Are you like me? I aspire to earn a crust from writing so I have to write a lot of words, put in a lot of hours and basically fail a lot. But I love to write. And I don’t have much else to do at the moment. But getting started, sitting down to actually write never gets easier.
Professional writers like Steven Moffatt have talked about ‘The Fear’, a dread that stops him from writing in case this time he can’t do it or fail somehow in a spectacular way. Because famous writers are in the public eye failure would be a kind of ‘look how the mighty have fallen’ which only serves to fuel that dread. It drives Moffat to prevaricate for long periods, to delay the inevitable beginning of the process, and presumably delay the embarrassment of failure.
I am not a writer in the public eye so I can in no way compare myself to Moffatt, or indeed with anyone of any standing whatsoever. I don’t need to worry about failing because I have only enjoyed very little measurable success. But I do prevaricate. I skive. Even though I know once I start, I go off into my own world of letters and words and generally, even if I’m having a really off day, enjoy myself immensely. There is nothing else I would rather do with the time. It is better than a nine to five office job. I know because I’ve done them but so far writing has yet to pay any financial dividends. But like I said, I haven’t exactly got a full schedule, not now or any time soon. It’s the same story for many: being forced to stay at home and finally having the opportunity to try turning professional at a hobby that’s fun. The cost of course is quite high and precarious finances rarely stimulate creativity. But are you like me, do you prevaricate and invent ingenious reasons not to do…well, whatever it is you like to do? Because that behaviour I talked about, that skiving is not confined merely to writers who aren’t writing when they should be.
It doesn’t have to be related to a hobby that you’re trying to turn into a little cash, either. Whether you enjoy painting, body-building or playing a musical instrument, you may find it just as difficult as writers to get started. Steven Moffat’s “Fear” sounds irrational but it is a symptom of acute anxiety; The “Fear” doesn’t create his anxiety, it is anxiety. It has a real tangible effect on his ability to do his job. Which, as we know, he is capable of doing really, really well. But all of us can suffer from the same affliction. We may not be hysterical in that odd way writers tend to be, creating grandiose names and anthropomorphising our malaise, but it is there nonetheless, and it is equally debilitating.
Anxiety is often an unreasonable dread of something, created by our subconscious mind. Our minds have identified a fear, in this case that fear is failure, and the fear of being seen to lack the humility to deal with it. In this case anxiety is a defence mechanism.
“The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”
If we were to take that saying literally, then you would think the last steps in the journey would be the hardest simply because mind and body would be exhausted by the 999th mile. That’s logical. Yet we know the first step is often the hardest, beginning that journey is fraught with feelings of anxiety, Moffat’s “Fear”. But what can we do about it?
“Clarity reveals itself in momentum“.
The answer is both simple and hard. To overcome the feelings of angst and trepidation there is only one practical thing that can be done; Begin. Start whatever it is you’re reticent about starting. But knowing what to do is not enough. Like anything, we need to be equipped with the tools in order to do the job. Let’s see if I can arm you with a metaphorical screwdriver, because you know what you want to do, you just need to tighten the process of beginning.
Beginning is the scary part and the most difficult because that first step is riddled with angst, so we must break it down into smaller, manageable steps that are so small they don’t feel like steps at all but a gentle incline. So let us establish the moment of true beginning. This would be putting finger to fret board, hands around the barbell or paintbrush on canvas – these are the true beginnings, the completion of the first step in that aforementioned journey of a thousand miles. But let’s back track because unless you’ve everything set up already, for example your canvas primed, your paints setup, you need to prepare for the beginning. So breaking down that first step involves preparation, tuning the instrument if you’re a muscician or warming up the muscles of your body if you’re a body builder. But there’s a little mini-step, a little footfall before you even get that far. It’s the idea, the intent. The decision to do something is what makes the first foot-like impression in that fallow earth. That’s it, you’re already close to beginning, we’ve just got to get ourselves completely over the line.
Some people may find planning and making time easier, however some may find that puts pressure on them and may prefer spontaneity. The ‘shock yourself into it’ approach can work, I have tried it myself. For it to work you have to conspire against yourself, against the angst or “Fear” and throw yourself into the task. By the time you have a chance to think about it the first deed, the whole beginning, is well in the past. It’s a good approach but it is unlikely to engender discipline or eliminate any anxiety. It’s just a work-around, a way to circumnavigate those feelings instead of confronting them head on. I would like you to come away from this article with something you can try yourself and develop until your anxiety vanishes, or at the very least whittled down to something manageable. Identifying anxiety, which is what we’ve done means we can deal with it using pragmatism and logic. If there are two things anxiety cannot defend itself against it’s logic and pragmatism.
“If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail”
Already we’ve said the idea, the intent to do the thing, music, art, writing, whatever is the true start of the beginning. The next bit is a continuation, and the next bit should be preparation. Mix your colours, find your font, tune the instrument, jog on the spot. It’s not skiving, it isn’t prevaricating because it is necessary., and you’re not only preparing the physical things you need to do what you want to do, you’re starting to put yourself in the right frame of mind. It’s giving you the opportunity to get your head into what lies ahead. If you have already planned your day and made time for what you want to do this should be easier.
It is also important to take as much time as you need to set things up. We are sailing a little close to the waters of prevarication here, so we need to ensure we are not swept away on a sea of skiving because it is all too-easy to prepare too much, to extend prep into prevarication. How you approach it matters.
You have ptobably noticed this yourself, either by experience or witnessing it in others: If we approach things in a negative way, something nearly always goes wrong somewhere. The right frame of mind is essential. Otherwise, you’re likely spill your paints, snap a string or pull a muscle.
You may also find as I do, that I need to beware of my anxiety being the instigator of quietly devious behaviours. Without wishing to anthroporphise a’la Moffat, anxiety can be rescourceful. As well as preventing me from writing in itself, it also taps into and develops feelings of resignation, in this case a part of me that is looking to be ‘let off the hook’. A part of my brain that will allow and accept and justify any tiny setback, no matter how slight, as a good reason to stop. So, having thought, decided what you want to do and when, we must remember positivity is key. Prepare with positivity. You may not want to, and it may be hard but try to approach prep with the same silent gleeful resignation your subconscious has reserved for skiving.
We have already agreed the first true step on that journey of a thousand miles is the first brush stroke, lift or note and that those things cannot happen without first preparing. We have agreed preparation, even if it takes a little while is not skiving because prep is a necessity. It just is and must be. How’s that for of pragmatism and logic The rising flames of anxiety are no match for being doused with a duel deluge such as that. Preparation is the halfway point between sacking off and cracking on.
Now you’ve been handed the tool to wield against the anxiety and “Fear” that pervades all beginnings and I’ve shown you how to use it. But it is now up to you to keep that tool in good condition and the muscles to use it supple. It’s unreasonable to expect to get it right and keep getting it right. There may be days where you need to prepare for setbacks, even when you’ve got things down pat. I’m constantly surprised by the skilful ways I keep finding to wriggle out of writing. I can really be quite inventive , but I know I should be channelling that ingenuity into my writing instead of wasting it on finding ways to do anything else. The ability to know our habits, know when we tend to procrastinate and recognise when we are doing it is a blessing. The recognition presents an opportunity to re-direct and feed it into that thing you love, that thing we paradoxically can’t face starting. Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves why we love the things we enjoy doing. To re-connect. For me, that means re-reading things I’m proud of, or little things to jog the memory.
Recognise aspiration is the ultimate beginning, preparation is key to completing the first step, and is the halfway point between doing and not doing. Because once you’re halfway, you might as well continue, right? However it is more than likely that your preperation, mindset and love for the thing you enjoy will take you over the starting line and complete that essential first step in the journey of a thousand.
I did not know what to write when I woke up today. I’m no Steven Moffat but my uncertainty and anxiety is just as present in my mind as it is his, but I overcame it. He can. You can. We all can. If you’re looking for proof then look no further than the words you’re reading right now. I started this without knowing what I was going to write about, what point I would be trying to make, or how long it would take to turn the thoughts I didn’t know were in my head into words. But here we are, at the end. And that’s the joy of that journey of a thousand steps, you never know what you’ll find along the way and you never really know where it will end. Begin. And have fun.
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Copyright Martin Gregory. 2021