(This essay was first published on 99u in 2015.)
What is the one thing that all artists must do to enhance their craft? Must we all go on walks, take coffee naps, or travel? Some artists don’t travel at all, and some hate coffee; some rise early, some rise late. These rituals are idiosyncratic and are tailored to the individual, a rhythm that gets tamed and honed over years of persistence and experimentation. However, there is one common habit that most artists have, even if they lived in entirely different cultures or eras: writing.
As a writer, it’s easy for me to say that writing is something everyone (not just artists) must do. An engineer can easily say, “Well, I believe everyone should learn to code.”
I’m not saying the pen is mightier than the code. But out of all of the creative expressions known to humankind, writing intrinsically champions and improves creativity, critical thinking, and clarity. It helps us not only gain new ideas, but also articulate them. It untangles the messiness in our lives and allows for clearer thinking. It’s common for those who write to tell stories of the time they thought they totally grasped a concept up until they had to write it down. Writing intrinsically champions and improves creativity, critical thinking, and clarity.
The self-reflection enabled by writing elicits the fear associated with skydiving or swimming with sharks. Sitting down to a blank page can be a stress-inducing experience for most—and we feel this before anything is even written; we feel it just thinking about the words we have to own. However, endless creative benefits will be forfeited if you don’t write.
Writing to Adapt, Think, and Live Well
A 1994 study by Stefanie Spera, Eric Buhrfeind, and James Pennebaker tasked 63 unemployed engineers with writing to see how it affected their stress levels.
Engineers were divided into three groups: a writing control group (wrote about their plans for the day or activities in their job search), a second control group (did no writing), and the experimental group (did “expressive writing” where they kept journals of their deepest thoughts and painful experiences).
Five days a week, 20 minutes a day, the engineers in the experimental “expressive writing” group described feelings of loss, a search for a new job, financial stress, and rejection.
The result? Three months later, “Five subjects in the experimental group got jobs, no writing control subjects got jobs, and two non-writing control subjects got jobs.”
Eight months later, only 24 percent of writing control subjects had accepted full-time jobs, 14 percent of non-writing control subjects had accepted employment, and 53 percent of experimental subjects found full-time employment. From the study: Writing about the thoughts and feelings surrounding job loss may enable terminated employees to work through negative feelings and to assimilate and attain closure on the loss, thus achieving a new perspective. Doing so may create a shift in the individual’s orientation that allows getting past the negative emotions, preventing them from resurfacing and perhaps sabotaging the job search in, for example, a job interview.
The researchers discovered that suppressing these negative feelings is a heavy burden, and writing it out, not for publication but for oneself, is like a balm to chapped lips.
In Why We Write, curator Meredith Maran interviewed writers on why they write. Nearly all of the responses are self-serving, but there is a beautiful, necessary motive behind it: Writing provides a pocket of time in the present moment to reflect, digest, and think deeply.
Joan Didion, author of Play It as It Lays, said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.”
Armistead Maupin, author of Tales of the City explained, “I write to explain myself to myself. It’s a way of processing my disasters, sorting out the messiness of life to lend symmetry and meaning to it.”
In an interview with Debbie Millman, famed book designer Chip Kidd explained the importance of writing to his craft of graphic design: I’m often asked advice on how to become a better graphic designer, and this is my response: ‘Two things—learn how to do crossword puzzles and learn how to write.’ The former teaches you to think about language in a new way, and the latter forces you to use it. These are invaluable skills for any creative person.
The psychological benefits are like the slow and steady benefits of exercising. You may not see the gains yet, but the transformation is happening underneath: dots are being connected, ideas are crystallizing, and feelings are not merely passing through but rather examined and questioned.
And yet, like exercise, even knowing how fruitful it would be to your life and art, it would require a herculean effort to get up tomorrow and write something.
What “Non-Writers” Gained from Five Weeks of Writing
Best-selling author Seth Godin recently launched an online program called the altMBA — an intensive, five-week program designed to help professionals make their work more impactful.
I was one of the inaugural coaches leading a cohort of about 20 students. The course was intensive not only because of the projects assigned, but mainly because it was writing-intensive. Most of these students didn’t consider themselves writers.
The hard part wasn’t the projects or managing one’s daily work schedule—it was critically thinking about the project and properly articulating one’s ideas and thoughts succinctly.
In essence, a student got the most out of the project by opening themselves up and having the courage to share thoughts they otherwise would lock away. Many students graduated from the program swearing that they would continue the habit of writing because it was so enriching personally and professionally.
Here’s what I noticed at the end of the program:
Writing improves critical thinking
In one of the projects, we asked students to write about why their customers were justified by going to a competitor. At first glance, the project was seemingly about the irrationality of human nature (“My customers are crazy!”), but really, the project was about empathy and understanding worldviews (“Maybe the other product offers something mine doesn’t?”).
Writing our first, often-irrational thoughts down and seeing them in black and white allows us to move to the next layer. It allows us to think deeper and go down layer after layer until we expose the truth, no matter how inconvenient it is.Writing our first, often-irrational thoughts down and seeing them in black and white allows us to move to the next layer.
Engaging in this kind of writing provided a plethora of insight not only into one’s industry or competition but also into oneself. Students humbled themselves with what they wrote, sharing previously missed or ignored thoughts. They now understood why their customers didn’t go to them, not with an entitled and negative point of view, but a more honest perspective that revealed flaws and potential insights worth leveraging.
Writing ensures crystal-clear articulation
Those who often write speak well. As Stephen King once said, “Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction.”
But in learning to speak well, to seduce with words, one must readily practice fumbling with words and stepping on the toes of prose. This never-ending dance helps us discover the right tone, cadence, and rhythm. What ensues when you write or speak is pure seduction—you’ve had ample time to work out kinks in tone and subject matter beforehand to a captivated, vigilant, leaning-in, mesmerized reader.
Writing was a way for students to understand the project and its lessons and their own level of comprehension — to be self-aware of what they knew and didn’t know.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough once said, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it is so hard.”
Writing provides us space to think
“I’ve never written this much,” many students said to me. “But I’m learning a lot about myself and my work.”
Hearing that so many times, I had to dig into what that actually meant.
- We don’t spend enough time reflecting and introspecting. Writing then becomes a meditation where we talk to ourselves about who we are and the kind of work we do. We put ourselves in a position to ask ourselves what we are currently doing, and how can we do it with more meaning, impact, and intent.
- We need moments in our day to think about our thinking—we don’t find these moments, we create them. Writing is not a mere act but an opportunity to think. Students had trouble acknowledging certain doubts or fears in a project, but when they sat down to write, it spilled out. Would that insight have been available without writing?
How to Kickstart the Writing Habit
You’re sold. You promise you’re going to write everyday from here on out, even if it’s 20 minutes a day. Regardless if you’re an entrepreneur, ballerina coach, chemist, or a freshman in college, you’re going to write to think critically, clearly, and ultimately so you can live well. Shed that dead skin, sort the messiness in your life, and write to help you figure out what you’re looking at. Connect those dots and change your mind.
But writing is tough. Here’s wisdom to keep you going:
Write for yourself
I can divide my writing career into two: a time when I wrote for an audience and a time that I didn’t. The latter is what I continue to do and it keeps me going. As much as this article seems like I’m writing it for you, I was only able to be this honest because I was writing it to myself.
Harvard scientist and famed essayist Stephen Jay Gould once said in an interview: "If I have a mission … and this might sound not exactly what you expect of people, but again, ask any writer and, on this note, nobody’ll tell you anything different … I write those essays for myself—any good writer has to. That is, of course I want to facilitate learning … it’s great, but I think if you did it only because you felt some desire to impart something to other folks [and] you weren’t doing it out of some deeply internal need, you could only do it for a while—once you got the success, there wouldn’t be an impetus anymore. I think any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning."
Know the benefits of keeping writing private vs public
Should you start a blog or keep your writings private? There isn’t a right or wrong answer, and you can do both.
When your writing is public, your posture is different. You have something to own, something that you can stand behind proudly and say it’s yours. This, of course, makes you completely vulnerable to misunderstandings and criticisms. It may even influence you to withdraw from speaking your truths. It takes time to get to that kind of confidence and bravery, and it’s only achievable by consistently doing the work. Just imagine the type of life you’ll lead when you have that self-esteem.
I also write in private, in a journal. It happens at the end of the day before I go to bed. My public writing is a manifestation of my self-education; my private writing is a way for me to meditate, reflect, and digest my experiences.
Writing is equal parts self-discovery and self-invention. We learn about ourselves the more we write, and we seemingly hunger for a more meaningful life as we become more aware of who we are and what we’re capable of.
As Anne Lamott writes in Bird By Bird (a must-read):
"Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.
Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong."
Find the tension
Before you sit down to write, an excuse is lingering, waiting to drop in and say hello. By the time you sit down and open a new document, a decision is quietly being made, taking shape as you settle in the chair. And then it happens in a flash: “I have no idea what to write.”
However, just yesterday, when you were full from food and wine, you had all the opinions in the world about global warming and small businesses adapting to new technologies, but when you sat down to write today, you went quiet. When you were full from food and wine, you had all the opinions in the world, but when you sat down to write today, you went quiet.
William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, urged us to find the tension behind the writer that’s writing and to realize that it’s not the subject that is difficult to write about, but rather, communicating who the writer is: "They [writers] are driven by a compulsion to put some part of themselves on paper, and yet they don’t just write what comes naturally. They sit down to commit an act of literature, and the self who emerges on paper is far stiffer than the person who sat down to write. The problem is to find the real man or woman behind the tension. Ultimately the product that any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is."
Keep a routine; focus your energy levels
As much fun as it is comparing artist’s daily rituals, the most important thing to know about a ritual is that it’s your ritual. Not Mark Twain’s or Joyce Carol Oates.
It’s your energy levels, your rhythm, your daily obligations, and you should be vigilant in understanding how you operate throughout the day.
As Mark McGuinness said in Manage Your Day-to-Day:Start with the rhythm of your energy levels. Certain times of the day are especially conducive to focused creativity, thanks to circadian rhythms of arousal and mental alertness. Notice when you seem to have the most energy during the day, and dedicate those valuable periods to your most important creative work. Never book a meeting during this time if you can help it. And don’t waste any of it on administrative work.
Writing is your legacy
We can thank the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius for not ever considering himself a writer, but still feeling compelled to write Stoic teachings and maxims in his journal during times of war to keep his sanity, which produced the timeless and timely book, Meditations.
We would never know the introverted and artistic life of Marilyn Monroe if it weren’t for her diaries — a platform for meditation where one could find some solace and peace amidst the chaos and bustle, however fleeting. If it weren’t for these diaries, fans of Monroe would never know that she had a library of over 400 books, took copious notes of her thoughts, and was unsatisfied with culture’s obsession of physical appearances.
Imagine if these people never wrote. Imagine if your favorite entrepreneur didn’t write that book on his or her struggles when building a great company. Imagine if your favorite artist never did a Q&A.
Writing can build a legacy, but it also helps others build a meaningful life — the truth that you share now can ripple into time and lift someone up in the future.
“Pay attention to the world”
“A writer has the duty to be good,” said E.B. White in an interview with the Paris Review. “Not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. [They] should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”
And how do we do that, exactly? Especially for those who have chosen to make the promise of making their keystrokes more meaningful?
I have on a Post-it placed right above my lap on the wall, wisdom from the author and essayist, Susan Sontag. Found in At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches, she answers this question with the kind of brevity that can only be earned after a lifetime of writing about writing—and it’s a beautiful way to end:
“Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”