I was nine years old when I decided I was going to be a writer. I was a lot older than that before I got good at it. In all that time, I don’t recall any teacher, author, or guru ever asking “what makes you want to bother?” After wandering along a winding, painful path toward my ambition, I eventually discovered a process of natural writing that did. Answering that question eased the struggle to write well by exploring what each writing endeavor means to me.
I started writing professionally as a 24-year-old account executive at a public relations agency. In those days, I wrote a lot of press materials and reports. I took my writing assignments home so that I could hide the actual time it took to complete them. Late into the night, I struggled, I cried, I panicked.
I still do. Oh, it’s not that the outcome isn’t wonderful. It usually is. It’s the process that isn’t.
To write well, think well
A sports writer is credited with saying, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” If only it were that easy. More than crafting words into creative expressions, writing always has been closely tied to my ability to think. Like stringed balloons in child’s fist, inevitably my thoughts escape my brain’s grasp unless I tether them to ink and paper. Because written words last longer than my thoughts, journals, essays, correspondence, and poetry are refuge for my ability to form ideas.
It took until my late 40s to discover why I struggled to write well. After being tested by a neuropsychiatrist, I learned that my working memory performs inefficiently. My brain has to go through extra steps to create strategies to focus, organize, and retain. Not just to process outside information, but my own thoughts as well! All that time, my problem wasn’t that I didn’t write well. It was that I didn’t think well.
That got me to ask: What does it take to think well? In school, we learn how to organize our ideas before we start a first draft. Still, most people struggle even to create the outlines or mind maps we’re given as tools. That’s because we’re taught writing as a methodical practice rather than a natural process. Even personal essays too often are forced rather than felt.
All writing is personal
In natural writing, a sense of purpose makes writing a personal experience. It invites you to step back and collect your thoughts, even your feelings, before you go looking for the cold, hard facts. In natural writing, you think about how you came to an idea. How you relate to it in any way, past, present, or future. Do you have any personal stories that resonate when you think about it? What are they? What themes seem to bubble up?
You find yourself reflecting on insights from your research. You might feel more energy around one fact more than another. Ask why. If you find patterns, consider them to support your argument. Suddenly, it becomes an investigation, which give you a sense of personal mission. At some point, you ask, “If the outcome of this piece were a mirror, what do I want to see when it’s finished? What should I see?”
Have a goal
If you’re going to invest the time and energy into writing, it might as well have an impact on what’s important to you. Ask yourself, “How do I want to change (or reinforce) my readers’ thinking on this issue?” Now you want to learn more about your audience’s thinking, right? Do the research. How do they get their information about the topic? What influences their thinking? Answers to those questions give you more to say about the topic and and idea of how you can say it to make your readers want to think differently.
The point in all this is that you matter to what you write. Getting personal with the topic makes you strive to clarify your thinking, to connect the dots that make a point because you have a stake in it. To write with sincerity, generosity, and conviction, you have to feel connected to the outcome. Through the natural process of writing, ideas flow from perception to page without having to make you bleed so much.