Written by: Mary Allen
Years ago, when I was struggling with my first real writing project, I read something that helped me enormously: If you tie a monkey to a tree it will try to get away. But if you leave a monkey next to a tree it will go toward it.
As soon as I read that quote, which I found in some spiritual book I can no longer remember the name of, I knew there was something in it for me, and as I sat there contemplating what that something could be, I came to the following conclusion. The tree was my writing, and the monkey was me. I’d been trying to tie myself to the tree: Giving myself ultimatums, trying to make myself write, beating up on myself when I didn’t write, like the organ grinder beating up on the poor little monkey who wants to play instead of holding out the cup in case some passerby feels like giving it a quarter. I was worried about not holding out the cup too, worried about not getting the rewards I thought I’d get if only I could make myself write. But all that worrying about future rewards, all that self-threatening and self-forcing, just made me not want to write. Which made writing more like foot-dragging – dragging myself, my inner monkey, along a hard painful bumpy surface – which wasn’t helping things along at all.
So I made up my mind to try to let the monkey stand beside the tree and go toward it because he was curious, interested, excited, instead of tying him to the tree resulting in dreading, not wanting, trying to get away. I decided that the way to do that was to give myself periods of time when the monkey would stand near the tree but he wouldn’t have to write, i.e., I started making windows of time when I sat with the tree of my writing. My writing – whatever I was working on that day – had to be on the computer screen and I couldn’t do anything else on the computer, but I didn’t have to write: I could stare around the room, look out the window, think, sing, pet the cat, and generally avoid my writing for as long as I wanted to. But I had to sit there in front of the writing, like the monkey standing near the tree.
That formula has worked for me for years. It helps me when I’m resisting my writing because I tell myself I don’t have to write a thing, I just have to sit there for X amount of time. (I decide how long I’m going to be writing on any given day beforehand, maybe an hour, or two hours, or just forty-five minutes if that’s all I’ve got or whatever. I’ve got a blog called Harnessing Time that describes how I work with time to get just about anything done.)
Telling myself I don’t have to write if I don’t want to gets me to the computer. And then, once I’m at the computer, boredom, if nothing else, eventually – usually after about ten minutes – gets me interested in and involved in the writing. I’m not forcing myself to do anything. I’m not setting up the monkey to want to get away from the tree; I’m letting the monkey approach the tree, get a little bit interested and then more interested until finally he’s completely engaged in the writing.
Occasionally I just sit there for the whole time – sometimes two whole hours – and not write a word, but to me that’s still a successful writing session. Maybe even an especially successful writing session because it teaches me that I really mean it, just sitting there is all I need to do. But most of the time I do write.
I’ve written two and a half whole books using this formula, and I’m convinced that it can and will help anybody overcome fear of failure, perfectionism, and all the other inevitable psychological roadblocks that get in our way when we’re trying to accomplish a creative endeavor.
Written by: Mary Allen