Burn After Writing

How morning pages changed my life as a writer

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

There’s a popular book on Amazon right now. It’s called Burn After Writing.

The idea is instead of sharing everything like the social media platforms encourage you to do, the author of this book urges you to share nothing.

What?

How can you form a community if you keep all your secrets to yourself?

How can you be authentic if you don’t pull back the curtain?

And how can you connect with readers if you don’t let them know you’re human?

Relax.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t share anything, ever. But you know you shouldn’t share everything either. In a moment, you’ll see how private writing can enhance your public writing more than any amount of research you can ever do.

An idea whose time has come…again

It’s not a new idea, not really. People have been spilling their secrets into diaries for generations. And in polite society, we’re encouraged not to air our dirty laundry. Just pretend you’ve got it all together and people will leave you alone, and maybe even sing your praises.

I wrote a lot in private for most of my life. I wasn’t organized about it. It was just something I felt like doing. To me it was as normal as eating, sleeping, or breathing.

In the 1990s, I discovered freewriting and mindmaps. They were the tools I used in a creative writing class. I’d start with a prompt and just fill the page with a drunken chorus of fantastic words. It was the cheapest buzz I ever experienced. I honestly didn’t know if my stories were any good or not. I just had so much fun writing them that I thought, “Wow, this came out of me?”

When I read Mark Levy’s book Accidental Genius. I learned you could use freewriting for all sorts of things. Solving problems. Exploring ideas. Writing ridiculous first drafts. The possibilities are endless!

Tony Buzan showed me in The Ultimate Book of Mindmaps that you could use mindmaps to plan for the future, explore ideas, and pour your brain’s contents on paper so you can see the connections (and make new ones).

Then in 2017, I discovered The Artist’s Way. Now my private rants have a name. And a time. And a prescribed length.

And since May of that year, I’ve written almost every day without fail.

Sometimes I don’t want to. But since this is a habit now, I feel guilty when I blow off writing. So whether I feel like it or not, I sit down, open a blank document, and start writing whatever comes to mind.

And there’s always something on my mind.

By the time I’m a couple hundred words in, I forget I ever felt like this would be a chore.

It’s free therapy

I’m not saying you should substitute this for visits to a therapist if you have complicated issues to unravel.

I am saying that whether you need a therapist or not, you do need to vent.

It’s hard to sit on a secret. Writing it out will let off the pressure. Your private pages give you a platform to spew all the venom, feel all the emotions, and work through the pain while it’s still raw.

You can do this with a friend if you have one you can trust completely. This is the kind of thing that might need to stay in Vegas if you know what I mean.

Getting out somewhere where it can’t hurt anyone will free you. It might give you perspective. Things that seem bad in the moment might not be so awful when you stand back a few feet. If nothing else, you can treat this like a conversation with a friend who really cares. Imagine you’re asking him for advice (that’s the writing). Then step away for a bit, then come back and read it as if someone else wrote it.

What advice would you give this person if this wasn’t your problem?

Then you can burn what you wrote.

Write that ridiculous first draft.

Anne Lamott says writing happens in three stages.

The first swipe is the uninhibited party animal with a pen. Sit down and chase your thoughts. Write as fast as you can. You’ll catch some thoughts and miss others. Your mind will lead you down a thousand detours. It’s okay. You’re just piling up words to sort through later.

The gold is under all that dirt. But you have to be willing to set aside your filter to get them out. So when your inner critic tries to get a word in edgewise, just say, “Not right now. I’m busy having fun. You’ll get your turn later, okay?”

When that time comes, remember this.

Everything has a time limit. Your first draft. Your second. Your third. Just do the best you can in a reasonable amount of time.

Why?

Because if you don’t, you’ll spend forever on one book, one blog post, or one essay. The longer you linger, the less lovely the product will be. Great art isn’t perfect, it’s finished.

You can always write another book when you’re done with this one.

Just figure out how much time one project is worth and stick with it.

The ultimate practice run

I hate running.

But I love thinking sessions. I can daydream in almost any place imaginable. I prefer quiet, but I’ll settle for unobtrusive, ignorable noise like cars passing, birds chirping, and people talking indistinctly.

As creatives, we need our daydreams.

My best work happens when I let an idea marinate first. It happens on walks. On paper, it looks like a rambling rant. If I’m feeling artsy, it can even be a drawing.

You might get lucky enough to pen a fantastic first draft.

The truth is, you probably spent a considerable amount of time tossing the idea around in your head — shaping it, stretching it, refining it, and burning away the dross. By the time it hit the paper, it was fully cooked and ready for prime time.

Morning pages are cleansing

Have you ever felt like your mind was full?

I have.

Sometimes it’s the Zeigarnik effect at work. What that means is when you’re working on something and you leave part of it unfinished, the part that remains stays on your mind.

That’s why waiters and waitresses can remember your order while you’re at the table, but once you’re gone, they forget. And why not? They don’t need to remember anymore.

Morning pages give you a place to dump unfinished business on paper and cleanse your mind. It’s a lot like freeing up RAM on your computer. When it’s bogged down with too many tasks, it runs slower. But close some of them, and you get your power back.

Alfred Einstein said something remarkable about this. He didn’t memorize anything he could look up at a moment’s notice. Why clutter your brain with trivia? That’s what encyclopedias and Wikipedia are for. Attention requires energy. Invest it in what’s important and your energy won’t be scattered to the four corners of the earth.

When you’re free to focus, you’ll be a better writer.

There’s honestly no better way to start every morning.

Now go write something fantastic.

And feel free to burn the first draft when you’re done.

Writer. Teacher. Bestselling Author. Shy Kid turned Fear Fighter. I write about communication, business, and personal growth. https://skl.sh/2Xp1p8d

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