How to Make Words Flow Like Water
Raise your hand if you believe “writing is tough.”
Okay, you can put your hand down.
Look, writing is tough, but it doesn’t always have to be the slog we make it.
Yeah yeah, I’m all for suffering for our art and stuff, but I’m also for not making things any harder than they have to be.
What if I told you that one simple shift can make the writing process significantly easier?
If you’re willing to put in the effort required, this simple yet powerful writing habit can make all the difference in the world.
Or, at least, it’s made all the difference in my world. I personally used to dread the desk until I started cultivating this writing habit on a regular basis.
The best writing habit in existence
In the excellent writing book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott discusses a pivotal lesson in her life:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
This, dear reader, is the essence of writing — to break down what is large and immovable into what is small, and simple.
The key to writing is to take it sentence by sentence, bird by bird. Think ahead and you will either stare at the screen vacuously or pace back and forth — overwhelmed with unfocused energy.
That’s what I’ve found anyway — if I get too caught up on finishing an article rather than writing one word at a time — I’m next to useless. Either I sit and sit and sit and the words don’t come or I work frantically for hours, my mind racing like I’m trying escape from the devil, only to get little accomplished for all the unpleasantness and stress. In other words, focusing on the future while writing leads to unproductive overwhelm that either produces languid immobility or excess chaos that produces little tangible results.
The antidote, the way to make your words flow like water, is to stay in the present moment. Make writing a form of meditation, and everything falls into place. The quality of your writing improves, you work faster, and writing becomes more enjoyable.
So, in practical terms, how do you cultivate this habit? Through gentle reminders. Whenever you find yourself getting overwhelmed, slipping into the future, obsessing over insecurities, etc, gently bring yourself back to the present. Breath deeply, focus on your keyboard, and tell yourself, “One word at a time. Bird by bird.”
You’re basically cultivating the much-heralded flow state by gently pushing yourself towards the present moment.
This concept may seem simple, but how many writers actually do this? Like meditation, writing “bird-by-bird” is difficult. Most people will try it for a few days then quit.
Don’t quit. The difficulty is worth it. You won’t see the benefits overnight; in fact, this habit makes writing more arduous at first. But, continue practicing daily, and you will see a huge difference within months. Plus, like any habit, it gets easier to follow with time. Follow it for a year, and you will do it without thinking, and man, your writing will get much much better.
Writing is still hard
Writing will always be hard. No technique can save you from the sweat equity required to improve at the craft.
But if you can cultivate this habit, I can guarantee writing will be easier and more fruitful.
Practice, practice, practice, so when friends say to you “man, being a writer much be really hard” you can think “yeah, it’s hard, but it sure isn’t as hard as it used to be.”
You can still let out a muted sigh, look briefly off into the distance, and nod solemnly though. Who am I to judge?