How I Start Writing, In 6 Books Or Less

MikeachimWriting5 Comments

engine start

engine start

Credit where credit’s due.

Ask a writer to tell you how they get their ideas, and you’ll probably end up with a pack of lies. This is because writers are experts at using their imaginations, so when they’re faced with something as near-impossible as chasing down the roots of creativity, they cobble something logical together and then fall victim to their own storytelling.

Well, that’s how it works with me, anyway. Last month I gave someone a detailed breakdown of how I stumbled across the idea for a new travel app – an epic origin story, involving a frustrated moment at Gatwick Airport, an article I read in the New York Times, a line from the Holstee Manifesto and a bunch of other stuff, all true, all verified moments that actually happened, woven together into a logical progression from Hmm to Aha!

It all made sense and I believed it, I truly believed – right until my friend pointed out that he suggested the idea to me six months ago over coffee.

So, I’m a self-deluding liar.

(Worth remembering when you’re looking for Inspiring Advice from me. Kthx.)

However – ask me my influences and you’re onto safer ground. I may not be able to tell you where I’ve got individual ideas from, but the thinkers who have shaped my brain in a general sense? You can trust me on that one. And since I’ve previously written about authors who have changed the way I think, I’d like to draw a careful line and separate out those who have changed the way I organise and express those thoughts in the form of writing.

And in this post, we’re dealing with the hardest part of writing: actually damn well starting.

Getting Things Done, David Allen

Getting Things Done – David Allen

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have had their lives transformed by Allen’s practical, sensible, and amazingly powerful time management system.

I’m not one of them.

Well – maybe a bit, but not fully. I aspire to implement the whole system, and sometimes I take running jumps towards it, but I’ve never got near. I’m sure I can give you a deeply convincing story about how Getting Things Done is way too idealistic for my messy life, but it’d probably be a whopping lie (see: intro) and really, I just need to pull my finger out.

However, there is one aspect of Allen’s system that has sunk deep into my habits – and it’s one of the underlying principles of the whole system. Allen believes the inside of your head is a really crappy place to store ideas. Having them, yes; storing them, absolutely under no circumstances whatsoever.

Here’s why. Every incomplete idea takes a tiny part of your mental bandwidth to retain its shape. The more things in your head, the less you can think about stuff – especially because you’re continually moving those ideas around, like your mind is playing Tetris with them, hunting for a way for everything to fit together with the minimum of wasted space. This is why those same thoughts keep spin-cycling around your head again and again and again and again

The solution is simple: get them out.

Getting Things Done is a system for extracting and recording all your mental open-loops so you can see them, and so you can have the confidence that you’re either doing something with them, or you’re going to. This means you can forget about them – literally, not holding them in your mind at all – because the system you have in place will remind you when you’re ready to work on them. That’s the GTD method, and I’ve found it incredibly useful for motivating myself to write because it’s all about focus. You can’t write well if you can’t focus, and you can’t focus when you’re fretting about stuff. With GTD in place (even in the disorganised, only-somewhat fashion that I use it), you can put All That Other Stuff aside for a while and you can just get writing. Without it, I’d struggle to be calm enough to begin, and I’d never be able to stay immersed in the work long enough to true inspiration to hit me.

I still need to do it properly, though. Don’t let me off the hook, please. I have no excuse.

Alternately…

Don’t laugh, but…Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer. I’m not linking to it, because there’s no way I want that on my conscience. Reading the Twilight series is like enduring a scrofulating disease of the nethers, so unless you’re a big fan of self-inflicted suffering I can’t really recommend it – but I do find it so very inspiring. Because it got into print. And if that could get into print, we all have a shot at this. Right?

War of Art - Steven Pressfield

The War Of Art – Steven Pressfield

If you’re a creative person, you are your own worst enemy.

If you’re imaginative, you’re easily distracted by new ideas. If your work is powered by emotion, it’s easily derailed by it. If you’re brave enough to push into uncharted territory, you’ll feel the terror of being utterly alone. It’s all good, and it’s all bad, and it all shows no signs of going away. The artist is doomed to “a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation,” and it’s the same for everyone. A bestselling novel under your belt? Fans numbering in the millions? Too bad those things make no difference at all when it’s time to actually work. Everyone fights the same fight, and it’s to the death.

To Steven Pressfield, author of historical novel Gates of Fire and other bestsellers, the military metaphors are apt. This is war. The enemy is a primordial force of creative undoing he calls “Resistance”. This self-destructive entity knows you inside and out, and it will use every trick in the book to stop you, including all the lies you tell yourself so convincingly, like “I’m not in the mood. I’ll do it tomorrow with a fresh head,” or “I have writer’s block! Maybe Netflix and a tub of ice-cream will help.”

Resistance wants you dead, along with all your hopes and dreams.

Resistance doesn’t care about how much you’d suffer if you never did the special, wonderful thing that you know, deep down, you’re here to do.

Resistance can’t be reasoned with. It won’t play by any rulebook you know. It’ll cheat. It’ll play dirty. It’ll back-stab you like the nastiest, most treacherous Lannister imaginable. It’s “always lying and always full of shit.”

And beating it? Forget it. It can never be beaten – in fact, even thinking you’ve beaten it is a sign it’s starting to win. Every day, you fight it with the same savagery as the day before. Resistance is the perfect enemy and it’ll always be there and it will never stop coming at you. The only way to “win” is to hold it off long enough to get your work out the door. Forget triumphant offensives: you’re here to dig your heels in and give no quarter. That’s the war you’re fighting here.

Like Uncertainty, another masterful eye-opener into the reality of , this is a book about stripping away the hype and recognising the hard reality of meaningful creative work:

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.

(Also check out Pressfield’s sequel, Do The Work.)

Alternately…

Stephen King’s On Writing. I’m not always a fan of his work – at the time of writing, I’ve just given up on his Dark Tower series for what I hope is the last time, in the middle of the second book. But after reading On Writing, I’m a big fan of Stephen King, English teacher and all-round human being. I reckon you will be too. Just don’t feel any pressure to tackle his recommended reading list of (gulp) 96 books.

National Geographic magazine

National Geographic Magazine

Hopefully this needs no explanation. I grew up surrounded by piles of these. It’s through National Geographic that I learned the world is infinitely fascinating, that photographs can tell a story, and that factual writing could be just as compelling as fiction. I’m now reading back through their 100-year-old backlog. National Geographic made me fall in love with words in a totally different way, and I’m still smitten.

(The magazine shown above-left, by the way, features a cover photo from Mr Ken Kaminesky, master photographer and one of the least polite Canadians I’ve ever met in my life. Bless you and your ranty talent, Ken.)

Alternately…

Findings - Kathleen Jamie

Findings / Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

Findings is a series of nature and landscape essays that contributed to a minor publishing revolution – and Sightlines is a sequel of sorts. They’re astonishingly well-written and have many beautiful things to say about exploring and observing, about the things we never really see because they’re in front of us too often, and about how anything becomes fascinating and beautiful if you apply enough attention to it. These are my yardsticks for successful writing. They’re that good.

And they make me start writing because I have so much to do before I can write like this – so I’d better get cracking.


So what’s on your list?

Images: Mark Walker; Mike Sowden.

  • bethkujawski

    I’m glad to see “On Writing” on your list. It’s one I recommend constantly. Someone to whom I recommended it a few months ago reported back just yesterday that she read it and she loved it. Yup, the man knows his stuff.

    I also adore Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.”

  • Oh yay, a travelling-reading writer, a rare thing! Hello there *makes eyes*

  • alisonchino

    “Maybe Netflix and a tub of ice cream will help.” >>> Get out of my head, Mike!

    I’ve never heard of The War of Art. Fascinated. My favorite is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and more recently, How To Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon, not specifically about writing but for creatives in general.

  • Hey Mike, I was just about to email you requesting magic storytelling tips on how to get started, then thought I’d do a wee search on here to see if you’ve covered it already and low and behold, top of the page. Timing. Brilliant link to Zenhabits. Thank you. Again! I hope you’re well :)

  • Hey Mike-
    Thanks for this honest and inspiring look into the constant battle that is the creative process. Can certainly relate. I find that a stroll in nature often helps, and the natural world is an infinite source of inspiration for me.

    “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron is also a classic of uncovering the creative process.
    Cheers!