Writing the Stepping Stone: Why You Haven't Written Your Book Yet

Friday, March 25, 2016 - 8:53am
Photo by Caro
The New Better Off

Writing the Stepping Stone: Why You Haven't Written Your Book Yet

At least weekly, I end up in a conversation with someone who tells me that they have a book inside of them just dying to come out. In some ways, I’m deeply sympathetic. Having written a few of them myself, I understand the mountains that must be moved — both logistical and emotional — to get words down on paper, not to mention edit those words, make the case to a publisher that those words are worth dollars and cents, and publicize those words if you are lucky enough to convince a publisher of this, etc.

It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s also not for everybody, which is why, while part of me is sympathetic to those who feel they have an unrealized book in them, part of me often wonders if a book has become a symbolic stand-in for so many other worthwhile things that our culture doesn’t romanticize nearly as much.

Your book might not actually be a book. Is your book actually a letter to someone you’ve loved and lost? Write them a letter. Is your book actually a support group? Start it. Is your book actually a painting or a dance or a podcast or a retreat where you can synthesize the learnings from some profound experience you’ve had? Do that instead.

If you’re sure your book is a book, here are three more reasons that you might consider for why it hasn’t made it out of your head and onto the page:

You haven’t turned off the damn Internet. Wifi is a book killer. The state of mind that is created by multi-tasking on the Internet is a completely different state of mind from that which is required to reflect, write, and edit a book. There is a biochemical basis for this intuitive truth — like the little shots of dopamine from the ping of an incoming email. Even knowing that an email is sitting in your inbox unopened can decrease your effective IQ by 10 points, according to Glenn Wilson of Gresham College, London. So when you’re struggling through a particularly vexing paragraph, trying to wrap words around a powerful, inchoate idea, it’s seductive to roll your cursor over to your inbox or scroll through Facebook or Twitter, or really do anything other than sit with the discomfort of articulation when things are, by necessity, murky.

The solution? Turn off the damn Internet. Some suggestions for how to actually make that happen, depending on how addicted you are to the dopamine ping:

  1. Set a timer for yourself for exactly how long you are going to stay off wifi, and stick to it. Start small and work your way up to longer sessions. Reward yourself with cookies from the coffee shop or walks around the block when you bend your will in the direction of longer reflection and writing. There are also apps that can help, like Freedom and Anti-Social.
  2. Keep a pad of paper next to you, and if you come up with something that you think absolutely must be researched, write it down instead of enabling wifi and hopping on Google. When the timer goes off, you can go back to your list and evaluate what actually needs to be researched. You’ll be shocked at how much was just your monkey mind playing tricks on you.
  3. Avoid the computer entirely. Buy a Freewrite, the world’s first “smart” typewriter. It’s basically just a word processor, but it allows you to save your writing to the cloud. Their Kickstarter campaign to produce the first run earned $342,471 — nearly $100,000 above their $250,000 goal!

You are not a bad person if this is hard. You are also not alone, as evidenced by the huge reaction to Freewrite. We live in a time when the technological tools that help us in so many ways hinder our self-realization in others. As psychologist William James has said about the precious and challenging task of being intentional with our attention:

“Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

Maybe this isn’t your problem, or at least not all of your problem. Maybe you are writing the wrong book, or at least the right book at the wrong time. I’ve done this. In fact, I wrote an entire book before my first official book that is sitting a pretty orange box in the closet behind me. It’s full of important stuff about women and mental illness and the generations of struggle and agency within my own family — probably some terribly overwrought writing, probably some really beautiful writing. Someday it may see the light of day in another form, but today, it’s in the closet. It’s been in a closet for over ten years. That doesn’t make it a mistake. It just makes it a stepping stone rather than a finished product.

Maybe you’re writing the stepping stone. Or maybe you are writing a business book about supply chain strategy when what you really want to write is a memoir about growing up as the daughter of drunk, brilliant immigrants. I don’t know. Only you can know. But my experience is that the world is pretty stubborn about not allowing your book to make it out of your head/computer/closet if it’s not supposed to be there for some reason, whether the reason is timing or topic.

A couple of questions to ask yourself: Am I writing the book I need to read? That always helps me locate my true north behind a computer screen, rather than getting sucked into writing a book that’s marketable or sexy or one that doesn’t scare me. If I need to read it, then the process of researching and writing it is inevitable, as much will power as it may require. I need it myself, I have to create it, or no one else will.

Maybe the real reason your book hasn’t manifested is none of these. Maybe you haven’t written a book because you have no community to hold you accountable and make you feel seen and celebrated along the way. I’ve written at length about the values of my early writing group. I continue to show work to trusted colleagues and friends constantly, to beg them for honest, loving feedback, to look for little jolts of fuel via comments from this community and others with my weekly columns. We aren’t built for a 12-month (or 12-year) delay of recognition. We need people waiting on us. We need deadlines that exist somewhere other than in our own heads. We need in-person interactions that sustain us through the loneliness of staring at a screen.

We also need to understand that no one ever has written a book without tolerating a certain amount of self-doubt. Maybe you haven’t written your book yet because you haven’t relentlessly cultivated faith. You have to have faith that what you have to say is worthy of the time and attention it takes to get it down on paper. You have to have faith that your skills aren’t deplorable. You have to have faith that the words will come. You have to have faith that it will find its audience, if you want one. You have to have faith that, even if everything has been said before, you have a way of saying this particular thing that is unique, because you are unique. You have to have faith that you might hurt people and it will still be worth it. You have to have faith that people might laugh at you or criticize you and you won’t die as a result. It’s a messy, messy process. Have no delusion otherwise.

And, ultimately, you have to know that your worth isn’t tied up in the writing and publication of a book. There are nine million and three other totally powerful ways to leave a legacy, inspire people, communicate something critical to the world. Like being kind to strangers on the street. Like making an amazing burrito. Like parenting. Like surviving. So don’t fall for the supposed glamour of legitimacy it still confers in our culture.

If you have a book inside of you dying to come out, close this browser. Close this computer, or turn off this phone. Sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and write a letter to someone you know personally about the topic. The directness of the form will get you out of your own way and on your way to doing what you are meant to do.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

Share Your Reflection



Twelve years ago, during one of those dark nights of the soul through which I occasionally stumble, I began writing a book about the power of our thoughts that was, indeed, "the right book at the wrong time."
Since that time, I've picked it up a few times only to put it down again, believing that I was never really intended to complete it, that it was just my own personal "therapy session" all those years ago, and that I had no business writing such a book.
Yet I still returned to it over and over, tweaking what I'd already written, adding a few new lines, or making notes for future reference.
Finally, a couple of months ago, I decided to take what I'd written so far and use it as the basis for a series of sermons at the Unitarian Universalist congregation where I minister. I thought that it might help to clarify in my mind whether or not this really was a book or, as Courtney Martin writes, something else like a podcast or, in my case, a sermon series. The response I received form my congregation was overwhelmingly positive and served to convince me that I should continue to write and publish my work as a book.
This article is the first thing I've read this morning and is further validation of that an I'm grated to Courtney Martin for writing it and On Being for publishing it.
Now, it's time to tun off the wi-fi and write!
Wishing you many blessings!

Very cool to hear about the journey of this book. We need to tell more stories like these. Sounds very powerful.

This is the best piece of writing advice I have ever read. Thanks. Bye now. I am turning off my wifi.

Thank you so much! Happy writing!

GOT IT! I just built my support team out of an 8-week writing residency. All tools are in place, but I may need to turn off my phone too and exit obligations that will be there when I am through with the first draft. Your experience with that? Email me--I'm off Facebook . . .

Yes, when I say turn off wifi, I also mean, put your phone away. Far, far away. Re-entry is hard, but usually you realize that you aren't THAT IMPORTANT in the end. The great humbling reality of finally disconnecting from the internet.

Courtney Martin, thank you, thank you, thank you for once again speaking the truth!

My mother recently passed away and the impulse to write has been enormous. I have been carving out a few minutes here and an hour there to start to unpack the marvel our life together was. (The link here is a first tentative attempt of starting to unravel what is, fundamentally, unravel-able.)

Your point about writing and the level of consciousness required are so similar to the conversations I've had with people about meditation: you simply have to drop below the level of thought to the deeper state of being to really know who you are as a human being. Same thing with good writing: it doesn't come from the surface mind of Tweeting ... it comes from the deep, deep place that is also accessed in mediation and prayer.

Writing for so many of us is a way of consciously accessing that deeper state of being - whether it meets the standards of others isn't really the point.

You write: "You have to have faith that you might hurt people and it will still be worth it. You have to have faith that people might laugh at you or criticize you and you won’t die as a result. "

Indeed, I am knee deep in this knowing and find it enormously liberating at this time.

Now to turn off the wifi and get some accountability!

Can't wait to read you!

Courtney: The book in the closet sounds like a play. Think of conversations between generations, or conversations with yourself. Remember Hamlet talking to himself. Tell the story. Watch people change over time on stage. Doesn't work as a screen play I don't think -- which is about visual images and action. But I'm guessing what's on the pages. Depersonalize it some but get it out there because the struggle continues and the liberation/emancipation/advancement of women is the story of our time. Get it out there.

Awesome idea. Thank you Gail. I do love the theater, though I've only written a scene here or there.

Thank you...you have explained so much...I have written my letter to a cousin. I will copy your advice for further reference, and finish my book.

Courtney, I can only echo what's already been said: what an awesome, awesome piece. I'm delving into a novel project that, for a long while, I wasn't able to work on. It isn't my first book or even my second, but for some reason (if I'm honest, I know the reasons), I simply couldn't write. Totally blocked. Recently, though, I went back to the drawing board and starting working at the character level, using David Corbett's The Art of Character as a stimulus. Now I'm back in, but I so needed to hear what you say here: I have to kick the internet habit.

I love your idea of setting a timer. Not long ago, I bought a beautiful little 30-minute hourglass timer. Do you think I've used it? No, but it's about to come out of the box! Those 30-minute increments (which, as you say, I can increase after some "withdrawal") of freedom from email and Facebook and all that info on Google will open doors into this story. Thank you, thank you for your wisdom!

Am I writing the book I need to read? I love that idea. It makes sense to me. I am someone who believes the answer to any question can be found in a book. Whether that is something practical, how to write a short story - or emotional, how to choose a husband.
Great advice thank you. Now all I have to do is turn off the wifi and start.

Fantastic and helpful piece of writing. You cover so many levels of blockage, resistance, and distraction, along with some reasons I would categorize as spiritual, and that speaks to me.

I have two books that go on and off the back burner. One is a novel I started seven years ago, and the other, a spiritual growth course I taught once, a year ago, in an incomplete version. I often think that one or both of them is a stepping stone to something else and wonder if I have to finish them to get to whatever is next on the path.

I go on a retreat or take an online class, make some progress on my novel, then put it away again. But it lives in my head all the time.
I sit down to work on the spiritual course and become completely absorbed, like a happy kindergartener stringing beads. Then I don't go back to it for a year.

I also have a collected anthology I put together after my first son's birth because it was the book I needed to read, but by the time I finished editing it, there were ten books out there filling the vacuum I had intended my book to fill. It sits in a basket in my study closet, and about 30 discontented writers hang like a weight around my neck, wondering why I never published it as promised twenty years ago.

Thanks for the compassion, acceptance and forgiveness you bring to a subject so often fraught with self-recrimination, disappointment, and regret. You seem like someone I'd enjoy sitting down for coffee with. If you're ever on Hawai'i's Big Island, I invite you to get in touch.

Now, I'm off to share this article with my social network.

Warmest aloha to you, Courtney.

Very good reminder and intervention to focus in writing. Thank you. for sharing this.

Thanks for this insightful, helpful essay. My book was a flop, and so it's even harder to find the courage to put my voice out there, even 7 years later. Maybe now I can see it as a stepping stone.

"Am I writing the book I need to read?" is a really fundamental question (and metaphor!), and for me there is some version of your question that I think can provide a needed compass for my life's work and career, which have always vexed me. I'll meditate on it. :-)

Thank you for this perfect little essay on writing and not writing. The advice is fresh, insightful, and helpful. On the cusp of retirement from teaching high school, I am asking myself about "that" book. I have published a few essays in educational journals, and I have three books -- a memoir, a novel, and a collection of limericks on grammar -- in the bottom drawer of my file cabinet. I also have a stack of handwritten journals. "That" book? What is the book to be written, I'm asking myself. Maybe the book is a metaphor, as you suggest for something other like giving a course on meditation and journal writing which has been a favorite with my students. I don't know, but it's exciting to be on the cusp of this new stage. Your advice comes at just the right time, and I really appreciate it!!!

Just brilliant!! Perfect timing for me and many of my beloved sister friends. ~~ Thank you, Courtney!

Wow. Thanks for this incite and clarification as to why I've left the book I started. Internet, daily life are just excuses. Not to mention though is that my process is slower because chronic pain keeps interfering . Pain has a way of slowing down the mind or interfering in the beautiful process of stringing together thoughts. This is my greatest challenge. I have enjoyed the pleasure of writing for many years so I will finish my book-it just may take a little longer than I planned.

Having only discovered On Being last year, I have enjoyed the episodes and now I can also enjoy your column.


Brilliant Anthem of an Essay about Writing and Expressing Ourselves in the Digital Age—Whether You are a Writer or a Wannabe

I love the whole tone and idea of this essay, and especially this passage:

"Your book might not actually be a book. Is your book actually a letter to someone you’ve loved and lost? Write them a letter. Is your book actually a support group? Start it. Is your book actually a painting or a dance or a podcast or a retreat where you can synthesize the learnings from some profound experience you’ve had? Do that instead."

Kudos for providing practical, down to earth, common-sensical insight.

Maybe you are writing the wrong book, or at least the right book at the wrong time.

On your way to doing what you are meant to do.