes its way to the page.

Writing is born from perceptions of the world. The way the air feels, how the water flows, the sturdiness of the earth, and the sharp licks of fire that engulf how we live in it.

Yet all these perceptions fight to survive, desperately clinging on claims of inspiration to beat the fate of an incomplete idea or a forgotten draft. It takes work for these ideas to make it out. So much like the perception of the world, my stories take shape in, my training regime for productive writing mirrors the four elements too.

🌬 to find excitement, to write as weightlessly as air

Over the years, a dreaded epiphany would seep in every now and then like a thick curling fog. A writer's worst nightmare. The bane to a pending existential crisis.

What if I’m getting bored of writing?

Boredom doesn't always mean a lack of interest. More often than not, it cloaks a sense of hesitation, one that stops you from clawing through collapsing tunnels in search of a breakthrough.

Boredom can be utterly indecisive and easily swayed. And on those days when inspiration spills over in abundance, boredom becomes a distant, unfamiliar inkling. So, the moral of the story? Begin any writing project by unclogging the boredom pipe.

Finding something that's ‘exciting’ is extremely vague, I know. But I found clarity by combining lessons from writers on all mediums. The first thing I noticed was that most of them had a niche that they wrote diligently and consistently about. So if you have a niche area of expertise, then great! Half the battle of excitement is already won, and it’s up to you to be consistent with translating that excitement into valuable writing.

That wasn’t the case for me, and rather than listening to myself, I got caught up in the chase to become an established writer for one particular domain. Finding a topic to write about became a daunting and exhausting task. It made me put off the idea of writing until I found something that seemed like it was enough.

So I added another vital lesson to the equation, one I picked up after hours of staring at blank drafts and walking away from my laptop in defeat — waiting for inspiration is never the answer. I didn’t wait for a niche. Instead, I wrote about what it felt like not to find one.

This is what that ended up looking like. A piece about discomfort and exploring the anxiety I felt when things felt far beyond my control, which then unfolded into a five-part series of posts diving into my methods to finding calm amidst the chaos.

Sometimes the best way to see a problem is to remove yourself from it completely, even for just a minute. Like the eye of the storm, you see more clearly when you’re sitting at the quiet epicenter of your worries. You’re looking in from the outside, taking on the role of the observer and not the hot mess of a writer choking on water ten feet beyond the safety circle.

It helps you see what the storm has been sucking up, information that needs to be discarded, callings that aren’t yours. You also see the patterns in which the storm moves, and you might discover areas in which you’ve been strung in the wrong direction all along.

🌎 to find focus, to ground yourself in the earth

Sometimes boredom is the farthest thing off from the problem. You’re excited, you have the outline of an idea itching at your fingertips, you’re ready to shout it from the rooftops.

But when you sit down, the outline disappears. Solid lines become blurry and the floors become porous, your idea is disjointed and you’re not sure where to begin or how to find the words.

If I could describe the sound of a writer's block, it would be the exact opposite of cricket sounds. A writer's block sounds like standing in the middle of a music festival without a plan. There’s music coming from every direction, lingering smells in the air, people having fun, people having a bad time, and you don’t know who you want to see or where you need to be.

At this stage, getting into a state of flow feels close to impossible. There's a lot of noise from things completely unrelated to writing. The quickest way I spot a lack of focus is when I catch myself…

(a) not knowing (or forgetting) what drove me to a particular idea

(b) finding something else to do before I've made any progress on the idea at hand (like spending the next 30 minutes of my 'writing block' building a playlist to get me into a writing flow that never happens).

Focus can be lost at any point of the writing process, regardless of whether you’ve written thousands of words already or none. It’s a variable heavily influenced by countless factors. But if those factors happen to be within my control, nine out of ten times they’re driven by a loss of purpose and a dimming motivation.

It’s hard to focus without a ‘why.’ A great idea rarely translates into a great outcome unless it's aligned with the expectations you have for it. By knowing these expectations, the path to get there becomes clearer. It becomes easier to distinguish answers from noise, inspiration from distraction. It becomes easier to focus.

So in the spirit of survival, I like to prepare ahead and get my ‘why’ packed up and ready to go for those stuffy piercing hours when all words are lost.

Before tackling any ambitious idea, I dedicate some time to answer a few questions and note them down in a doc. What are my goals for writing this piece? How would I define success for this project? What’s going to set this piece apart from the others?

This doc ultimately becomes a working space for me to turn ideas on their heads based on those answers. I look for gaps to fill obvious and missed opportunities to be seized, transforming them into stories I can proudly say I created. Stories are born from here rooted in a strong foundation.

🌊 to build an idea, to let it take the shape of water

Focus time leads to the most exciting and most difficult stage of writing: building an idea.

The ‘why’ comes in handy here because that’s where it all begins — the goal. Why are you writing this? Why should this topic be of interest to anyone? These questions typically fill the gaps in my opening paragraphs and in each of my subheadings.

The next ‘why’ is for the people I want to share my work with — why would they care to read my work and what outcomes would I want them to have in the end? This would give my story the most substance, populating the meat of my paragraphs to tie it together into a conclusion that makes sense.

This is what some of my initial notes looked like for this piece.

Next, I word vomit any remaining thoughts. All the pieces that don't fit but have potential. Sentences don't have to be complete or in order. It's less active thought than it is a necessary purge of whatever is taking up space in your head. I do this until somewhere on that page, something makes a little bit of sense, and the blurring lines gain enough weight to sketch out the outline of something bigger than you began with.

🔥 to fight the fire of insecurity

Despite the lengthy and often tumultuous process to produce a single satisfying draft, my biggest roadblock to writing comes at the very end, when all the writing is done.

Insecurity. The fear of stumbling upon another piece of work that makes yours feel elementary and half-baked. The fear of comparison and critique. It’s almost impossible not to imagine what the words on the page would say if I had the mind of someone else for a day.

To bring this post full circle, facing insecurity takes me back to the first element: to have my writing feel as weightless as air. I remove the pressure of producing work only to mirror what I think others expect from me.

The hardest pill to swallow as a creator is arguably the most liberating — there’s always going to be somebody out there who can out-skill you, and there’s always going to be somebody out there who doesn’t like what you do.

I spent years running away from this bitter truth only to realize that coming to terms with it was simpler than I imagined. There could be million people out there who write better, who have better ideas, who work harder, who work smarter, or who have bigger networks of supporters.

But there’s only one me.

Knowing this gives writing freedom, making it weightless, exciting, conjured out of a place that’s distinctively mine. This is how I learned to take pride in all the imperfect versions of my work. Ultimately, I work with intentions that I can accomplish on my own, even if it’s not appreciated today — it gives me more reason to work harder tomorrow.

It could be a risk I’ve never taken before, a challenge I never thought I'd complete, or a message I needed to get off my chest. This is what drove me to finish my fiction novel, I’m Chasing Myself.

Writing a book is something I've always wanted to do (and I have years’ worth of stray miscellaneous chapters of fiction stories to prove it). But I wasn’t at my best self when that novel was published, and insecurity prevented me from doing the most with it.

It’s taken me two years to see that the writing process for my novel was far from weightless. Despite the ideas I had, I was out of focus and struggling to find my work satisfactory. But when it was all over, I knew I had something to be proud of. The book was a piece of me, a testament to everything I love doing, and proof that I can finish something I've started and turn one chapter into ten.

That’s enough for me to keep going, even if I have a long way to become the writer I want to be.

Writing is hard, but with good reason

"In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument, which he offers to the reader to permit him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself." - Marcel Proust

I found this quote printed gingerly on a page breaker of a book I'm reading at the point of me writing this post, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

The lesson this quote provides is one of responsibility. When writers find excitement, focus, creativity, and confidence, who benefits from the world that they’ve unlocked? Readers.

Although scales of reader-centricity differ based on what you’re writing for (a fiction novel may be a 5 while content marketing would be a 10), all public-facing writing delivers an experience to a reader who wants to enjoy it, learn from it, or relate to it.

This doesn’t take anything away from what you personally want to gain out of writing. When you’re driven by purpose and genuine desire, you channel the truth of readers who share the same motivation as you. You’re building a community through words that come alive.

If there’s someone out there who wants to see the world through your lens, your responsibility as a writer is to find them within yourself. Place your readers on your side of your desk, talk to them, learn from them, follow their experiences like a compass, and show them a world that they’ve never seen before.

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