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Writing in the Zone of Proximal Creativity

Learning to write just enough to reach, but not so much as to strain. Daily.

For years, I’d lost the essential connection to writing: joy.

I still felt like I needed to do it. I still felt bad if I didn’t do it. Yet, if I did do it — or tried to do it — I’d feel miserable just the same.

It was a kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” creative life. I sought other hobbies to distract me from this complicated love-hate, other avenues of art-making that would fulfill me; I even changed careers (twice) in an effort to relieve the (admittedly 100% self-generated) pressure I was putting on myself to write, or not write — but to stop feeling miserable about whichever I chose.

Often, I was haunted by an old Paul Auster line, muttered in some interview somewhere, which I never seemed able to shake: “unless it’s absolutely urgent, there’s no point in writing.”

“Yes, Paul!” I’d find myself cheering. “There is no point! Let’s just stop then, shall we?” And I would, for a day, or a week, or a month.

And then suddenly, as quickly as it had left me, the urge would come rushing back. I’d break open a new notebook, a Word file, a Google Doc, and before I knew it I was scribbling away — line after line: poetry, prose, essay, journal, story. It was as violent and as exciting as a rebirth…

Until the next day. I’d read it over again and my heart would sink: it was shit.

The day after, and the days, weeks, months after that, all I’d be able to manage was a tinker here, a deletion there — but never back into the flow. Never back into the stream. (Though definitely back into the self-castigating morass of self-loathing-for-not-writing).

Needless to say this lasted for a while. Say, a decade.

Why did it change? How?

I wish it were something concrete; I wish it were something I could bottle and sell.

But it was really just mindset. I needed to believe in my writing just enough to feel enjoyment in the act, but only so much that I’d get out of my way. I needed momentum, and to begin so I could build momentum — but without slamming on the gas so hard I’d spin my tires in the mud.

It came down to making the willful decision to write every day no matter what. And to write every day just enough to push myself, but not enough to overwhelm myself.

Getting in the Zone

To do this, I called on a concept I’d long ago learned when studying to become a high school teacher: I sought to build the challenge so it lay exactly within my “zone of proximal development:” just far enough to be a reach, but not so far as to make me strain. Slight discomfort, without dislocation. Or what they call in some spiritual communities “living at my edge.”

The goal was: 2 pages, before bed. Nothing more, nothing less. No missed days, no excuses (OK, a few excuses, but they were few and far between). And I would do it until I had a complete novel draft.

In fact, I’m still doing it (220 pages and counting).

When I waver, I remind myself: I’m not writing a novel, I’m writing a draft of a novel. And: in order to write, I just have to write. No one ever said I had to write well.

I don’t always like it, and it’s not always easy. But now, after 110 days, there’s momentum behind me, and habit I can rely on. My brain — powerful resistance machine that it is — knows what to shut off and when, so that I’m able to tap into that semi-dream state required to write creatively. Even if just for an hour. Even if just for 2 pages.

It’s been quite a successful experience so far. I’d say, it’s even been a joy.