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 has been not finishing the first draft of an article I’ve been due to write for a while. A combination of writer’s block, imposter syndrome, and disappearing down a code rabbit hole has 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, doesn’t 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
Bluntly, it’s also about turning up and putting in the work.
When I began learning to play the guitar, like most beginners I struggled with the (appropriately named) F chord. Whether open or barred, it seemed 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. My 11-year-old hand wouldn’t contort into the necessary shapes. Gerry, my guitar teacher, would transpose AC/DC’s chord progressions so I could play along to their records using alternative chords I’d already learned and a capo:
But, the sound wasn’t right and I got frustrated. Granted, a three-quarter scale classical guitar with nylon strings isn’t 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 – and the 5’3” guitarist held it down for a cramp-inducing 44 seconds through the intro and first verse.
I don’t remember an 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 heavy 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 – to 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’s served me well for two decades – but sometimes I forget to stick to the process when the cortisol rages and confidence flees. Lyndsey, my other half and a talented bid writer who can conjure coherent applications from the thinnest of material, reminded me of the process this week:
- 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 the article I’m overdue on, I have my notes and a solid outline in place. 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.