Do the work a manifesto for writers

I finally found the mantra I needed. I wasn’t looking for a mantra (because I’m not that “out there”), but now that I’ve found one, I realize how aimless I’ve felt without these three words.

DO THE WORK.

That’s it. The words are simple, and they’re not just for writers. You want to run a marathon? Make time to volunteer? Finish a certification program for a new skill? Improve relationships with family and friends?

DO THE WORK.

There’s no other way. No fast way. It’s just work. Day after day.

Why this expression? Why now?

Several writing friends highly recommended Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art. I read it one night, then–here’s the exciting part–I finished writing three essays and one short story by the end of the week. Three essays! One story! One week!

I usually write three essays a month and an average of two short stories a year. Since I’m proud of the work I produce, that output would all be fine if the time I spent not writing meant I was busy doing other productive things instead of sitting in front my computer hoping to write. I have no shortage of ideas, just limited time. My kids, husband, and the running of our home are the priorities of my life right now. But the writing matters to me. It matters a lot, which is why wasting precious time the way I do fills me with so much self-loathing.

Most of Pressfield’s War of Art explains what happens to me (and all of us) in those fruitless writing sessions (insert your own goals and passions). He calls it Resistance (always with a forceful capital R) and he says it happens to anyone trying to accomplish anything. You intend to organize the house by the end of the month, but shelves seem to be get more crowded? Resistance! Your goal is to spend less money, yet every time you shop at Target you’re buying new clothes instead of toilet paper and laundry detergent? Resistance! Pressfield says that Resistance is the force that takes over our best intentions. Too much shopping, eating, drinking, watching TV, flirting with inappropriate people, putzing around on the internet, and so on—it’s Resistance.

It’s all just busy work to keep us from doing the real work that matters to us. 

When it comes to writing, I feel the roots of my own personal brand of Resistance in different forms. Here are a few examples:

  • Worrying I have nothing to say that matters.
  • Worrying I have too much to say and not enough ability.
  • Worrying about alienating friends and family (which has happened with the most surprising of topics then paralyzes me for weeks after.)
  • Worrying that when I put myself out there by publishing essays and promoting them in any way (a big part of the writing gig these days), that people I care about are saying, “Who does she think she is?”
  • Worrying that people I don’t care about are asking the same question.
  • Worrying that my career will never progress beyond where it is. (Though to tell you truth, where it is now is LIGHT-YEARS ahead of where I ever imagined. So not sure why I let this one bother me.)

Seems like quite a bit of thinking and worrying about myself, I know. But this Resistance I’m describing is under the surface. I don’t sit with my computer and actually think, “What if everyone thinks I suck?” The fear of failure and worry are subtlety there. Always. This Resistance is some kind of bizarre self-protection that ends in self-sabotage.

How does Pressfield suggest we get over Resistance?

The specifics of the answer would be different for every person’s situation and goals, but the theme doesn’t change. I bet you can guess—-> DO THE WORK.

So I started doing the work. That’s how I was able to write so much in one week and stay on a steady schedule (though not with the same manically ambitious outcome as that first week.) Turns out I did have more time to write than I wanted to admit. Almost every writer I respect has mentioned in interviews that they write in the morning. They get up before their day jobs or before their kids wake up. I’ll never be able to do that, I’d been telling myself. For my entire life I’ve told myself the lie that I’m not a morning person

I imagined Pressfield rolling his eyes at me, and I told myself I had to try. And that’s how I’ve been doing the work. With my husband and our four kids asleep, I get up at 5:00AM, get my butt in my favorite living room chair, and just work. At 7:00, I close my lap top and get ready to take care of the kids.

Sure, there are other random pockets throughout the school day when I could squeeze in some real writing and instead find myself looking at clothes online. But you know what? If I’ve accomplished close to two hours of work already, then the self-loathing is gone. The cycle of Resistance is a little more damaged, in a good way.

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Nina Badzin is a freelance writer, an advice columnist at The HerStories Project, a book reviewer at greatnewbooks.org, and a co-founder of The Twin Cities Writing Studio. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four children.

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