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Add-a-heading-5.png?resize=860%2C484&sslOr…the magic secret to writing your best work

It is an exquisite summer morning in my world. Not yet hot, but promising to be later, dry and bursting with sunshine. I watered the pots in my front yard and longed to be able to spend the day doing summer things—swimming, perhaps, moving plants around in my garden. I’ve been immersed in the latest season of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and every inch of my gardening heart wants to get out in the dirt and experiment. 

Which I will do. In a few days. 

Last week, the news was overwhelming, after a solid month (years) of overwhelmingness, all manner of bad news and disappointing leadership and what sometimes seems like the collapse of everything I’ve believed in my entire life. I feel impotent and furious. 

And yet, I took a walk with my dogs and my husband. I watered the flowers in their pots, gave myself permission to plant one of the dozens of bedding plants that are awaiting my attention. I wrote my morning pages, which I don’t keep all the time, but usually do at the end of a book, which is where I am at the moment. The very end of the rough draft, when I’m living the lives of at least six other people, running back and forth through their history and memories, their losses and loves and goals. It’s really hard work, mentally, emotionally, and physically. The wide-openness required to get authentic emotion on the page means I feel all that bad news even more than normal. 

More than anything, I want to take the day off and go shopping for art supplies or go out to lunch with a friend or hit the plant store for more bedding plants, actions that would soothe my aching heart, distract me from the awfulness of the impending collapse of the empire, give me some love and beauty.  While I consider myself a warrior on these fronts, I also think there are times we must give ourselves space to let go. 

I will do that in a few days. 

Today, I have to write. The book is due in two days and I’ve had plenty of trouble and obstacles trying to get it ready to send to my editorial team. I was stranded in England for two extra weeks with Covid, for one thing. Two weeks is a big loss during deadline times. 

But you know, something always gets in the way of writing. Always. A child is sick or the world is on fire or your mom takes a fall or needs a ride to the market. Those things are part of our lives, too. It’s okay. 

It’s also okay to move everything aside for the work. Today, that’s what I’m doing. I’m writing here about my writing to get me in the right state to stay right here all day, until I’m finished. 

I will sit here in my comfortable desk chair, and I will write my 3000 words, one sentence at a time. I’ll write a scene that feels like an entry point so I can get myself going, and then move on to another one, until all those words are written. In a couple of days, or next week, I’ll garden. I’ll go see my granddaughters and spend time with friends. 

This, my friends, is the great secret. Writing is a practice, like meditation or walking or practicing piano. We get the book on the page by writing. 

So obvious, right? It sounds so easy. Sit down and get yourself writing. Write a word and then another, write a sentence and then another. 

And yet. It’s hard, isn’t it?

Another writer and I have deadlines fairly close together and we’ve been sharing progress via Messenger, checking in at certain hours. It has not been easy going, not for either of us. I had a migraine brought on by the wind one day. Children and family needs push in at the most inconvenient times. I’m sometimes torn over my loyalties—do I write or listen to my sister who just had surgery? 

It might shock you when I say that at this point, I wrote pages instead of taking the phone call in the middle of the day. Anyone who knows me and loves me understands this is how I get it done. 

It’s the only way to get it done. 

Meditation is the deceptively simple practice of sitting with your self and learning to observe what’s going on. People sometimes say, “I can’t mediate because I have too many thoughts.” Well, yes. That’s the point. The practice is to learn to notice that you’re thinking and become less attached to those flying, intruding, incessant thoughts. It is remarkably peaceful to capture a moment or five of simple quiet observation, not thinking, detachment. The world is much calmer and easier to manage from that place. 

A minute later, the thoughts swirl again, and the practice begins anew. Breathing, observing, sitting. 

Writing is like this. Of course it’s hard to sit still when Rome is burning and the cat needs to go to the vet and you have parent-teacher conferences and you’re worried about your mother and, really, it’s frivolous and self-indulgent to do this, anyway. 

It isn’t. 

You know that, but I know it’s hard to sit down and ignore that voice of derision in your head, the one that tells you if you were a truly worthy human being, you’d be actually engaging in [fill in whatever thing your voice says], but that’s the practice. You write one word, and then another, and then another. You get lost and have to stop and figure out how to extract yourself from this mess of a plot tangle. You discover that the character you thought was so great is clearly going to need more work, and you engage the process of doing that, whatever you’ve figured out to help you. 

This is the practice. You write. That’s what you do. You sit down and tune out the world, and enter the world of your creation. You do it because you were called to it and because somebody out there needs what you’re writing. I don’t know who. You probably have no idea, either, but you might someday if you keep showing up. 

This is the practice. Sit (or stand if you prefer). Shut out the world. Open your work. Begin. Write one word and another and another. Polish it. 

Repeat. 

I’m off to do the same.

What things keep you from writing? What is the one thing that will derail you every time? Maybe we can all brainstorm ways to help each other out (kindly, kindly). 

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here.

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