11 Lessons I’ve Learnt by Writing this Book
This week, I approved the final interior design of my book, Joyful Eating. It has been a few months since the final edit, and it is surreal to glance over it and think—I wrote that.
The thing is, I feel a sense of non-attachment to it. I know that I have written, and laboured over, every word. However, I know that I do not control how others will receive it. It is like releasing a baby bird that I have nourished and tended to, till its wings were strong enough to fly. Once it is released, I do not influence whether it will survive. My job is complete. Although I may still attempt to support it, its survival is out of my hands.
I found that in addition to books and podcasts I listened to, applying many of the lessons I teach in Joyful Eating helped me to stick with the process of writing till the very end, where I now have a book to share. In the same way that the lessons can help people release their fears and doubts that hold them back from creating lifelong change for their health and happiness, the lessons in Joyful Eating can help with any creative process and pursuit.
“As an ultramarathon runner with no eating concerns, I found the book [Joyful Eating] incredibly helpful in allowing me to let go of expectations and to transition from a goal-setting runner to a runner who feels into the moment and runs for joy. I believe that in Joyful Eating, Tansy shares wisdom and presents extensive research and examples that are of benefit to everyone, whether they have a history of dieting, are striving for good health or any life goals."—Barry McBride, Ultramarathon runner.
Let me share what I’ve learned in writing Joyful Eating, which may benefit inspiring writers or anyone pursuing a creative endeavour.
Show-up and do the work
Okay, so what was the most important thing that enabled me to complete my book? It was committing myself to a regular practice of writing. In the same way, that you may go to the gym or watch your favourite sitcom routinely; I encourage you to commit some time, anytime, 15 minutes to an hour every day or week.
Allocate the time and show up to allow the words to flow out of your head and onto the page. Steven Pressfield, the author of Turning Pro, explains that the professional turns up to work while the amateur does it when they feel like it. If you want to write, you’ve got to write; it’s that simple!
“The amateur fears that if he turns pro and lives out his calling, he will have to live up to who he really is and what he is truly capable of.”—Steven Pressfield
Write to become a writer
No one else can tell you if you are a writer or not; you are a writer if you write.
As I wrote Joyful Eating, I focused on the habit of writing. I focused on being the action, I am writing, rather than the noun, I am a writer. If I thought I am a writer, it would bring up a barrage of thoughts such as I am not good enough; I am not a writer until someone has read this; I am not a writer until how many people have read this, and so on. All these thoughts would do was cause me to stop writing, which would serve you and me in no way. However, by shifting my focus to the act of writing and how it made me feel, it was much easier to keep writing. The action of writing is what made me a writer.
“Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb).”—Austin Kleon
Let the ideas flow
Scribble, scrawl, touch type—do whatever you can to get your ideas out without any critique. Allow the ideas to flow without analysis. You may later edit your rough work so that it is readable, but even then, don’t attempt to craft a perfect sentence; this will only block your creativity.
It’s a game you choose to play
Creativity is a game we choose to play; no one will die or go hungry if our work is not well received. It is ourselves that can render the stakes high, by placing pressure on our work to succeed and support us. Thus, causing us to feel anxious or stressed if we don’t believe our work is good enough. However, the reality is that we have chosen to do this work because we enjoy it. Often it is a flow activity that calms and centres us. I believe it is necessary to remind ourselves of this to take our work less seriously. Thus, treating it like the game—let’s see where this goes—that it is.
It is the expectations of our work that can generate anxiety and fear. Write (or create) because you enjoy it, and you feel almost compelled to do so (at least that’s what it’s like for me). If you write with great expectations and an end goal in mind (apart from finishing it), it can be paralysing. Try not to expect anything from your work.
Let go of attachment to any outcome
Similar to a foetus in gestation, during the construction phase, it is necessary to keep your work close and protected, while you tend to it and allow it to develop. However, unlike the birth of a baby, once you release your work into the world, you are no longer responsible for how it will be received; whether or not it will grow further or meet an untimely demise. You cannot coddle and protect it any longer, and attempting to do so is likely to cause anxiety and fear, without influencing the outcome.
Don’t identify with your work
Know that you are not your work. It may be a form of self-expression. However, your work is separate from who you are. It is simply something that you do. When you identify with your work, the outcomes can influence your self-perception and sense of self-worth. Let go of attaching your identity to your work, and allow the words to flow.
Your work will never be perfect
Striving for perfection can be paralysing; when the thing is, perfection doesn’t exist. It is only an illusion the mind creates. Having now finished my book, Joyful Eating, I can look at my work and know that it could be better. However, I know that it is now complete, because I’ve said what I needed to say, and it is ready to share with the world. I’ve gotten to the point that although I could keep polishing my work, it would not in any way change the message I want to share.
As I say in Joyful Eating, “I favour what author Elizabeth Gilbert’s mother used to say to her as a child that she carried through to complete her award-winning books, ‘done is better than good’.” Only through completing this book am I able to move on with other projects and potentially do even better work in the future.
“Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen and taking flight.”—Brené Brown.
Procrastination is a form of fear
Spending time imagining what you want to write, through experiencing and observing life, such as taking a walk, hanging out with friends or reading books, can benefit your work and give you material to incorporate into your writing. However, be wary when doing other things is a form of avoidance from doing your work. If the underlying thoughts in your mind are that you aren’t sure you are ready or good enough to write, you are facing procrastination. And the simple truth is: you will only become a more skilled writer through the practice of writing. So put pen to paper or your fingers on the keyboard and let the words flow without expectation, perfectionism, or overidentification.
Let me also comment here that learning about writing is not writing. Although it is useful to learn more about the craft, continually learning can become another form of procrastination. If you feel you need to learn everything there is to know about writing before you can write or have any right to call yourself a writer–you are holding yourself back. There are writers’ groups, manuscript assessors and editors to help improve your writing. Yes, your work may be ripped to shreds, but at least you have work to conduct an 'autopsy'. However, if your ideas only ever remain in your head, you have nothing you can learn from to improve your craft. Even if you write and only keep it for yourself, you can at least look back and see how your writing has evolved.
Don’t pre-reject yourself
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, talks of collecting rejection letters when she was starting out as a writer. She would send out work and collect the rejection letters as reminders that the only way to have your work published is to share it.
I’ve heard inspiring writers say that they have written a manuscript (or more), which they are not sure is good enough to share with the world and thus keep it hidden. If your work remains tucked away on a computer file, know that you are the one rejecting your work, no one else. The thing is, criticism, rejection, and disagreement come with the territory of sharing your work, but in all likelihood, you are your toughest critic.
“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”– Aristotle
You don’t need to be good enough to write. And if others do not celebrate your work, know that you enjoyed the process of writing it. Sharing your work with the world is only the grand finale of a labour of love. Release it, and release all expectations or self-identifying with your work. You cannot control how your work will be received, but you’ll never know if it doesn’t see the light of day.
Scrap the illusion of overnight success
Our belief in overnight success can cause us to think we need to succeed on our first go, and that, if we don’t, we aren’t as talented or lucky as others. It is these thoughts that can lead us to give up or not even try. However, overnight success is an illusion.
A painters first painting is not perfect. They have to learn the techniques of painting to develop their skill. Nor do we expect anyone to pick up a violin and be able to play beautifully first go. No, we understand that they need to learn how to hold the instrument, learn the cords and begin squealing their way through the most basic of songs.
The same is true of writing. It is a skill anyone who desires to write develops over time. And the only way to do that is to write. Thus, rather than expecting your first work to be perfect or a success, see it as working towards improving your skill.
“Everything is practice. Every word you write and action you take is a chance to get better.”
—Jeff Goins, You Are A Writer
Yes, some people appear to be overnight successes, possibly having their first novel become a best seller. However, how many years had they been writing before they released the novel? How many stories did they ditch? How many manuscripts do they have that never saw the light of day as they simply became part of the process of learning how to form a compelling story?
No, overnight successes don’t exist; it is the persistence and commitment to show up and develop your craft that leads to work that may or may not become a success.
“… it takes years to become an overnight success.”—Richard Branson
I must credit Elizabeth Gilbert for her book, Big Magic, and the associated podcast, Magic Lessons, which inspired much of what I share in this blog. When I started writing, Joyful Eating, I listened to this book and podcast innumerable times.
I encourage reading and listening about the creative process where it helps to keep you committed and inspired, rather than being a form of procrastination or comparison, where you end up feeling you aren’t good enough or have what it takes to do the work. Other ideas I share have probably come from sources that I don’t even remember, as I was learning simply to keep writing. However, books and other materials that I highly recommend include:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.
So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”– Theodore Roosevelt