Back to Basics, Part 2 – Your Pinch of Arsenic

This is Part 2 in a series of posts chronicling the journey of one writer from self-defeat and creative paralysis back to a love of writing and productivity, heavily inspired by Ray Bradbury’s excellent Zen in the Art of Writing. You can read Part 1 here.

 “I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without writing, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor. Three and I suspect lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow. An hour’s writing is tonic. I’m on my feet, running in circles, yelling for a clean pair of spats.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Preface”

This is not true for every writer. It may not be true for you. But it is definitely true for me. My husband notices it. I get irritable, impatient, morose.

“You should get some writing done,” he observes. “It’s like your medicine.”

He’s invariably right. It doesn’t really make sense—I don’t write about things currently happening in my life. I don’t view writing as therapy in the sense of revisiting events and resolving them. But I can’t deny that writing, for me, is therapeutic.

The problem arises when I focus on the outcome of writing, rather than the writing itself. When I obsess on things like placing an unfinished story with the right market, or how it might be received by its eventual readers, or (perhaps most toxic) how it might compare to the work of my friends and peers, the bitter alchemy of ego and its dark counterpart, shame, turn the medicine into poison, and the patient steadily declines.

 “Not to write, for many of us, is to die. We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.”

– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, “Preface”

It was true when I was a brand-new writer, tapping out thinly veiled Mary Sue daydreams with Writer’s Market at my side. Today my goal is to go back to the beginning, to connect with that young woman whose aspirations were aligned with progress, not perfection; who believed that she could learn, if she only practiced and applied sound advice from those who had reached mastery.

Bradbury notes that “the smallest effort” is all that’s required. Graduates of the prestigious Clarion speculative fiction workshop are often advised to take it slow, committing to only 250 words per day—roughly one double-spaced page. 250 words can take as little as ten minutes, but that “gentle bout” is truly a victory for the writer struggling to stay out of her own way.

Committing to a single page means that I don’t get to chastise myself for not finishing the story today. It means that I might spend a little more time and attention on finding the right words, making for less work later. It means that I can fit it into my day, no matter how I’m feeling, no matter where I am, no matter what else life demands of me today.

If you’re following along with me on this journey, then today that’s your challenge: Write a single page, on any project you want–the more fun that project is, the better. Or 125 words on two different projects. Or 50 words each on five. Today is not about beating ourselves up for not having everything finished and polished and out the door. Today is about a pinch of progress, enough to keep soul-sickness at bay. Or in the words of Bradbury, “Taking your pinch of arsenic every morn so you can survive to sunset. Another pinch at sunset so that you can more-than-survive until dawn.”

Next time: Part 3 – Looking to Your Zest, Seeing to Your Gusto

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  • Matthew Sanborn Smith

    I think I feel better after writing because I know I took a little step in the right direction. But maybe it’s also about creative release. It’s not unlike sexual tension and release.

  • Just reading this post today. Have added “write 250 words” to my HabitRPG to-do list for tonight. (Will report back later.)

    • 292 strange words. Which is better than no words, I suppose.