Write While True Episode 1: Training to Unblock Yourself
I’m Lou Franco, and this is Episode 1 of Write While True, which is a writing program for programmers.
If you follow it literally, you’ll be in an infinite loop of writing. But I mean program as in a training program.
So, each week’s episode will challenge you with an exercise that will help improve your writing. This is Season one, which is about foundational exercises.
You’ll get the most out of this if you listen to Write While True at your desk, and when it’s over, start writing.
I started a blog 17 years ago. My plan was to write a post every week, but I averaged 9 posts a year. Some years I had a lot, but some years, I had none.
I did write a lot elsewhere: I contributed to work blogs, I started an iOS tutorial site, and I got a few articles published in Smashing magazine. In 2008, writing about iOS programming on my blog was how I was able to meet an editor that approached me about publishing a book. So I’m generally at peace with my writing output.
But, to be honest with myself, I had intended to write a lot more on my blog. Nothing that ambitious — mostly short articles with advice on software development.
The problem was that whenever I tried to do it, I felt blocked.
Anyone who tries to write knows the feeling of writer’s block. Staring at the screen or procrastinating on social media. Or reading about writing. Or thinking about writing. Or picking out a journal or just the right editing software. Or just doing anything instead of writing.
But, as a programmer, I don’t get coders block
I go to my desk and look at the problem and start coding something or at least make some progress. On the rare time I get blocked—it’s my job to overcome it, so I do. And after many years of doing it, my brain is trained to code more or less on demand.
When you listen to professional, prolific writers talk about writing, they say they just sit at the keyboard and write. Some say that the words flow out of them.
It seems like an unattainable gift.
But, It isn’t.
Two months ago, after spending some time researching about writers and their processes, I started to make some progress on my own writing.
As of the recording of this podcast, I have posted a short article on my blog every day for two months. And I’m making progress in other ways too. For example, this podcast is scripted, so I’m writing this too.
I started this podcast to share what I’m learning as I learn it. And I’m hoping listeners will get in touch and share their writing insights with me too.
In my research, one thing I see over and over is that professional, prolific writers approach writing as a job. So, they make time and sit down at a desk and do it. Doing it is how they get better at doing it.
Sitting down and writing and having words flow right out of you is a skill you can learn. Once learned, it’s a skill you can improve with practice.
I learned one technique from Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way,
This book is a classic about what it means to be a creative professional. She says it’s not meant to be just read, it’s a book she asks you to use.
So, there are tasks and exercises throughout the book.
You are supposed to read a chapter at the beginning of the week and use the rest of the week doing the tasks in it.
And the very first task is called Morning Pages.
Before I get into it more, I feel I need to talk about the book generally because it’s a little out there. Cameron acknowledges this constantly in the text.
Like most programmers, I am generally a left-brained thinker, so I feel some resistance while I am reading it.
But, so far, I have gotten a lot out of using the book and like I said, Cameron herself totally knows that a lot of the things she says may be off-putting to some.
And she asks you to look past that, to find alternate ways of processing her words and to just DO the tasks. I am partway through the book right now, and this mindset has helped me.
Ultimately, I recommend the book, particularly if you feel blocked, but it is very polarizing. You’ve been warned.
So, like I said, The Artist’s way is a multi-week program, with one chapter per week and there are tasks to do at the end of each chapter.
But, before you even start, in a kind of week 0, Cameron describes a task you will do each morning: your morning pages
It’s a simple task to describe — each morning you will fill three pages with long-hand writing.
What do you write? It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that you start and do not stop until the pages are filled. She says to think of it as DOING morning pages, not WRITING morning pages. I think of it as PLAYING or PRACTICING morning pages (like a piano student plays scales).
And these pages are write-only. You don’t read or edit them and you never show them to anyone.
You can destroy them right after if you want.
Don’t think of Morning pages as real writing—you don’t show them to anyone because you never want to expose them to criticism. Criticism might make you not do them, and you never want any reason not to do them.
I started my morning pages journal 3 months ago and have never missed a day. I can’t wait to do them, and once I start, I can’t wait to finish. Because, right after I do them, I am so ready to write “for real”.
Even though morning pages are simple to describe. When you are just starting, you might find them hard to do. So here are some tips.
I try to do my morning pages first thing in the morning or right after I exercise.
I know a lot of us might have a hectic morning, but try to do your morning pages before you read any emails, news, or go to social media.
I have a dedicated journal to morning pages (it fills up very fast, so just get something cheap that you are ok with shredding and tossing).
I open up to the next blank page and write the date at the top. Then, I take a breath, write the current time, and go.
I write without stopping — remember, we’re training our brain to write on demand. We’re trying to enter a flow state.
We are writing a stream of consciousness — it literally does not matter what you write. If you can’t think of anything, write that you can’t think of anything.
One way I prime myself is to write down questions and then answer them. And don’t hold back, I find myself giving voice to my true feelings and can often discover things about myself in the process. By the bottom of the first page I am usually in a good flow.
Ramble on if you want. These words will never be read, they can be incoherent.
In my intro, I asked you to listen at your desk, ready to write when I am done speaking. For this one, you need pen and paper.
I’ll describe the exact steps of the exercise and when the episode is over, you should just start. But, since I end abruptly, I want to say a few words about this podcast first. This is the first episode. It’s a foundational one — we’ll be revisiting morning pages in future episodes.
Next week, I’m going to talk about what I do right after I’m done writing them.
As a new podcast, I am totally depending on you to spread the word if you found it valuable. I also want to encourage you to send your feedback email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on twitter @loufranco or LinkedIn.
Of course, I appreciate reviews and ratings in the Apple Podcasts app, stars in Overcast, and whatever else your podcast player allows. And subscribe if you want more exercises.
If you write publicly, send me a link. And tell me how the challenge went for you.
Ok — here’s the challenge, Do this right after the episode is done
- Find a pen and either an empty notebook or a couple of sheets of paper.
- Write the date at the top of the first page
- Take a few breaths
- Write the current time and Now fill three pages without stopping
- Write down your ending time. You want to get a sense of how long it’s taking you and to make sure you don’t stop. It takes me a little over 20 minutes.
- When you are done, if they are loose sheets, you can throw them away. You don’t ever need to read these pages ever again. Do not show them to anyone.
- Do this each morning for the next week. I want you to do this indefinitely, but do it today and for the next six days.
Remember this is training, not writing.
They are discardable because they are not the goal. They are like the sweat after a good workout. It’s evidence of the hard work — but it’s ok to take a shower and get rid of it.
We’re training our brain to get into a flow state and write non-stop and on demand for 20-30 minutes without getting distracted.
So give it a try.
You know you did it right if you have 3 pages of writing about 30 minutes from now and every morning until the next episode.
This has been Write While True and since true is true, it’s time to start writing.