When Writing, Be Gentle With Yourself

Gentleness by Cornelia Kopp

There are so many reasons to be hard on ourselves. We need to work more, to spend more time with our family, to focus more on our health. Employers, friends, family and society demand more and more of us: more attention, more focus, more multi-tasking, more time. They say “always be better, stronger, faster than you were yesterday so you can reach your goals and make a life for yourself.”¬†The times tell us to be aggressive with ourselves, to never take no for an answer, to always look for the bigger thing, the better thing. We should never be satisfied with what we have and always strive to have more, do more, be more.

I find this litany exhausting to the extreme. It implies that people have no limits. I tells us that if we’re not improving every day, we’re not really doing anything worthy at all. But is there a point where we need to–where we have to stop and recognize our limits? I think writing is the perfect space to start being gentle with ourselves.

No perfection needed

Think of writing as a sibling of thinking. Do you always expect perfect thoughts from yourself? Of course not: thoughts often come half-formed, not quite complete. Take this post, for example. I started thinking about this topic as I decided to give myself the space and the time to be a bad writer. I decided to be gentle with myself as I learn to write fiction. This post is not perfect–it’s actually not as clear, logical or convincing as I believe it should be. But it comes from somewhere deep, somewhere real, so I hope that the ideas shine through.

After a year of not writing, after a year of struggling to get words on paper because¬†I was afraid to be bad, I told myself that I would allow myself to be bad, that I would allow myself to be a beginner again. I like being in the state of “bad-ness”, of being in a place where discovery, learning and improvement. By improvement, I don’t mean the “I must be perfect at everything” improvement that I express in the first paragraph. I mean improvement of a more gentle kind, of a kind that’s less obsessed with productivity and more interested in fulfillment.

The state of perfection is a static, lifeless place. When you are perfect, what else can you do? The state of imperfection, the state of “bad-ness”, has so much more potential, so many more possibilities and directions.

So bad it’s good

When writing, allow yourself to be in a place of bad-ness. This is where the best thinking happens. This is where the heart reveals itself. It’s when you let go of all the expectations placed on you by teachers, superiors, and most of all yourself, that you are free to express yourself with the words that are right for you. It takes courage to lay our own thoughts bare and to face ourselves in writing–many a time did I make myself cry writing a truth that I did not want to admit to myself. But these are also the most powerful words you will ever write.

Give yourself the chance to be bad. Give yourself the opportunity to mess up. Be gentle with yourself as you explore your inner world for blog posts or personal essays or fiction. Find a way to shut down the voices in your head that tell you “this is crap” at every period. Reading the truth is better than reading polished but empty prose. Being authentic is better than being perfect.

What do you value when you write? Listen to your thoughts as you type or scribble. What comes to your head? Are the words harsh and judging or gentle and encouraging?

Some ways to be gentle

Here are some ways I have developed to be gentle with myself when I write:

  • Freewriting. I love freewriting because I can completely let go of judgement and of expectations. Freewrites never see the light of an audience. It’s a warm-up for your writing muscles.
  • Describing your “watcher”. Novelist Gail Godwin calls it “the watcher”, the person who is there telling you how bad you are at writing, the person judging your word choices and your comma use. Take a few minutes to describe your watcher. Give it shape and life. Then put it in a mental box, out of sight, as you write.
  • Stopping the whining. I will admit: I am an inveterate whiner. Read my journals and you’ll find pages upon pages of complaining, whining and feeling sorry for myself. And then one night I saw that this was not doing me any good. Venting once in a while is fine, but complaining as my only writing outlet impoverished my thinking. Now instead of whining, I grab on to a thought or idea and, like meditation, go back to it when I lose my way. It’s done wonders for my thinking… and my self-esteem.

Being gentle with yourself is good for your soul and good for your writing. How do you stop the harsh voices from getting in the way of your writing? I’d love to know how you allow yourself to be gentle!

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2 thoughts on “When Writing, Be Gentle With Yourself”

  1. I like how you framed the way you responded to stopping “whining” — as a way to demonstrate gentleness, rather than another reason to be harsh with yourself!

    1. Nice, I didn’t think about it that way. It’s true that I spend less time criticizing myself if I stop complaining–because I complain a lot about how I’m terrible at things or lazy or incapable. Stopping this discourse is a kindness to myself.

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