How to write like no one is watching
Shawna Ayoub Ainslie flips the old adage about cutting loose on the dance floor to offer advice to writers about keeping rhythm on the page.
It was the night of our local Pride festival that I, for the first time, danced like no one was watching.
I’ve heard the adage plenty, but I am a self-conscious soul who has long battled with letting go enough to have fun. That night, I saw someone dancing who clearly had no such inhibition. I got her attention and joined her on the floor. She says it was the magic of Pride that got me going, but I think it was the familiarity of falling into rhythm (more on this in a minute) that had me forget there was anyone else on the dance floor.
When I write, I am often bent over my laptop pounding fingertips to keys for hours before I remember I am a living creature requiring food and drink. What’s more, I’m a mother of three. I live by iPhone reminders to pick up which kid at which time and take them where. Translation: I don’t write only when I’m alone. I’m rarely alone, which is to say, I have to intentionally tune out the world.
What was once a challenge is now the routine, the rhythm, I spoke of above: when I write, I write like no one’s watching. I lean into words up to my elbows and my mind moves with them onto the page. I forget that I am visible, that there is more than the page and the words and the moment.
It is easy to hack away at writing and make no progress because external pressure looms. We write because we know we have something to say, but we grow shy when we approach hard truths or emotional moments because of what will happen when those words are seen. In other words, we start writing as though someone is watching. We become self-conscious and lose the rhythm.
So how do we keep the rhythm?
Dancing like no one is watching is a surrender to movement. Writing like no one is watching is a surrender to your story. No one has ever accused me of being a skilled dancer. Likewise, not every draft I write (even third or fourth drafts) is readable. If I have enjoyed the process though, what does it matter? That night, I danced for myself. The emotional weight I carried into the bar dropped away. I was there for me. I danced for me, and just like when I write, I didn’t think about what it looked like. I found the rhythm and let myself go. Do that in your writing practice.
Remember that even when you’re writing words for someone else to read, you write first for yourself. Go at it with abandon and locate your writing joy, the part of writing or the narrative you’re working on that excites or stirs emotion in you. The grand myth about writing is that it’s a miserable, solitary, lonely, thankless practice. Perhaps it is for writers who have lost touch with why they do what they do. Don’t let it be so for you. Play, experiment, dance, on the page.
Put it into literal practice: Sit down to write with pen and paper and bring a blindfold or, if it’s after dark, sit somewhere with the lights off. For five minutes, write without worrying. No one is here to see you, not even you! Make a mess on the page. The goal of this exercise is to rediscover the familiarity of writing without expectation that it will be good or even readable. Just write. You might even keep that mess of a page tacked up over your writing desk as a reminder.
How do you keep the flow, the pace, the rhythm, in your writing practice? Share with us in the comments!
Related reading: Put yourself “out there” with this writing exercise
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