Gavin Wray

The only way is through

It’s been a heck of a week. One of those where I’ve beaten myself up for not solving particular problems or delivering work I’d committed to doing. I close my eyes and see Chrome’s Developer Tools seared into my eyelids.

The toughest part is not writing the first draft of an article that’s been due for a while. A combination of writer’s block, imposter syndrome and disappearing down a code rabbit hole ended in the inevitable result: no words on the page.

Joshua Fields Millburn, author and one half of The Minimalists, often mentions in the duo’s podcast that “you must be willing to drudge through the drudgery” to achieve personal change or, as in his essay Not a Natural, to hone a skill to a point where it becomes second nature.

Writing, or any learned craft, does not involve waiting for inspiration to strike, then riding a single burst of creative activity to pop out a polished, completed work. It’s:

  • choosing an appropriate approach
  • building experience through practice
  • being self-aware enough to know when to ask for help
  • reducing a problem into manageable chunks
  • editing and refining

It’s also about turning up and putting in the work.

When I started learning to play the guitar, like most beginners I struggled with the F chord. Whether open or barred, it was impossible to force down more than one string with my index finger so close to the bottom of the neck, where the string tension is greatest. I could not contort my 11-year-old hand into the necessary shapes.

Gerry, my guitar teacher, transposed AC/DC’s chord progressions so I could play along to their records using a capo and simpler chord shapes that I already knew.

Pink capo

The sound was not right though and I got frustrated. Granted, a three-quarter scale classical guitar with nylon strings is not the ideal instrument to nail Malcolm Young’s rhythm part on Thunderstruck. The only way to achieve his sound is to barre a B chord. The 5’3” guitarist held it down for a cramp-inducing 44 seconds through the intro and first verse.

I don’t remember the actual moment when I mastered the F or barre chord. I do know that it came through practice, aching fingers and drudgery. Once it became second nature though, a whole new world opened up to me, which made all the effort worthwhile. Hard rock was fair game (and almost the whole of Status Quo’s and Black Sabbath’s back catalogues).

What do I take from all this introspection besides height being no barrier to becoming a titan of hard rock?

For a first draft to exist, the only way is through. No shortcuts. No workarounds. You have to write the darn thing as fast as you can. Dump all the words out of your head on to the page.

Come Monday, I’ll return to my desk and rely on a trusted process. I know I can depend on it. It has served me well for two decades. Sometimes though I forget to stick to the process when the cortisol rages and confidence flees. Lyndsey, my other half and a bid writer who can conjure coherent applications from the thinnest of material, reminded me of the process:

  • revisit your notes
  • jot down everything you know about the subject
  • make an outline with headings and sub-headings to act as a road map for the writing stage
  • write a draft of the story you want to write, irrespective of gaps
  • highlight the gaps you need to fill
  • make a list of those gaps and who you need to talk with to help fill them

For my overdue article, I have my notes and a solid outline ready. For a first draft, all that matters is that it exists. No one needs to see it. It’s for me and me alone. A means to an end. One manageable step that leads to another, then another and so on. Persist with those steps and a coherent story will exist.

Now that doesn’t sound so tough.

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