Happens to the best of us, you know.
We’ve all been told to let the words flow loose and easy and free, but instead, we stiffen up like a British banker before his annual rectal exam.
It feels horrible too. Instead of enjoying writing like we’re supposed to, we end up gritting our teeth through the entire experience, knowing something just ain’t right but feeling so uncomfortable that we can’t help sounding like a robot.
The good news is that deliverance is at hand. Like any good friend, I hereby pronounce myself ready to pry said stick out of your posterior, curing you of robotitus once and for all.
Let us begin.
The painful truth about why you can’t be yourself
It’s because you’re inhibited, dearie.
All of us are, to one degree or another, and thank God. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we acted on every impulse to pass through our little heathen brains?
Why, it would be a mess. People would be fornicating in church, passing out drunk in the wine aisle of the grocery store, murdering their children for failing to take out the garbage, and God only knows what else.
To protect ourselves from such ill-advised behavior, we all learn during childhood that there are Angels and Demons within all of us, and if we are to survive, we must encourage the former and discourage the latter. Or else.
But many of us take it too far
Instead of just ignoring our worst impulses, we ruthlessly stomp on any impulse at all. We go from being a thinking, feeling human being to becoming a robot, mindlessly following the script society gives us for “appropriate behavior.”
And the bad news?
Good writing isn’t in the script. Yes, you can write a set of instructions or a report about what happened, but there won’t be any life to it. It’ll just be information, pure and simple and boring.
If you want to make your writing interesting, you have to embrace the mess. You have to find the courage to look inside yourself and discover what you really think. You also have to feel, not just little blips of emotion, but buckets of it, drowning you in their intensity and power.
The good news is, just as you trained yourself to suppress those thoughts and emotions, you can also train yourself to unsuppress them. Not totally, mind you, to where you end up stabbing your boss with a letter opener, but enough to get them out onto the page.
Here are some exercises to get you started:
Exercise #1: Tell your mother to go to hell
Credit for this one goes to the legendary copywriter Gary Halbert.
Here’s what you do:
Write a letter to your mother explaining all the ways she has ruined your life. Call her names, describe her flaws in vicious detail, and be so downright hurtful you can imagine her clutching her heart and falling over dead.
And then delete it, burn it, or otherwise obliterate it from existence. Whatever you do, do NOT mail the evil thing.
The goal of this exercise isn’t to hurt your mother, but to quiet her voice within you. Most of us learned right and wrong from our mothers, and fear of their disapproval keeps us from ever being truly honest.
So, let her have it (figuratively speaking). You’ll be shocked at how much it helps your writing.
Exercise #2: Give a stranger an honest compliment
Not all inhibitions are of the nasty variety. You can be just as uptight about being nice to people.
If you doubt me, give this a try:
Go up to a complete stranger and pay them an honest compliment. Not the oh-you-look-nice-today lame assery most people spout, but a spontaneous gesture of appreciation, derived from real emotion.
If you see a car you’ve always wanted to have, for example, don’t walk up to the owner and say “nice car.” Go to them with wide eyes and a pounding heart and inform them they have the bitchinest ride in the universe.
See what I’m talking about?
Real emotion. Real expression. Real connection.
With a complete stranger.
If you can’t do it in person, it’s mighty hard to do it in print.
Exercise #3: Write a steamy sex scene
Were you brought up to believe sex is a private thing? Whatever people do behind closed doors and all that jazz?
Yeah, me too, but here’s the deal:
Our job as writers is to say the things other people are unable or unwilling to say. Sometimes that means being brutally honest, but more often, it means touching the taboo – subjects like cowardice, greed, jealousy, hate, and yes, sex.
Instead of running away from all those scary feelings inside you, cuddle up next to them and say howdy. Get to know them. Learn how they work. See them for what they are rather than what you feared they would be.
Yes, it’s hard, but this is what we do, people. We speak the unspeakable.
If you flinch at the idea of writing a steamy sex scene, how will you ever find the courage to address topics like suicide, double standards, and legacy? Those are the really tough topics, and the truth is, you’ll never be able to learn how to handle them with grace until you can feel something scary and not go running for cover.
In my opinion, sex is a good place to start, because while it’s dangerous, it’s also fun. Writing a steamy sex scene can and should be a helluva good time.
So get your freak on. I won’t tell anybody, I promise. 😉
Exercise #4: Teach yourself how to say thank you
Sounds strange to say, but most people never really learn how to express gratitude.
Oh sure, we can squeak out a thank you over trivial niceties like someone opening a door or picking up a fallen pen. Maybe we can even send over a nice gift or two when the situation warrants it.
But when it’s bigger than that? When someone commits an act of kindness so selfless it warms our very soul?
Why, we fall speechless. The emotion is so strong, the gratitude so deep, we are unable to find words to express it.
The truth, though?
As a writer, you have to be better than that. Where others fumble about with clichés and platitudes, you must learn how to express exactly how you feel, to say exactly what you mean, transforming your thoughts into words and teleporting them into the mind of the reader.
A good way to learn how is to write a gratitude letter. Think through your life, pick somebody that changed it for the better, and then write a letter telling them how much you appreciate what they did.
When you’re done, ask yourself, “Is this what I really mean? Do the words match the emotion?” If the answer is no, toss the letter and start again, repeating as many times as necessary until you know it’s right, not just with your head, but also with your heart.
And then mail it to them, assuming they’re still living. If you get it right, and I know you will, the letter will touch them in a way few things ever have.
Exercise #5: Write a eulogy for someone you love
Ever seen an artist’s sketch that seems to capture what’s special about someone you know?
Not like a photograph, which is a snapshot of their physical features. Instead, it’s more like a glimpse into their soul, imperfect in its portrayal of how they look and yet somehow utterly perfect in its portrayal of who they are.
Well, that’s what this exercise is all about.
Grab a Kleenex box, and write a eulogy for someone you love. Maybe they’ve already passed, or maybe they haven’t, but imagine you’ve been tasked to stand up in front of all their friends and relatives and give a speech at their funeral.
Your job isn’t just to rattle off all their accomplishments, because, well, any old fool can do that. No, your job is to sketch their soul, to use your words to bring them back to life, if only for a moment, so everyone can say goodbye.
The big secret?
That’s what powerful writing is all about. Not taking “photos” of ideas, although I have nothing against photos, but sketching them, digging into their essence to reveal their essential nature and putting it out there for the entire world to see.
Do it for a loved one, and you can do it for other things too. Just give it a try, and you’ll see what I mean.
One word of warning, though:
This shit is hard, people
The great fallacy of the written word is that it’s about the words themselves. Choose the right ones, put them in the right order, and you’ll be fine and dandy.
As writers, we wrestle not with words, but with ourselves. Ideas, emotions, logic – those are the real building blocks of great writing, and if you’re to understand them, first you have to understand yourself.
It’s a tall order, one that will engage and challenge you until the day you die. Assuming you’re willing to try, of course.
And most people aren’t.
They’ll read the exercises above and think, “Lordy, I’ll have to start a blog and do that someday.” But they won’t. They’ll go back to their robot writing and forget all about it.
I’m hoping you’re different. I’m hoping you’re one of the few that’s willing to work at this and get good. I’m hoping you’ll one day write with such soul and power the words will tremble upon the page.
The world needs more writers like that. Desperately so.
Will you be one of them?