Some years ago I was talking to a friend of mine, a multi-published writer who had been battling with writers block for some years. She’d tried all kinds of things — courses, workshops, therapy, even hypnotism — but nothing seemed to work.
Until she tried something, a small seemingly insignificant thing, with a writer friend.
“You’ll laugh,” she told me. “It sounds so stupid. Quite ridiculous, really.”
It wasn’t ridiculous, but it did seem to be a very small thing: she and a similarly blocked writer friend made a writing pact.
Now, lots of writers make pacts with fellow writers. It’s a common thing to do — it’s motivating , it can be fun, and it helps break down the isolation of being a writer. Some compete to beat each other on the word-count, others pact to write 1,000 (or more) words a day.
But my friend’s pact was simply to write one sentence a day. That’s all — just one sentence. It didn’t need to be a long sentence or even a brilliant sentence — just a sentence.
But it helped get her writing again. See, she’d write her one sentence, and that was all she needed. Some days that was all she’d do. Other days she’d write a couple more sentences. And some days more that that. But all she had to write was one sentence. One sentence and she was a working writer again. The pressure was off.
It sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? One sentence a day sounds like nothing. But it wasn’t about “one sentence” — it was about starting. About “showing up” to write. And about taking the pressure off.
Often the hardest thing for any writer is sitting down and just starting. We find all kinds of excuses, we noodle around on the internet, play games, find chores around the house to do — write blogs (cough!) — all of it putting off the moment where we actually start writing.
So just one sentence was a great way to start. I know other writers who put a timer on for 15 or 20 minutes, because the idea of writing for four hours, or all day can be intimidating — a lot of writers write with the Demons of Doubt at their shoulder — but 15 minutes is very do-able.
When I give writing classes I nearly always set a writing task for participants — writing there and then. I usually give them around 15 minutes to write. Some get stuck in straight away, others take longer, but I’ve never run a class where someone does nothing.
Often they’ll write a page or more — usually in handwriting, which, when typed up will come to anything from 200 words to 500 — in other words at least a page of typing. I point out to them that if they wrote for 15 minutes every day, by the end of the year they’d have a novel.
The hardest thing though, is starting. Just sitting down and writing.
When I’m stuck, I take myself to my local library and write by hand. I’m not allowed to leave until I’ve filled three pages. That comes to around 1000 words, typed up. It focuses me, and gets me moving, just as a teacher saying “write now” does, or a timer. Other writers I know write in a cafe, or restaurant.
I was at my library a few days ago, and saw a very famous Australian literary writer sitting in there with his laptop. He was texting on his phone. I was so tempted to go over and say “Oy, you, get writing — we need more of your gorgeous books.” I didn’t — I know him slightly, but not well enough to tease him like that. In any case, it would have been the pot calling the kettle black. I sat in a different corner and write my three pages and when I next looked up, he was gone.
But I knew exactly why he was there — to tell himself, “Just start.”