I was listening, yesterday, to an interview with Cheryl Strayed. She is author of the memoir Wild, an account of her lone hike along the Pacific Crest Trail which was made subsequently into an Oscar nominated film. At the start of her interview with Marie Forleo she shared several insights into her approach to writing which resonated with me. I thought I would share them.

What are you writing for?

Firstly she made the comment, ‘writing is not driven by someone external validating you, you have to be driven from within.‘ Without a doubt, as clinicians, researchers, academics, in some instances our work is externally validated through the process of peer review. However she was talking about something far more fundamental. Tapping into the bigger picture of the reason we are writing. Yes, it might be to complete a report or to submit a paper to an academic journal, or to complete a dissertation but that isn’t the reason you are writing. The reason is much bigger than that isn’t it?

If you get curious about this question what comes up for you? I am talking here about the really big picture. What is the journey you are taking, the contribution you are making, the impact you are hoping to have? When we are in the midst of looming deadlines or on our next revision we may well ask ourselves, ‘what am I doing this for?’ So what your answer is?

Cheryl Strayed went on to explain, ‘… you have to be driven from within. Because you are driven to do it. You feel passionate about doing it. You are engaged with something which feels important to you.’ 

There are many resources to support you in developing your writing skills and writing habit. Indeed I have written about some of them in the past. However, they tend to focus on the process of writing rather than the rationale for writing. What would it feel like if, before you sat down to write, you took a few moments to connect with that place. Before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard being mindful and present with this bigger picture.

Connecting with the bigger picture

If you are in the midst of a significant piece of writing one way of doing this is to create a vision or mood board. Take a few minutes to sit quietly and to connect deeply with the motivation for doing this piece of writing. What words, colours, images come up for you? How do you feel? Is your heart beating faster, do you feel excitement? Jot down what comes up for you and then use the to create your mood board. Cut out any images that evoke what you saw or felt. Write down any words that came into your mind.  Keep your mood board somewhere that you can see it when you are writing or preparing to sit down and make a start.

Connecting with this is a more creative, energised place to start your writing from rather than the place of, ‘I should’. Cheryl Strayed referred to this as, ‘learning how to keep faith with your vision and dream. Drawing on that inner strength to compel you to keep moving forward and learning how to make a home with what you are doing.’

Finding your own way

Do you have a picture in your mind about how you ‘should’ be writing? I have colleagues who start writing weeks, sometimes months, before a deadline. I’m not that kind of writer, I write right up to a deadline. I used to beat myself up about this and tried many times to change but it never felt right. That doesn’t mean I’m not thinking and mulling things over but actually sitting down and writing months before a deadline – no way. I have now found peace with this and, in recognising that this is how I write, I plan my schedule accordingly.

Some people like to have structure and daily target for word count. Others write to a deadline or binge write in long unbroken stints. If you are a binge writer making yourself sit down everyday for an hour will not be productive. If you need structure leaving everything to two days before a deadline may be a disaster. The point is to know what is right for you, own it and plan accordingly.

Letting shame out of your writing life

Here is an interesting question. ‘Do you work well from a position of shame?’ The reason this resonated was because, like many health professionals, I did my PhD on a part-time basis. I was juggling work, with PhD, with the rest of my life. The point Cheryl Strayed made was about knowing what, at any given point, is important and giving it the attention it deserves without feeling shame. If your writing needs to come second it needs to come second.

At times life takes over. Children are ill, family members need caring for, work needs to take priority. Spending a whole weekend having fun as a family is important. Taking some time out for you is a must. There are times to put the writing aside without getting into shame mode. The important point Cheryl Strayed made was, ‘I look at my calendar and tell myself I’m not going to write now but I am going to write then. I make sure I make good on that promise.’

She calls this being gentle with ourselves and observes how there is a tendency to associate gentleness with a kind of slackness. A sense of letting ourselves off the hook. However as she explained ‘only when I’m gentle with myself can I actually really let go and do good work.’ This is something it is easy to forget.

The Lasagne Metaphor.

The final point in the interview which resonated with me was the metaphor of writing as a lasagne

‘we create something from a blank page and then you go beneath what you thought you were going to write. Then beneath again and then you show it to someone else. Then you have to dig again…you have to get to the bottom layer to really do good work’.

Therefore when you are on your fourth or fifth revision know that you are doing good work, honing and crafting something to be the best you can make it. This is your lasagne and other people will have views and comments on the ingredients you have used and the layers you have created but in the end this is your writing for you to stand by. Only you will know if it is your best creation.

** The interview with Cheryl Strayed was about more than writing and can be accessed via the link in the post to Marie Forleo.