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Three Minutes That May Help

May 9, 2022

On April 25, I was given the Stewart Holbrook Award by Literary Arts at the Oregon Book Awards for Literary Legacy. It was for contributing to writers. I gave a three-minute speech that night. Since then several have asked about it, so I am printing it here in case you missed it and in case it might be helpful to you. Write on!

If I read this speech, it will take three minutes and two seconds.  If I wing it, it’ll take twenty-three minutes. 

One of the purposes of my life is to help writers write more while suffering less. 

Over the years I’ve worked with thousands of writers and I have found the definitive answer to the question “what is a writer?”  Some of you think, as I used to, that a writer is one who writes.  No.  A writer is anyone who feels bad about not writing.  True.  Non writers? Feeling bad about not writing never crosses their minds.

I have three minutes, so I’m going to tell you three things that might help.

First, there are two words that writers beat themselves up with.  Discipline and procrastination.  You have probably been told that you have to have discipline and write every day and that’s not true.  We should let that go.  Discipline.  It even sounds like punishment.  So give it up.  The other word we just need to rewrite.  I suggest we replace the word Procrastination with Gestation.    When you have an idea growing inside you, nourish it, do research, make notes, play music, and be patient.  Don’t try to drag it out of you by sheer force of will before it’s ready.  When you wake up one morning and sentences are forming, write them down.  It’s ready to be born.  Don’t think.  Just write it down.  Write it down.

My favorite poet William Stafford said, “All an idea has to do to be worthy of my attention is occur to me.”  Someone asked, “And when you can’t write?”   He said, “I lower my standards.”

Number two:  You actually have a second you living inside you.  A childlike, brilliant, magical, creative self.  And it’s your job to protect her.  Defend her against mean bullies in your head.  One of my students named Don Payne, wrote the Thor movies and The Simpsons other things and died young.  When he knew he was going to do that, he called the people who had made a difference in his life to thank them.  I was one of them.  What he thanked me for was teaching him that the critical voice in his head was not real.  And he didn’t have to listen to it.  And to be sure to always tell my students this.  So I’m telling you.  The voice that tears you down and trips you up is not real.  Tell it to shut up and get on with your work.

And thirdly,  James Goldman wrote in The Lion in Winter, as Henry II to his young mistress, pulling loose one lock of her hair, “Let’s have one strand askew.  Nothing in life has any business being perfect.”  Most writers are perfectionists. This is like chasing a dark shadow.  It is not real.  There is no such thing as perfection.  You need to stop pursuing it so hard that it makes you dissatisfied with your own creations.  The truth is your best is good enough.  Take this personally. I’m talking to you, the person sitting in your chair right now.  Your best is good enough.

So:

You’re not procrastinating, you’re pregnant.

Don’t think.  Write it down.

Your best is good enough.

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