Getting Out of Your Own Way

by J.D. Rhoades

I’m getting to the end of the current WIP, or as I call it, “the part where stuff blows up.” The creative part of my  head doesn’t really have room for much else other than trying to keep track of where each player in a medium–to-large cast of characters is and where they’re going, while a mini-Gotterdammerung is raining death and destruction all around. In short, I am having more fun that a human being is allowed to have in most states, and I’d really like to get back to it. So today’s entry will of necessity be rather short.

 One of my daily must-reads is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog over at the Atlantic website. Whatever your political persuasion, I definitely recommend it for thoughtful and fair minded discussion on a wide variety of topics. Recently Coates, in the course of talking about a writing retreat he was apparently making,  made one of those observations that stuck with me:

There’s a great jazz pianist up here with whom I have shared meals and talked often. The first day we met he informed me that the essence of our work was learning to get out of our own fucking way. I am learning that out here–how to get out of my own fucking way–and really listen to what I care about, what I truly ache to say.

That’s such a perfect (if profane) expression of what it takes to get the right words down on paper: getting out of your own way. Forgetting about marketability, forgetting about  expectations, forgetting about “what will my agent/editor/spouse/mom think if she reads this” , and just letting the story come out the way it plays in your head. Trusting your own vision and talent. Listening “to what you care about, what you truly ache to say.”

It sounds so  simple, but it’s so hard to do sometimes. Real life intrudes with interruptions, demands, and pressures. Doubt slithers in. Those Black Birds come and perch on your shoulders, second guessing and criticizing every paragraph, every sentence, sometimes every word. It’s so easy to make things hard.

I grew up near a golf course, and way back in my early years, I played the game a little.  I haven’t picked up a club since I turned sixteen, got my driver’s license, and discovered a lot of other fun things to do. But  I still remember how good it felt when the swing went just right and the club head connected with the ball exactly  at that magical place they call the “sweet spot.” I understand why people get obsessed with the game, because that feeling is so powerful, and it comes so seldom–seemingly at random.

It isn’t random, of course. Making that happen consistently comes from constant practice and repetition and learning not to over-think your swing and tighten up at the wrong moment.  It takes a lot of work to learn how to get out of your own way. It was more work than I was willing to do to get really good at golf, and it’s a lot more than a lot of people are willing to do to learn how to write well. But that’s what it takes.

Even if you’ve put in the time, it’s still easy to over-think, to balk, to trip over your own expectations and insecurities. So share with us, if you would, what tricks and tips you have for getting out of your own way.

25 thoughts on “Getting Out of Your Own Way

  1. Jessie Mac

    Your post is timely. I need to get out of my own way. Really, I have no excuse.

    Yes, everyone has the distractions of having to live. Not just writers.

    I've not written for 3 days and I need to.

    Thanks for the post, J.D. It reminds me that I am blocking myself and I need to get out of my f*&*£$% way.

  2. Louise Ure

    Funny, it was easier to get out of my own way with the first book, and harder in the subsequent books when those shoulder-sitting birds had real names like Agent and Editor and Reviewer. I hope to find that freedom again.

  3. Lorena

    My best 'trick' for getting out of my own way is a tough one for me to accomplish. I have a day job, a second (freelance) job, a writing group I'm president of, a zillion other commitments that will (mostly) wrap up in another month (what WAS I thinking? Oh, yeah, that….). Ah, it's the commitments to other people that really are me, getting in my own way. Because the best way for me to truly cut loose and write is to have a big block of time available–at once–to write in. I find that if I have at least two or three hours with no other commitments, the words flow–I'm busy putting that movie scene in my head down onto a piece of paper. When I'm pushing writing into 30 minute and 60 minute "cracks" in my schedule, I tend to really get lost in the over-thinking instead of writing the story.

  4. Debbie

    This is so true and lately my new obsession is blogs – not just reading, but checking back throughout the day. As for audience, my grandmother died months before I began writing and I sometimes felt her over my shoulder when romantic scenes were being written. My mother told me she'd never read my book because one character uses profanities as part of her regular vocab. (that char. seems to be everyone's fav.". Currently writing a juvenal fiction and rather than changing things so my daughter can read it, I just remind myself that I can let her read it when she's older. We're never going to please everybody, but the wonderful thing is that there are books out there for everyone!

  5. Kagey

    "Getting out of your own way" works for any really creative endeavor, doesn't it? I needed to hear this today, too.
    Recently I came across a pile of index cards I'd made during undergrad — sets of quotations I liked and had hanging all over my dorm room. Samuel Beckett's "Fail. Fail Again. Fail Better." jumped out at me. I hung it up next to my bathroom mirror. Why did I ever stop hanging up these quotes? Daily, I need that reminder that my best stuff flows when I just write. No excuses.

  6. Judy Wirzberger

    It took a while, but I'm beyond taking critiques of my work as a projection of my total inability to string a sentence together. It's what has helped my writing the most. I love having experts (everyone from readers to published authors) give me their opinion on where I could have clarified a motivation, added tension, and just made my book better. I don't pay attention to those who criticize, but I do love the critiquers. Step aside, Judy, It ain't personal.

    Keep on having fun you're way.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    One of the ways I finally got out of my own way for this current book is to be at peace with the outcome. For me, it took having an agent with faith to let me have that net, or the willingness to fail, trying something new and different, pushing myself to a new place.

  8. Allison Davis

    Great explanation. So if I can get rid of myself, I might get through this edit. The first draft I can put myself away easily. But that edit, boy, it want to put my hands over my ears and go "lalalalalalal" to drown myself out — so now that I can articulate what is blocking the editing, maybe I can move forward a little smoother with it. All I have is imaginary agents and readers right now, so the only real critic is myself. harumph. Nice thought. I am really enjoying my story so I'll stop critiquing so harshly and just write. Sweet.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    It really comes down to second-guessing for me. If I'm second-guessing, I'm in my own way. I'm really planning on doing a ton of outlining for my next book, so the second-guessing can be done in an outline and not the manuscript. So much easier to keep moving forward when I've got a map to follow.

  10. Mark Terry

    That’s such a perfect (if profane) expression of what it takes to get the right words down on paper: getting out of your own way. Forgetting about marketability, forgetting about expectations, forgetting about “what will my agent/editor/spouse/mom think if she reads this” , and just letting the story come out the way it plays in your head. Trusting your own vision and talent. Listening “to what you care about, what you truly ache to say.”

    Oh man. Whenever asked, "Do you ever have writer's block?" my answer invariably is, "I didn't used to believe in it, but I do now. In my case it's all related to doubts about marketability. Worrying about whether the book will sell grinds me to a total dead-stop."

    Amen, brother. Amen.

  11. Gar Haywood

    I think Toni really nailed it: You can't really get out of your own way until you're willing to accept the possibility of failure. When you're writing with only success in mind, thinking, "This has to work. It's got to work. Please, God, let this be my 'Big Book!'", you're not in a frame of mind to do your best work. Because, maybe — just maybe — your best work won't be the mega-seller we are all so intent on writing. Maybe, it will just be a wonderful book that blows away everyone who reads it.

    Until you can settle for that, you will always be in your own way.

  12. Jake Nantz

    Not only have I not figured out how to get out of my own way, I think there's a sadistic side of my head that keeps throwing more shit INOT my way. So if you find anything that works, let a guy know, ok?

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I have to continually remind myself: "Just get to the end." Also – "Five pages a day no matter what." And my favorite quote, from the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Compleat Works of Wm. Shakespeare, Abridged: "You don't have to do it JUSTICE. You just have to DO IT."

    Also, I find coffee essential. Sad, but true. It turns off the inner critic.

  14. Eika

    I would love to get out of my own way more often, but it's hard.

    Right now, I work at McDonalds, trying to get through another year of college (I think I'll make it, but this is gonna be a close one). I start dreading my shift when I wake up in the morning; if it's a six-hour or longer shift (which it usually is; they seem to like me) then I'm so exhausted after I take a nap. Got ten hours of sleep last night? STill gonna wind up taking that nap. That, or I'll be too zombied to do anything.

    It's easier at college. I'm still doing about eight hours of work a day, but it doesn't tire me out that much. Also, I can't refuse work right now, and they keep scheduling me when I write best. It's not a specific time of day: it's usually when my parents are asleep, one or both dogs are in my room snoring, and my sister's got something else to do than bug me. That only happens when they're all out of the house (which is far less since sis finished college and hasn't gotten a job yet) or sleeping, because otherwise I really am looking over my shoulder. At college, privacy is easier, even with a roommate.

    Of course, I tend to think everything I wrote stinks until I'm a few thousand words down the road, but that's another story.

  15. Dudley Forster

    I’m a newbie and don’t have Louise’s Three Ravens of the Apocalypse, but I do have Puddleglum. Puddleglum is a character from THE SILVER CHAIR by C.S. Lewis and the name I’ve given to the little creature of self doubt that lives in my head. Puddleglum and I have conversations daily and they usually go like this:

    Sitting on top of my head, he always sits on my head, never my shoulder, Puddleglum, says, “You have a hell of a lot of hubris thinking you can write a novel.”

    ‘I am writing a novel.”

    “If you say so, but you’ll never finish it.”

    “Yes I will!”

    “No you won’t and even if you do it will be a piece of crap because you have no talent."

    “Yes it probably will be crap and so with the next one and maybe the next one too, I am learning. As for talent, I haven’t a clue and won’t till I get the crap out the way so I can tell."

    “Self delusion is such a useful thing. But it won’t matter because you have no stories. Real writers have stories, plots with cleaver twists, endings that go, ‘Wow.’"

    “I have stories!”

    “ Ah, Goldilocks and Hansel and Gretel won’t cut it, and by some miracle you do finish a novel no one is going to like it, except maybe Gizmo, but he’s a dog and likes to eat cat shit."

    “Go AWAY! Go back to the marsh and get a bad case of moss growth between your legs.”

    “You don’t have a muse! All writers have a muse. All you ever get is a bad case of gas.”

    “Go AWAY”

    “If if a miracle happens and you do produce something worth publishing, it will never be published, you’ll expend all this effort just to collect rejections the rest of your life.”

    “That’s it I done with you, go suck on a leech or something.”

    ‘Hey, I’m you friend, I just to want you to remember, ‘life’s not all fricasseed frogs and eel pie you know.’”


    And then he’s gone. I can write without getting in the way. But I know he’ll be back tomorrow, I just need to learn how to send him on an extended vacation or kill him. Please tell me there is a way to kill him.

    Alex – I couldn’t do much of anything without coffee. A pot before noon, a Starbucks run and a couple of Red Bulls and I’m ready to go.

  16. Debbie

    Dudley, haven't read that one yet but enjoyed Screwtape Letters and The Pilgrim's Regress. I love Puddlegulm and I think you're a step ahead with him because you've already compartmentalized inner doubt. Try opening a door to his favourite room, loading it up with his favourite foods, pastimes, and adventures and invite him inside. Then, very swiftly and qquietly, shut the door and lock it! Now go (write) in peace! BTW-glad you've joined us here.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Being obsessed with the urge to write usually helps. I go through the occasional period when I'm so browned off with the whole business, I'm ready to quit, but after a few days I remind myself that NOT being a writer would be so much worse than anything this business can throw at me…


  18. lil Gluckstern

    My respect for you guys grows everyday. I use the "just do it" mantra in my endeavors. Seems to make me and the critics sitting on my shoulder stop whining and get on with it. And chocolate…

  19. pari noskin taichert

    When we write here about our work spaces (Sept 6 – 19) I'm going to talk about how organizing my space is helping me get out of my way while writing.

    The rest of the time . . . well . . . watch out!

  20. Paula R.

    I loved this post. It took me a very long time to learn to get out of my own way. Doubt and lack of self-confidence, those black birds, circling around like carrion, stifled my progress. They scared the heck out of me, and it wasn't until I learned about the dirty/shitty first draft, I felt like a prisoner to doubt. Now I just write, and worry about editing later. It is so liberating.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  21. JT Ellison

    Oh, Dusty. What a perfectly timed post. I find that I overwhelm myself with possibility, and that stifles my creativity. Sometimes what if can become too precious, you know? I endeavor to get out of my own way daily. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But I'm so glad you brought it up, so now I can recognize it for what it is, put it away, and plow through.

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