✍️ Learning to write again
About my 10/1000 practice.
I’m David Gane and this is my newsletter/letter that dreams to show up in your inbox every second Sunday. (It will one day, I promise.) Here, I’ll talk about writing, story, and life. Thanks for reading.
In my previous letter, I shared how I’ve learned to keep a specific person in mind when I write.
I also mentioned how I wrote the last one to someone—but I didn’t share who that person was. (My writing partner even asked me afterwards who it was, but I didn’t tell her. Sorry, Angie!)
But for her and all of you, I’ll mention exactly who I’m writing this one to past-me, present-me, and future-me.
Past-me because what I’m about to share is a problem (and solution) that I’ve always had. Present-me because I’m still learning my lessons from it. And future-me because I know I’m going to forget everything I’ve learned at some point and need to be reminded.
And hopefully, this letter will help some of you— either because you’re crazy like me and actually want to write for a living, or you need to do it for your work.
Either way, let’s dig in.
So let’s talk about the problem
I struggle with my writing.
I know it might seem weird that someone who writes fiction and teaches story has this problem, but to be honest, it’s nothing new. I’ve always had it.
I’m not one who believes in writer’s block, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s call it writer’s block. It’s a mix of anxiety, fear, too many ideas, not enough ideas, disorganized ideas... The list goes on.
The earliest and most vivid memory of my problem is when I had to write speeches for high school. I always turned into a discombobulated mess.
I’d always have grand ideas that I’d want to talk about, but then they’d quickly fall apart as I tried to get them down. Either they were too big or too messy, and I’d stare at the page for days until time ran out. Then I’d quickly cobble something together that was usually boring, uninspired, and dull.
This problem never went away. I’d struggle with essays in university and every time I’d try to write a book on my own, without my writing partner, the issue would rear its ugly head. I’d end up with plenty of ideas, plenty of outlines, and barely any actual written words to show for it.
Even this newsletter has been caught up with this problem. I’ll have topics and outlines but then flail around as the deadline approaches.
But recently, I’ve changed the way I do things and I’m finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.
A digression about holes
For the past week, I’ve had a question—or maybe we can call it a riddle or a Zen Buddhist koan—stuck in my head:
How do you dig yourself out of a hole?
If you were stuck in a hole, because you fell into it or, worse, dug it on your own, how do you get out of it—especially if no one is around?
And the answer I keep coming back to is: start digging.
Now, this answer seems counter-intuitive. To get out of the hole, you need to use the same tool that (possibly) got you into it. At first, it seems like you’ll only get yourself deeper. And yes, that’s possible, but it can also help you chip away at the sides, and eventually get yourself out.
And these solutions also seem to work for my writing problem: the only way to get out of the hole I’ve dug myself into is to start writing.
How I dug myself out of the hole
Typically, when I’m struggling with my writing, I avoid it at all cost. Either I watch Netflix, play a video game, or clean the house. Anything EXCEPT do the writing.
But lately, I’ve started using a strategy that has worked wonders for me: I do the work. (I know! I’m talking crazy, out-of-this-world strategies, but bear with me!)
I apply two practices: 10 minutes or 1000 words.
Strategy 1: 10 minutes
10 minutes means I write for 10 minutes straight about whatever comes to mind.
This opens me up to my stream-of-consciousness thoughts, similar to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages.
I’ll usually do it at the start of the morning as a journal entry. Sometimes I have big moments of understanding, but often it’s me planning my day, complaining about petty things, or repeatedly asking myself what else is on my mind.
I also try to avoid fixing mistakes. Even if I flub the spelling of a word, I ignore it and fix it after I am done (I’ll leave all the other grammar issues, but I don’t like red lines under my words).
And as soon as the timer goes off at 10 minutes, I stop, even if I haven’t completed the thought I’m working on.
For me, it’s a great way to wake up. It gets me to the keyboard early on and I explore what’s going on in my head—even if there’s really nothing going on. But it gets me typing, and that’s the key.
I will also use it throughout the day to check in, vent, or work through a problem that is troubling me. And sometimes I’ll do it before bed so that I have a good night’s rest.
But however much I find 10 minutes of writing personally helpful, it is not a strategy that I’d used to write something that I’d share with an audience.
For that, I use my second strategy.
Strategy 2: 1000 words
1000 words is similar to writing for 10 minutes, but instead of a timed exercise, it requires me to keep writing until I hit 1000 words—no matter what.
And then once I’ve completed it, I reflect on what’s there and then refine it with another 1000 words. The goal is always to keep writing 1000 words until I get it to my goal, whether it is a topic, an outline, or a first draft.
For example, it took me until Version 4 to figure out what this week’s letter was about, and then another couple of versions until I figured out its shape. Even after that, I’ve had to do a few more passes until this thing felt solid.
And now I’ve even extended this strategy to my fiction.
Almost half a year ago, I had an idea for a story. I figured out its four acts and some of its outline, but I wasn’t writing the actual book.
So I wrote 1000 words a few times to figure out the entire story, then I wrote a few more versions to explain the first act.
This process alone led me to realize how boring the first act was, so I did more research and more versions of Act 1. And once I’m done with all of that, I’ll write out what happens in the first 1000 words with—you guessed it—1000 words.
Yes, it is a lot of writing but it is also the key to doing the work.
For me, doing the writing is my path to thinking and allows me to unpack the jumble of thoughts inside my head.
Spending the extra time and work to get to the finished product is the shortcut. And if I didn’t do it, I’d likely not get anything on the page.
Putting it into practice
Even though I think this is a game-changer in how I work, I probably wouldn’t have tried it a few months ago.
Often, when I was avoiding writing, my wife would tell me the solution was to write, but I’d always find excuses not to do it. (In retrospect, we can all agree that she is the smarter one.)
And if I suggested this to high school past-me, I would’ve argued, “It won’t work for me...That’s not the problem I’m dealing with... You don’t understand...”
Hell, I even read a version of my 1000 word strategy twenty years ago in Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers and tried it, but it never stuck.
The only reason I started doing it was that I stumbled across the idea in Ann Handley’s How to Newsletter that I shared last week and tried applying it to my previous letter. It worked like magic and then I applied it to my novel writing and had amazing results there, as well.
I think the three things that finally made it work for me:
- I constrained myself to 1000 words—whether it was a book, a story act, or the newsletter. It gave me enough words to think out the structure of the piece, but also not so much that it exhausted me trying to get it all on the page.
- I had built up the practice of those 10 minutes, and allowed myself to “write ugly.” By practicing that stream-of-consciousness, I force myself not to worry about the mistakes, the confusing thoughts, or that it has to be perfect. I’ve learned that I’ll always get another draft to make it better.
- Also, because of the stream-of-consciousness practice, I know I can get 600+ words down in those 10 minutes, so 1000 words aren’t too far out of reach.
Wrapping it up
Writing 1000 words isn’t an instant fix. The writing will be bad and it’ll often seem like a mess and I’ll feel lost for a very long time.
But at least I’m doing the work—the hard work—of putting words on the page and moving towards the goal of a completed piece of writing. I use it to untangle my thinking and lay out my thoughts out smooth and clean so that someone, not just me, can make sense of it.
It’s not easy, and it’s a lot of work, but by showing up and practicing it each day, I’ve been slowly digging myself out of the hole.
And hopefully, whether you have to write for work or want to be a writer, this strategy will work for you.
I wish you all the best.
- Cheer, Season 2. I was a huge fan of the first season, but this one captures a completely different experience. It reveals the pros and cons of sudden fame and the harsh truths of some of its breakout stars. On top of it all, it introduces another cheer team that by the end, had me caring about them both. I was completely caught up in the tension that only one might be able to win the final competition.
- Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. I know—I'm very late on this one. I had watched a talk of hers long ago and it didn’t really speak to me, but I decided to revisit her writing. I’ve really enjoyed this book about courage and vulnerability and want to share pretty much most of my family.
- Unthinkable and You’re Wrong About. I’ve been driving a lot and listening to a lot of podcasts. Unthinkable is for the creative professional and You’re Wrong About revisits past pop culture events and looks at them in a new light. I enjoy them for very different reasons.
Thank you for reading.
I don't have much to add at the end.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this letter dreams of making it to your inbox on Sunday, but as because I'm still learning my practice of 1000 words, it's taking longer than expected.
(The first time I tried it, I started on a Saturday and sent it on a Tuesday. This time, I started on a Wednesday and sent it on a Tuesday. Next time, I'll try starting on a Sunday and see if things work out!)
See you in two weeks!
David Gane Newsletter
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